2020 Democrats shun Senate for long-shot White House bids
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock jumped into the 2020 presidential race Tuesday, becoming the latest Democrat to forgo an easier Senate bid in favor of a quixotic run for the White House.
He follows in the footsteps of former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, onetime Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, former Obama Cabinet official Julian Castro and several House Democrats who passed on Senate bids to ponder the country’s top post.
Most of them barely register in the polls, but analysts say it’s a damning critique of the Senate that so many candidates are skipping over more winnable races.
“The Senate has lost particularly for Democrats some of its attraction,” said Floyd Ciruli, a veteran Colorado-based pollster. “There was a time when you were a senator, there was a sort of the majesty of the Senate. It had its rules, it had its prestige, you had recognition and authority even in the minority, but it has a lot less stature now.”
That has proved to be a problem for Democratic leaders in Washington who had been counting on some of those names to run for the Senate, giving Democrats better chances to wrest control of the chamber from Republicans in 2020.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, had made a full-court press to try to recruit Ms. Abrams to run against Sen. David Perdue in Georgia, while Texas Democrats had been eyeing Mr. Castro or former Rep. Beto O’Rourke to mount a challenge to Sen. John Cornyn in Texas.
Mr. Bullock had the chance to challenge Sen. Steve Daines in 2020. But he has long said he disdained life in a legislature and is more drawn to being a chief executive.
Announcing his White House bid in a video, he joined more than 20 other Democrats in the field.
He cast his bid as a crusade against big-dollar donations he said are ruining politics.
“Today we see evidence of a corrupt system all across America a government that serves campaign money, not the people,” Mr. Bullock said in the video.
David C.W. Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University, said Mr. Bullock has set his sights on the presidency because he “is not a legislator” and has “always served in an executive capacity.”
“In that sense, it makes no sense to run for Congress,” Mr. Parker said. “I simply don’t think it interests him. Either he wants to be president, be a VP nominee or serve in the Cabinet. I truly do not think the Senate was ever on his radar screen.”
Likewise, Mr. Hickenlooper, another presidential candidate to emerge from a governor’s mansion, told reporters before he entered the presidential contest that he is “not cut out to be a senator.”
“Senators don’t build teams,” he said in Iowa, according to Politico. “Senators sit and debate in small groups, which is important, right? But I’m not sure that’s my I’m a doer. That’s what gives me joy.”
Ms. Abrams, who is still pondering a White House bid, also said she has decided the “Senate was not the right place for me.”
“I’m looking at executive level opportunities, and that means that I am going to look at the 2020 presidential election,” she told an audience in Washington last week.
Her statement was particularly striking because Ms. Abrams came up through the state legislature in Georgia and failed last year in her bid for the governorship, an executive post.
Yet the risk-reward calculus right now is clearly pro-White House.
“The presidency has become the focal point of American politics at a time when other governmental posts and offices appear increasingly devalued,” Stuart Rothenberg, a Democratic strategist, wrote this week in a Roll Call op-ed.
He said the end of earmark spending has sapped power from Congress and that cable television and vocal political action committees have filled the vacuum, creating political stars with more social media heft than some longtime heavyweight senators.
History also suggests that the Senate, while a breeding ground for presidential candidates, has a poor track record of creating presidents.
Barack Obama was the first senator in nearly 50 years to go directly to the White House. The more traditional path had been through governor’s mansions. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush gained experience in statehouses.
“History shows most of the people elected president have been governors, vice presidents, maybe [military] generals,” said former Sen. George Allen, who was considering a presidential bid before his 2006 reelection loss. “You have had a few exceptions obviously with then-Sen. Barack Obama and the current president, Donald Trump, but most don’t come out of Congress.”
Mr. Allen, a Republican, was a governor of Virginia in the 1990s and won a Senate seat in 2000. His hopes for the White House were dashed by his reelection loss amid Democrats’ 2006 wave.
Mr. Allen said his complaint that the 100-member Senate moves at the pace of a “wounded sea slug” still stands. He said the chamber’s arcane rules and procedures make it difficult for senators with presidential aspirations to get things accomplished and forces them to take tough votes on bills that come out of the laborious sausage-making process.
“Having been governor, I would make more decisions in one morning than you would make all week in the Senate,” Mr. Allen said. “It is such a worship of process and partisanship and they don’t get things done on time. It is the most collegial batch of folks I have ever been with, but it does move at the pace of a wounded sea slug.”
The 2016 presidential election featured nine current or former senators, and this year’s crop of Democratic candidates includes seven sitting senators, as well as former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, whose 36 years as a senator produced a lengthy record that now haunts him.
Mr. Rothenberg wrote that the number of people looking to move on suggests something’s broken.
“Yes, every senator looks into the mirror and sees a future president, but it is still telling that so many current and former senators have, over the past two presidential contests, sought the presidency instead of building seniority in the Senate and moving up the leadership ladder,” he said.
Yet the Senate remains a consolation prize for some.
Mitt Romney, who parlayed a term as Massachusetts governor into the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, only to lose to Mr. Obama, ran for and won a Senate seat from Utah last year.
⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this report.