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Democrats running for president should run for the Senate. The state Senate.

State legislatures have taken over the issues that Washington can’t or won’t deal with

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential race has inspired many, Murphy writes, but if the goal is to make a difference in people’s lives, he would have been better off running for the Indiana Legislature. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s presidential race has inspired many, Murphy writes, but if the goal is to make a difference in people’s lives, he would have been better off running for the Indiana Legislature. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

OPINION — Maybe it’s the book sales. Maybe it’s the national press. Maybe they really do think they’re just “born for it.” Whatever the allure of running for president is this year, about two dozen Democrats are giving it a shot.

The fact that only about five of them have a legitimate chance of winning the nomination has left several hopefuls from purple states getting criticized for wasting a perfectly good chance to knock off an incumbent Republican senator and flip the Senate to the Democrats in the process.

Beto should run against Sen. John Cornyn in Texas.” 

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper should challenge Sen. Cory Gardner in Colorado.”

You get the picture.

But criticizing those men for not wanting to join the U.S. Senate gets today’s reality of governance in America all wrong.

Yes, Hickenlooper, Beto O’Rourke and everybody else polling around 5 percent or below probably should run for the Senate — but they should run for the state Senate. They could also run for the state House.

If they and the rest of the candidates really want to make a mark on policy in America, if they really want to change people’s lives, there are 50 capitals where they’d be guaranteed to do that in 2020. Not in Washington, D.C.

The states of play

The problem starts and stops in Washington, where the candidates are all trying to go.

As Congress has gotten more bogged down in gridlock and meaningful legislation has gotten harder and harder to pass, state legislatures have taken over the issues that Washington can’t or won’t deal with.

Whether it’s abortion rights, climate change, gun safety, health care, prescription drug prices or any of a dozen other issues that federal lawmakers used to handle, states are increasingly passing measures restricting or advancing the most pressing issues of our time.

Lobbyists know it. Interest groups know it. When will candidates looking for real impact figure it out too?

So far in 2019, nine states have passed significant abortion restrictions, while two more have lifted nearly all restrictions completely.

Among the states restricting abortion were Ohio, Indiana and Georgia, states that 2020 hopefuls call home. What if they had been in their state House or Senate this year instead of making plans for the Iowa State Fair? Would the exact same bills have advanced, or would a seasoned, ambitious lawmaker have been able to change them, even a little?

Earlier this year, while the U.S. House passed its first gun safety measure in years, knowing it would die in the Senate without a vote, multiple states took up gun safety legislation after mass shootings devastated their local communities.

Texas had a major gun debate that O’Rourke or Julián Castro probably could have led the fight on, had they not been running for even higher office. Could they have made more of a difference in Austin than Iowa? Yes.

The Indiana Legislature also passed hate crimes legislation this year, but the new law lacks language for crimes motivated by a person’s gender or gender identity.

Could Mayor Pete have changed that with a seat in the state Senate instead of a seat on “The Late Show”? It’s possible. It’s not to say that his candidacy, with a loving husband by his side, isn’t inspirational to many, but is the goal to inspire people or to protect them?


I was thinking about the futility of so much of the 2020 field a few weeks ago when I went to see Bernie Sanders at a rally in Birmingham, Alabama. Nobody thought the Vermont senator  would make a dent in 2016, but he not only gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money, he managed to move a number of ideas that used to be called “radical” into the Democratic mainstream. And isn’t Bernie more powerful after running and losing than he would have been had he never run for president at all?

Absolutely. But I met a young woman at that same Sanders rally who reminded me that going out into the world, collecting your experience, and then taking it home to make a change in people’s lives is a powerful act in itself.

Jasmyn Story introduced Sanders at the Birmingham rally in front of the iconic 16th Street Baptist Church. Dressed in a chic jumpsuit and headscarf, the 26-year-old activist explained that she had come down from New York, where she works in restorative justice. She had moved to New York from London, where she earned a master’s degree from University College London.

What I didn’t know until later was that Jasmyn had grown up in Birmingham, playing in the same park where Sanders spoke, in front of the church where, on a Sunday morning in 1963, four Klansmen had detonated 15 sticks of dynamite and killed four young African American girls. The youngest, 11-year-old Denise McNair, was Jasmyn’s family.

“Jasmyn has grown up with the heart of Denise,” Jasmyn’s mother, Ava Denise McNair Story, told me after the Sanders rally. Mrs. Story was overwhelmed with emotion that day. Not only had her daughter just introduced a presidential candidate in front of the church where her little cousin been killed, Jasmyn had also decided to move back to Birmingham to work on social justice issues and racial reconciliation there. Her daughter was coming home.

“She loves this city. We love this city. Our family is part of this city’s history,” Mrs. Story said. “Jasmyn has lived all over the world. For her to come back to Birmingham, Alabama … she can make a difference here.”

If the 2020 Democrats want to do something really, truly important, the only place where many of them should run is home.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.

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