Democrats think they’re in position to win back the Senate in 2020. But some of the party’s biggest potential candidates are aiming for the White House instead.
The wide open Democratic presidential primary looks set to draw in more than a dozen candidates who think they could be the ones to beat President Donald Trump in 2020 — including the highest-profile Democrats in at least three key Senate states. The collection of experienced governors and newer rising stars would be at the top of any Senate recruiter’s list in another year, but the thought of running against Trump has pulled them in another direction.
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In Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper has been building out a possible national campaign, though he would be an A-list opponent for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, Senate Democrats’ top target in 2020. In Texas, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Obama administration official Julian Castro are both eyeing the White House, though Democrats believe they could be the party’s best shot at winning a Senate race after O’Rourke’s 2018 showing against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. There are even candidates in Louisiana and West Virginia, two long-shot states for Democrats; New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is weighing a presidential bid; while West Virginia state Sen. Richard Ojeda has already launched a White House run after losing a 2018 congressional contest.
The pull of the presidential race could hurt Democrats’ Senate chances in one or more states and force them to search further for potential candidates in other places — though it will also open up the Democratic Party to new blood. And it could open the door to late recruitment efforts of losing presidential candidates next year, as happened to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2016.
The starkest example of the presidential cross-currents hitting Senate races is in Montana, where a few select Democrats have managed to win statewide in recent years and GOP Sen. Steve Daines will be on the ballot in 2020. But two-term Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock has said he’s not interested in the Senate, instead laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign.
“You’ve got to have the fire in your belly to do either one,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who won reelection in 2018 said. “And I think [Bullock’s] fire in the belly is to run for president.”
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said he expected Democrats to be competitive against GOP Sen. John Cornyn regardless of who became the party’s candidate. But he also acknowledged that planning for the race is in a holding pattern until his party’s would-be presidential candidates decide how they will spend 2020.
“Everyone is waiting to see what the Castro brothers are going to do, what Beto is going to do, before decisions are made,” Hinojosa said.
Tester said he thought Democrats would be competitive in the race against freshman Daines even with a wider field of candidates with far less name recognition than Bullock.
“Everybody thought it was going to be Bullock, but I think Bullock’s got his sights set on the presidency,” Tester said. “I think it’s going to be very tough because there’s what, 40, 50 people running for president. It’s going to be tough to clear that but you do what’s in your heart. I think it’s in his heart to do that.”
But even as these candidates eye the White House, some Democrats believe it’s possible that they could ultimately end up running Senate campaigns later in the election cycle. The presidential field is expected to balloon this year and then winnow quickly before any early Senate primaries, well ahead of filing deadlines.
Hickenlooper, in particular, has kept alive the possibility of running for Senate in 2020 instead.
In an interview with Colorado Public Radio last week, the former governor said he’s received several calls from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — though the two have not yet had a conversation.
“As a senator, most senators don’t — you don’t become even the vice chair of a reasonably important committee until your third term,” Hickenlooper said. “I have not talked to [Schumer] yet, but I, back and forth, have said, ‘Yes, I will sit down; I’d be happy to talk to you.’ But by the time I got to my third term, I’d be eighty.”
No matter who Colorado Democrats put forward, though, the party is confident its nominee in that state will be competitive against Gardner.
The primary field is likely to be crowded, with a handful of Democrats already considering campaigns. Former state House speaker Crisanta Duran and former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who ran for governor last year, are believed to be the closest to launching campaigns. Activist Lorena Garcia has already launched her bid, and several other Democrats are believed to be considering running.
“There are a lot of Democrats that can beat Cory Gardner,” said Craig Hughes, a veteran strategist in the state. “Certainly without question, John Hickenlooper is the top of them. But that is a very long list.”
Castro became the second major Democrat to visit Iowa this week ahead of a weekend announcement about his 2020 plans. O’Rourke is planning a road trip outside Texas in the near future, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, and an effort to draft him into the presidential race is expanding in early primary states. Some Democrats view O’Rourke and Castro’s presidential considerations to be evidence that despite O’Rourke’s performance last year, winning a statewide race in Texas remains a long shot for the party.
“It might be easier for either of them to become president than to win statewide in Texas,” one Democratic strategist said.
Still, Democrats in Washington say they aren’t concerned about the effect presidential ambitions could have on their effort to win the Senate. Democratic strategists point out that it’s early in the cycle to evaluate potential races and candidates, and it’s entirely possible some of these candidates would run or other candidates will emerge as top-tier contenders. Democrats have had mixed results in recent years with former governors and previous statewide candidates running for Senate. Some Democrats prefer to see fresh faces on the ballot.
“The best candidates that we run for the Senate are often the ones that we’re not paying too much attention to two years out,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We’ve tended to get too attracted to the big names and the big names don’t tend to do better than the new names.
“If you get a young, smart, authentic, hard-working candidate who not a lot of people know about, that can often be better than the candidate who’s reluctant but a household name,” Murphy added.