A new high-profile Democrat seems to decide just about every day that serving in the Senate is a crappy proposition.
With Thursday’s entry of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet—sure, why not?—there are now seven Democratic senators running for the party’s presidential nomination. Most or all of them will lose and return to the Senate, yes, but to serve alongside whom? In states like Montana, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, Colorado, and Texas, we’ve seen a number of top Democratic recruits recently opt against launching Senate campaigns, either because those recruits are running for president instead, running for reelection in the House, or just doing nothing, because doing nothing is apparently better than running for Senate, the legislative chamber where fun goes to die.
The decisions by three candidates in key states to choose presidential bids over Senate races have given many Democratic voters and operatives apoplectic fits. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke chose to spend the cycle standing on various objects in Iowa instead of doing so in Texas, where he nearly knocked off Sen. Ted Cruz last year and could have opted to try to knock out Sen. John Cornyn in 2020. John Hickenlooper, a popular two-term governor from Colorado, decided to launch a go-nowhere presidential campaign instead of challenging the state’s extremely vulnerable Republican senator, Cory Gardner. And it now appears that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, one of the two Democrats capable of winning elections in Montana—the other, Jon Tester, already serves in the Senate—will also launch a go-nowhere presidential campaign instead of running against Republican Sen. Steve Daines.
A number of other high-profile Democrats who aren’t running for president—there’s still time!—have also turned down Senate bids. Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro announced this week that he wouldn’t challenge Cornyn, either, while first-term Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne opted against challenging Sen. Joni Ernst, just as former governor and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack did in February. Perhaps most notably of all, Stacey Abrams, who captivated Democrats in Georgia’s gubernatorial race last year, recently informed Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer that she wouldn’t challenge Republican Sen. David Perdue this cycle.
Republicans have had an uproarious time pouring salt into the wound as each decision rolls in. Every time a recruit turns down Schumer, they mock him and suggest that Democrats are in for a 2020 thrashing. (Had the recruit accepted, as Mark Kelly did in Arizona, they would instead be labeling the candidate as “hand-picked” by the nefarious minority leader.)
Democrats offer several defensible arguments that the recent slate of declinations does not add up to the Senate-Dems-in-disarray narrative Republicans are pushing. First, it’s still very early in the cycle, and the typically early presidential campaign announcements have “skewed,” as one Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aide told me, the perceptions of the Senate battleground, where candidates often don’t declare until much later. And those candidates who could declare later might include, say, Bullock, Hickenlooper, and O’Rourke, who would still have time to file if/when (OK, when) their presidential candidacies burn out, as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio did in 2016. They also note that Republicans aren’t having the easiest time either, as they still haven’t delivered strong recruits to run against incumbent Democrats in Michigan or New Hampshire and are facing the prospect of nasty, divisive primaries in Kansas and Alabama. Meanwhile, Democrats were able to recruit Kelly in Arizona, and there’s a crowded primary field of respectable candidates in Colorado, even without Hickenlooper.
But there’s something that separates Arizona and Colorado from states like Iowa, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Montana and Maine, where Democrats have had more trouble, so far, putting together challenges: They are, by some distance, the two strongest pickup opportunities. In Colorado, Gardner is the most endangered Republican, as he represents what has by now become a near-safe Democratic state, and Arizona Sen. Martha McSally is recognized as beatable because Sen. Kyrsten Sinema just beat her six months ago. The other opportunities, while still “opportunities,” are much riskier. It’s no surprise that high-profile politicians with something to lose wouldn’t jump straight into them.
Take Iowa, for example. The state went for Donald Trump by 10 points in 2016. Sure, Democrats picked up a couple of House seats in 2018 as voters showed some buyer’s remorse, but that doesn’t mean that Ernst, who’s popular in the state, is in any sort of grave danger. If you’re Axne, you might decide the better career move would be to defend the House seat you just won, and if you’re Tom Vilsack, you might continue to enjoy political retirement.
In North Carolina, Sen. Thom Tillis is still recovering from his legendary flip-flop over Trump’s national emergency declaration. But it’s a lean-Republican state that Trump won in 2016—as is Georgia. It makes sense that Abrams, who’s said she would prefer an executive role rather than a legislative one, would want to look toward the presidency, the vice presidency, or a gubernatorial rematch instead if the legislative job on the table is an uphill contest.
Texas, while transitioning, is still redder than any of these states, and, as one Democratic operative put it notably to me, “John Cornyn doesn’t have the most punchable face in politics”—a contrast, one might argue, with the visage of the Texas senator up for reelection in 2018, who still managed to win against a national sensation in a great Democratic year. If you’re O’Rourke, it’s sensible to want to try to capitalize on your momentum in a wide-open presidential race rather than face a less-polarizing Senate opponent, who would quite likely make you a two-time Senate loser and permanent nobody. And with generational turnover afoot in the House over the next term or two, why would Castro risk the seniority he’s building there?
Yes, it’s early, and some of these hotshots testing out their national appeal might snap back to their senses once they’ve placed 56th out of 55 candidates in the Iowa caucuses. Other strong potential recruits might just need a few more months of persuasion from the Senate Democratic leader before they earn the NRSC label of “Schumer’s hand-picked puppet.” If Democrats don’t put together their A-team of candidates in all of these races, though, that doesn’t mean the rejecters are being irrational. There’s a much simpler explanation: The 2020 Senate map, while better than the 2018 Senate map, still isn’t great. Even if a couple of the top recruits could win, Democrats might still find themselves in the minority of Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard. Why go to a notoriously broken place just to sit with the losers?
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.