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Who Wants To Be A Senator? Not These High-Profile Democrats.

Stacey Abrams. Joaquin Castro. Steve Bullock. Some potentially strong Democratic candidates have passed on runs for the Senate, dashing Democratic hopes in several GOP-leaning states, including Georgia, Texas and Montana.

However, it’s not that surprising that they and other Democrats don’t want to wage Senate campaigns in red states. And that’s because there’s a really good chance they might lose.

Remember that in 2016, for the first time,1 every Senate race was won by the same party that won the presidential vote in that state. In a polarized era full of straight-ticket voters, this is no doubt a prime consideration when potential candidates are deciding whether to run. And as the table below shows, by our count, there’s at least one major Democratic player who has publicly said he or she won’t seek a Republican-held Senate seat in six states that President Trump won in 2016.

Some Democrats are passing on Senate races in red states

GOP-leaning states where high-profile Democrats have said they won’t run for a Republican-held Senate seat in 2020

State Dem. who passed on running GOP Incumbent State Partisan Lean Trump 2016 margin
NC Josh Stein Thom Tillis R+5 +3.7
IA Cindy Axne, Tom Vilsack Joni Ernst R+6 +9.4
AZ* Ruben Gallego Martha McSally R+9 +3.5
GA Stacey Abrams David Perdue R+12 +5.1
TX Beto O’Rourke, Joaquin Castro John Cornyn R+17 +9.0
MT Steve Bullock Steve Daines R+18 +20.2

* Special election

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. Technically, these partisan leans are from the 2018 cycle; we haven’t calculated FiveThirtyEight partisan lean for 2020 yet.

Sources: Media Reports, Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

So, why are these Democrats deciding not to run?

Let’s start by looking at Georgia, where Abrams declined to run, and Texas, where both Castro and Beto O’Rourke passed. Each is a red state that has shown signs of becoming less Republican but consistently backs GOP candidates in presidential and Senate elections. Abrams and O’Rourke both lost close races during the Democratic-leaning 2018 midterms (for governor and Senate, respectively), but mounting a Senate campaign in 2020, when the national political environment is likely to be more neutral, may be even tougher. O’Rourke opted to run for president instead of taking on Republican Sen. John Cornyn. Rather than challenge GOP Sen. David Perdue, Abrams is also considering running for president, although she is reportedly eyeing a gubernatorial run in 2022 as well.) Castro, a U.S. House member and the brother of Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro, would have had to give up a safely Democratic House seat to run for Senate.

In Montana, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock might have been able to compete with incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines. In 2016, Bullock won reelection by 4 points, while Trump won the state by 20 points. But given Montana’s very Republican partisan lean (how much more Republican- or Democratic-leaning it is than the country as a whole),2 Bullock would probably be better off waiting for a midterm cycle, preferably with an unpopular Republican president. That was the situation when Montana’s Democratic senator, Jon Tester, first won his seat, in 2006 — and when he won reelection for the second time, in 2018. Bullock is rumored to be preparing for a presidential run.

Based on its partisan lean, North Carolina could be the most competitive state among the six we’re looking at here. But Attorney General Josh Stein — perhaps Democrats’ top choice — opted against challenging Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. Stein may be angling for a gubernatorial run in 2024, so focusing on winning reelection to his state-level office might be a better bet for him than running for Senate — for example, while elections for Senate and governor have both become increasingly nationalized, Senate results tend to line up more with presidential results in a state than gubernatorial contests do.

Meanwhile in Iowa, neither first-term U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne nor former Gov. Tom Vilsack wanted to take on Republican Sen. Joni Ernst. Iowa Democrats did make some gains in 2018, picking up two House seats, but they lost the gubernatorial contest. And that came only two years after Trump won the state by 9 points.

One exception to all this is Rep. Ruben Gallego, who decided against a Senate bid in Arizona because he wanted to avoid running in a tough Democratic primary against retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who is considered a top-tier recruit for the Democrats.

Yet in our polarized era, the force that is discouraging the other Senate runs — presidential coattails — could actually boost Democratic candidates, depending on how the presidential race goes. In at least three of these GOP-leaning seats — Arizona, Iowa and North Carolina — Democrats have won major races in recent years. While this trio of states leans Republican, they are not out of reach for a Democratic presidential contender, who could win them and help carry down-ballot Democrats over the finish line. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won Arizona’s high-turnout 2018 Senate race. In Iowa, Democrats took over one statewide office from Republicans in 2018 (and Barack Obama carried it in 2008 and 2012). And North Carolina elected a Democratic governor (and Stein) in 2016 (plus Obama won there in 2008).

The point is that perceived recruitment failures in a handful of states this far from November 2020 do not necessarily sound the death knell for Democrats’ overall chances of taking back the Senate, which the GOP currently controls 53-47. Some big names in those states would have helped, sure, but probably only at the margins considering how influential the race at the top of the ticket will be. Of course, the margins can make all the difference in tight races. Still, some of the Democrats on the list above could change their minds and get into the race after all, or as Abrams and O’Rourke showed in 2018, lesser-known candidates might become stars.

Footnotes

  1. Or at least since popular Senate elections began after the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913.

  2. 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.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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