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Democrats need some 2020 Senate candidates

Beto O’Rourke, Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper, and others are needed down-ballot.

Democratic Candidate Beto O’Rourke Holds Election Night Event In El Paso, Texas
Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke holds an Election Night event in El Paso, Texas.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Wednesday morning, recently reelected Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester broke some exciting news by telling Montana College Democrats that their state’s governor, Steve Bullock, would challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines in his 2020 reelection bid.

Minutes later, Bullock’s chief of staff offered a contrary view: Not only was Bullock not ready to announce, he’s not interested in running at all.

It’s easy to see what Bullock is thinking. If the national political environment that exists today continues forward to Election Day 2020, he will probably lose a Senate race in Montana. By contrast, if he somehow manages to secure the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nomination — and reports in the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Politico suggest he’s interested — then he’ll probably win.

In other words, it’s a small-state version of the same choice facing Beto O’Rourke down in Texas. Run for Senate against John Cornyn as a distinct underdog, or take a punter’s shot at securing a chance to run against an unpopular incumbent president.

In both cases, the choice has less to do with the particular qualities of Bullock and O’Rourke than it does with the basic geography of American politics. The presidency is the least gerrymandered branch of the federal government (the Electoral College gives the GOP about a 2-point edge, enough to make Trump president but smaller than their edges in the House or Senate) and therefore the prize Democrats have the best odds of capturing. Presidential nominations are always valuable prizes, but the skewed maps make them especially valuable.

But from a party perspective, this cuts in the exact opposite direction. If Trump remains this unpopular (obviously a big if), there are lots of candidates who'd stand a good chance of beating him. But to govern the country, Democrats will need a Senate majority. The party will need quality candidates who run ahead of the national political fundamentals. Responsible party leaders should be doing everything in their power to recruit quality politicians like Bullock and O’Rourke to those races.

It’s bad maps all the way down

A Democratic mantra throughout 2018 was that the party was facing an almost freakishly bad map, given the huge number of incumbent Democrats defending seats in states that Trump won. And that’s true, as far as it goes. Had Bill Nelson, Joe Donnelly, and Claire McCaskill managed to hold on and give Democrats a narrow Senate majority, holding that majority steady in 2020 would have been a lot easier.

But they didn’t hold on, and from the standpoint of a minority party looking to win a majority, the 2020 map isn’t so hot either.

  • Democrats have a solid pickup opportunity in Colorado, a Clinton state whose incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner has done nothing to differentiate himself from Trump and the national party.
  • They also have an okay shot at Arizona, a state Trump won with less than 50 percent of the vote and where Democrat Kyrsten Sinema just narrowly won a race last month.
  • Maine is a Clinton state and thus a pickup opportunity, but incumbent Sen. Susan Collins is very popular and has proven extremely difficult to beat in the past.
  • Sen. Doug Jones has to run for reelection in Alabama, and while he can always hope Republicans nominate another problematic candidate, you wouldn’t necessarily want to take that to the bank.

If Democrats win all four of those races plus the presidency, the vice president will be able to break the 50-50 tie and they’ll control the Senate. If, more realistically, they end up losing in either Alabama or Maine (or both), then they’ll need to make up that ground in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, or Montana. These are not impossible races to win, but they’re all challenging. You could easily imagine Democrats having a good year nationally even as Trump wins all four of those states. To win, they’re going to need some mix of good luck (it always helps when the incumbent stumbles for whatever reason) and good candidates.

After all, even the 2022 map (when Republican seats in Wisconsin, Florida, and Pennsylvania are up while Democrats only need to defend Colorado, Nevada, and New Hampshire) isn’t all that hot for Democrats. They’d have a great chance at pickups then if Trump wins reelection, but midterms are rough for incumbent presidents unless they have a really fantastic map. And there simply is no really fantastic map for Democrats coming down the line, because the Senate’s longstanding small-state skew has become a sharp partisan skew. Right now the median state is 6 points more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole, meaning Democrats are facing an endless series of bad maps.

Quality candidates are dithering

Given these geographic realities, there is simply no easy path to a Senate majority for Democrats.

But the best path starts with quality candidates. Beating an incumbent Republican in a state as red as Montana is inherently difficult. But Bullock, who's won multiple statewide races in the state, is by far Democrats’ best shot at doing it.

By the same token, O’Rourke is now known statewide in Texas and has a network of volunteers and donors who could be activated for another run. The state party is set to be in stronger shape than it’s been in a long time, since Democrats did pick up a number of down-ballot offices in the 2018 wave, and there’s no better choice to try to keep the momentum going with another statewide run. Democrats do have a solid fallback option in Texas — former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary Julian Castro — but he is also mucking around with a presidential campaign.

Colorado is Democrats’ best shot at a Senate pickup, and the state’s incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper would obviously be a very strong candidate. But Hickenlooper hasn’t announced a Senate bid yet, not because he’s retiring but because he’s — guess what? — pondering a presidential bid.

In Georgia and Arizona, Democrats do not appear to have been driven mad by presidential aspirations, but Stacey Abrams could use encouragement to take another shot at a statewide win. It’s worth saying that in the case of both Abrams and O’Rourke, there’s nothing particularly unusual about losing candidates running for statewide office again and winning. John Thune lost a close race to Tim Johnson in 2002, and then in 2004 unseated a superficially stronger candidate in a worse national political climate. Mike DeWine, Ohio’s newly elected governor, got booted from the Senate in 2006 and then picked himself up off the floor and got elected state attorney general four years later.

Politics is weird and unpredictable, but parties put themselves in position to succeed when they get quality candidates to run.

Democrats need to win to pursue fixes

In the longer term, obviously, Democrats need a structural fix for their map woes.

Admitting DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands as states polls well nationally and would partially offset the current partisan skew of the Senate. It’s possible that the actual inhabitants of Puerto Rico and the USVI wouldn’t go for it (the state of DC opinion is a lot clearer), but there’s no earthly reason Democrats shouldn’t pursue fair referenda and quick statehood for these Americans territories. In the longer term, more exotic ideas — like dividing California, Texas, Florida, and New York into a larger number of smaller states to bring population disparities closer into line with what the founding generation experienced — are worth pursuing.

But none of this is possible without winning an election first, and to win that election Democrats are going to have to fight on a skewed map.

The ongoing power grabs in Wisconsin and Michigan should remind Democrats that if the 2020 election leaves Republicans in charge of the Senate, they will likely use that authority in unprecedented and aggressive ways that make it completely impossible to govern. And while the presidency is a more important office than any single Senate seat, the recruitment of quality candidates probably matters more on the Senate side precisely because the map is so skewed. It’s completely understandable that individual ambitious politicians are gazing at the White House, but party leaders, operatives, donors, elder statespeople, etc. have a serious obligation to discourage this trend and push talented politicians into the Senate races where they are needed.

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