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Is The Senate Really A Better Option For Some Presidential Candidates?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): On Thursday, we learned that Montana Gov. Steve Bullock did not, in fact, qualify for the debate stage after the Democratic National Committee told Politico that two ABC News/Washington Post polls that asked respondents an open-ended question about whom they supported in the primary would not count.

Later that same day, Bullock took to Twitter to complain about the rules that the DNC had set to determine who would be able to participate. And as you can see from the replies to his tweet, some people think he should have his eye on the Senate and not the presidency. This made me wonder … Should Bullock run for the Senate instead? And as The Hill pointed out on Monday, maybe some other 2020 Democratic presidential contenders polling in the low single digits, like Beto O’Rourke and John Hickenlooper, should consider a Senate run, too. What do you all think?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): Might as well throw Georgia’s Stacey Abrams into that camp too. She turned down overtures to run for Senate and may still be mulling a presidential bid — although I personally think it’s likelier she runs for governor in 2022.

geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): I guess it comes down to the chances these candidates have of winning either race. For someone like Hickenlooper, he might clear out a lot of competition in the primary if he were to mount a Senate bid, and he probably would be favored to win in blue-leaning Colorado. Considering that his chances of winning the presidential race seem slim to none at this point, a Senate bid might make sense for him.

But it’s less clear for someone like Bullock. He holds statewide office in a pretty red state and might have a tough time winning a Senate race in a presidential year, especially if Montana backs President Trump again.

nrakich: But, Geoffrey, Bullock’s odds of being a senator are higher than his odds of being president, right?

In Montana, he would likely clear the primary field for a Senate bid, and while he would be an underdog to win the general election, he would have a fighting chance (which, frankly, is more than you can say about his presidential bid).

geoffrey.skelley: I agree that Bullock’s odds of winning a Senate seat are higher than his odds of winning the presidency, but Montana is still 18 points more Republican than the country as a whole,1 so he’d no doubt have a tough time against Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

But I think O’Rourke could make a strong Senate bid — he did particularly well for a Democrat running in Texas in 2018. So it stands to reason that he might be able to give GOP Sen. John Cornyn a run for his money in 2020. But, then again, O’Rourke might also angle for VP if his presidential bid falters.

Lots of Democrats will point to Republican Marco Rubio as an example of someone who ended up running for reelection to the Senate after his presidential run faltered. But if O’Rourke wanted to do the same thing, he would have to make the decision six months earlier than Rubio did. Texas’s candidate filing deadline is in December, while Florida’s filing deadline for the 2016 election wasn’t until June.

nrakich: Yeah, the VP thing is a good point. Running for Senate basically takes you out of consideration for that as well. It would be really hard for O’Rourke to run a tough race against Cornyn and then announce that he’s the Democratic vice presidential nominee.

But he could run for both offices at once — Texas changed its law in 1959 to allow Lyndon B. Johnson to do just that — but it would probably nationalize the race and jeopardize O’Rourke’s Senate chances. Cornyn could easily paint him as a political opportunist who doesn’t really care about Texas.

sarahf: Are there any other candidates in O’Rourke’s boat, who face an early filing deadline to run for the Senate?

geoffrey.skelley: The other major names we’re talking about — Hickenlooper, Bullock, Abrams — would all have later deadlines to consider.

But O’Rourke’s Texas compatriot Julian Castro would, of course, be in the same boat if he decided to mount a bid.

nrakich: Yeah, the filing deadlines in Colorado, Georgia and Montana are in March.

If Bullock and Hickenlooper fail to catch fire by Super Tuesday — which will be March 3 in 2020 — they could theoretically still join the Senate races in their states.

Of course, that would totally blow up the plans of several Democrats in those states, which might cause some bad blood.

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, there are already roughly a dozen Democratic candidates running for the Senate in Colorado.

nrakich: And Bullock and Hickenlooper both have been pretty adamant that they’re not interested in legislative positions. So I don’t think this is a super likely scenario.

sarahf: But say a Senate run is part of these candidates’ calculations. What’s the best-case scenario for a presidential candidate to help launch a Senate run? Is it a moment at the debates? Or some type of signature issue that catches on with the other presidential candidates?

Also, which other candidates might turn their eyes to the Senate if their presidential bid doesn’t shake out?

nrakich: Honestly, Sarah, I think the best-case scenario is to not run for president at all. I think it leaves you open to attacks from both primary- and general-election rivals that a Senate run was always a fall-back option for you and that you’re not fully committed to the state.

geoffrey.skelley: Seth Moulton’s name came up last year as a possible candidate for the 2020 Senate race in Massachusetts, but that would require launching a primary challenge against Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, which might be a risky move.

However, he might have a better chance of winning the Democratic Senate primary in Massachusetts than of qualifying for the presidential debates — by our count, he currently has zero qualifying polls so far.

nrakich: Another best-case scenario might be if these candidates can use their presidential bids to raise a ton of money, which they can then transfer to their Senate campaigns (since both are federal campaigns). But this probably isn’t a likely outcome for either Hickenlooper or Bullock.

geoffrey.skelley: Not to mention, candidates have to tailor their pitches to reach a national Democratic audience, which means they may risk losing their state-based appeal. And for a red-state Democrat like Bullock, nationalizing your profile is not a win in Montana.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP-aligned outside fundraising group, has already attacked Bullock in a television ad just in case he decides to run for Senate.

nrakich: And we haven’t talked about Cory Booker yet, but he will also have to decide whether to run for reelection in the Senate or to stick it out with the presidency (or he could run for both — that’s an option under New Jersey law).

The New Jersey filing deadline is toward the end of March.

geoffrey.skelley: New Jersey law definitely works in Booker’s favor. But it would still be unprecedented for a candidate to run as both the presidential nominee and as a candidate for the Senate at the same time.

Lyndon Johnson, Lloyd Bentsen, Joe Lieberman and Joe Biden won reelection to the Senate while running as vice presidential nominees, but a presidential nominee has not done this, at least since the start of popular elections for Senate in the early 20th century.

sarahf: But by late March, many states will have held their primaries or caucuses, so Booker will have a better sense of whether he’s still a viable presidential candidate. Not to mention, New Jersey should be a safe Democratic seat in 2020, so that’s probably one reason Booker’s decision on whether to run for reelection hasn’t garnered much attention.

nrakich: Yeah, I’d be surprised if there are more than a half-dozen candidates still in the race after Super Tuesday.

sarahf: But OK, why are Democrats are struggling to land high-profile Senate candidates in some of the states they’re trying to flip in 2020?

geoffrey.skelley: I’ve written about this, and it’s a combination of things really. The biggest deterrent is probably that many of the states in question are GOP-leaning, and in a presidential cycle, the race for the White House will influence down-ballot races. Just look at 2016, in every state that also had a Senate race on the ballot, the same party came out on top in both the presidential and Senate contests, which is the first time that has ever happened.

So if you’re Bullock or Abrams, you have a pretty big risk of losing. This is especially true in Senate races, since they are more closely tied to national politics than, say, gubernatorial races, in which you see higher levels of split-ticket voting.

nrakich: That’s right, but I also disagree with your premise a bit, Sarah. Democratic recruitment has come up short in some of these longer-shot races like Texas and Montana. But national Democrats have gotten top recruits in some of the more competitive races: Mark Kelly in Arizona and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa.

And they have at least one strong recruit in a long-shot race: Jaime Harrison, who is hoping to take on Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

sarahf: But what about Colorado? I’m surprised a bigger name hasn’t stepped forward.

geoffrey.skelley: It might be a timing issue. Some higher-profile Colorado Democrats just won House seats in 2018, such as Joe Neguse and Jason Crow, and they may not want to turn around and run for a new office so soon.

nrakich: Oh, I disagree — I think Democrats have lots of potentially strong candidates in that race already. Former diplomat Dan Baer would be Colorado’s first openly gay senator. Former U.S. Attorney John Walsh has an impressive prosecutorial record. Andrew Romanoff is the former speaker of the state House. Former state Sen. Mike Johnston is a monster fundraiser.

And Secretary of State Jena Griswold and the two congressmen Geoffrey mentioned may yet jump in.

sarahf: I don’t know. Cory Gardner managed a pretty big upset against Mark Udall in 2014. I wouldn’t underestimate him.

geoffrey.skelley: Gardner’s win was impressive, but he was helped by a GOP-friendly midterm environment in 2014, when Republicans picked up nine Senate seats. And considering that 2020 is a presidential year when Colorado is more likely to go blue than not … that means Gardner is probably in trouble. Although Colorado isn’t a slam dunk for Democrats, considering the state is only 1 point more Democratic than the country as a whole. However, Trump did lose the state by 5 points in 2016 and remains deeply underwater in approval there, so that may be enough to tip the state in Democrats’ favor.

nrakich: I don’t actually think it matters that much if Hickenlooper runs for Senate. An A-list candidate might move the needle a couple of points, but I think people overestimate how much.

We shouldn’t assume that Bullock/Hickenlooper/Abrams/O’Rourke would make a huge difference if they did, in fact, run for Senate.

In Colorado at least, I think any Democrat could win if Trump loses the state.

sarahf: Sure — it’s not like O’Rourke or Abrams had a national profile at this stage in the 2018 cycle.

nrakich: Right. And as friend-of-the-site Leah Askarinam of Inside Elections has written, national Democrats should arguably want new blood to run, because that’s how rising stars are discovered.

For example, I think MJ Hegar, who is running against Cornyn in Texas in 2020, could replicate O’Rourke’s success. She proved that she can raise a lot of money with her 2018 House race, which she lost by only 3 points.

geoffrey.skelley: But in a presidential year, with that race sucking up so much of the media and fundraising oxygen, it might be harder for an unknown rising star to break out. For instance, I think it would be challenging for a Democratic Texas Senate candidate in 2020 to raise $80 million like O’Rourke did in 2018.

sarahf: OK, I know no one from Maine is running for president (at least not yet anyway), but what the heck is the Democrats’ strategy there? Will anyone step forward to challenge Susan Collins?

geoffrey.skelley: Collins remains relatively popular in Maine, although her approval rating isn’t as high as it used to be — in 2017, Morning Consult found her approval rating north of 60 percent, but in the first quarter of 2019, it was 52 percent.

But, yeah, besides Colorado, Maine is the only other GOP-held Senate seat that’s up in a state that isn’t Republican-leaning — in fact, it’s 5 points more Democratic than the nation as a whole, and Trump lost it by 3 points in 2016. So it’s vital for Democrats that they compete there, especially since Democrats need a net gain of three seats to win the Senate (if they also win the presidency; otherwise they need to pick up four seats). And Alabama is going to be very difficult for Democrats to hold.

nrakich: I agree that Maine has been a recruiting struggle for Democrats so far. Rep. Jared Golden, who won a tough race in 2018 and would’ve been a capable contender, has said no to a run, and Maine’s other U.S. House member, Chellie Pingree, sounds unlikely to run as well.

That said, it’s still early. Candidates like Sara Gideon, the state House speaker, and Matthew Dunlap, the secretary of state, are still reported to be considering.

geoffrey.skelley: Those are Maine’s main Democratic names.

Try saying that three times fast.

nrakich: The rain in Maine stays mainly on the plain.

Sarah, how many “mainely” puns did you see in shop names last week when you were on vacation there?

sarahf: Hahaha. Honestly, I didn’t see that many. But OK, before this devolves into a politically inspired musical … let’s wrap with our thoughts on whether some presidential hopefuls are experiencing a backlash for not prioritizing a Senate bid over a presidential bid.

It sounds as though the consensus is that some of these candidates — namely, Bullock — would make strong Senate contenders if they chose to run, but also maybe it doesn’t matter that much?

nrakich: I do think it was funny that so many of the Twitter replies to Bullock’s announcement video were begging him to run for Senate.

sarahf: Haha, yeah.

geoffrey.skelley: A Hickenlooper presidential run might marginally reduce the chances of Democrats winning the Colorado Senate race. But given the state’s Democratic lean, it probably doesn’t matter that much.

But in a small state like Montana, someone like Bullock could have more of an impact if he chose to run for Senate. Especially considering Bullock won two gubernatorial races in Montana as a Democrat, which is impressive given that he did this at the same time that President Barack Obama lost the state by 14 points and Hillary Clinton lost by 20 points.

sarahf: And the Democratic bench in Montana isn’t all that deep if Bullock doesn’t run, right?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, the mayor of Helena, Wilmot Collins, has said he’s running, but it’s hard to gauge his candidacy at this stage.

nrakich: Yeah … who knows? Maybe Collins will be the next Democratic superstar, à la Abrams, Andrew Gillum and O’Rourke. Or maybe not.

As I wrote in a previous lifetime, it’s very hard to tell who will be a “strong” candidate or who is a “good” recruit until after the actual election.


  1. FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric is the average difference between how a state votes and how the country votes overall, with 2016 presidential election results weighted at 50 percent, 2012 presidential election results weighted at 25 percent and results from elections for the state legislature weighted at 25 percent. Note that the partisan leans in this article were calculated before the 2018 elections; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan leans that incorporate the midterm results yet.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.