At least three of the nearly two dozen Democrats eyeing the presidency would have a good shot at winning a Senate race and helping to end the GOP’s domination. Instead they chose not to answer their party’s call to make the run, and you can’t really blame them.
Party favorite Stacey Abrams bowing out of the Georgia Senate race put a spotlight on the challenge Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer faces in recruiting candidates who want to come to Washington and serve in a chamber mired in gridlock.
“Serving in the Senate is not nearly as fun as it used to be,” says Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Abrams may yet enter the presidential race, putting her in good company with Beto O’Rourke, who rejected a second try for the Senate in Texas, and John Hickenlooper, who won’t challenge Republican Senator Cory Gardner in Colorado, instead opting to be the longest of long shots for president.
Then there’s Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who turned down party entreaties to run for the Senate, explaining it doesn’t suit his skill set. “I just wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said.
Who does these days? Democrats are hard to recruit when it means serving in an institution controlled by the loathsome Mitch McConnell, who has stripped away many of the rules and traditions that made the Senate a club politicians wanted to join.
“It would be really nice if the Senate had a reset button,” Duffy told the Daily Beast. Could a decisive victory by the Democrats serve as a reset button? “Don’t count on it,” she said. Gaining the three seats needed for the majority if a Democrat wins the White House (four if Trump is reelected) is a steep climb complicated by a structural advantage that the GOP enjoys.
If the GOP holds the Senate, even if the Democrats hold the House and win the White House, “We’ll be back on the hamster wheel,” says Democratic strategist James Carville, with McConnell once again blocking everything the Dems try to do.
“You have to be competitive in North Carolina, in Iowa, in Montana, Kentucky and Maine—all of these places where chic educated hip and urban are not exactly there,” says Carville. “This la la leftist urban chic coup might succeed in 36 years,” he told the Daily Beast, but today 18 percent of the country in smaller, redder states elects 52 senators.
Carville notes that the Senate’s deciding vote on President Clinton’s budget that raised taxes on top earners, and the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act were cast by senators from Nebraska, back when Nebraska’s senators were Democrats. They’re Republicans now.
Stacey Abrams would have put the Georgia Senate race into the toss-up category if she had decided to go for it, but she knew the risks. “She might get to 48 and a half, but not to 50,” says Carville. And she’d be damaged if not done by a second losing race. She has a much better chance winning a rematch for governor than getting Georgia voters to send her to Washington.
“Red state voters will take a flyer on electing a Democrat governor, but they don’t want a foot soldier for Chuck Schumer or whatever horrible person they connect you to,” says Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. Republicans face the same dynamic when they seek a Senate seat in a blue state.
That all explains why Abrams has not ruled out a late entry into the presidential race, but she’s clear about rejecting the Senate. She prefers being an executive, and the Senate is a deliberative body where everything moves slowly, if it moves at all. “Why kill yourself for a job you don’t want?” says Carville.
Well, what about team play? Dave Wasserman with Cook Political Report says that Senate races today are “so partisan, that candidate qualifications mean a lot less. You can be a popular governor, but run for the Senate in a red state and voters instantly regard you as a Chuck Schumer sympathizer.”
The Senate is not the stepping stone to the presidency it once was. “An association with Congress or the DC establishment is like having fleas,” says Wasserman. “The fact that Obama only served four years in the Senate was an advantage over a candidate that might have served decades.”
Some of these candidates could change their mind and “do a Rubio” if their presidential hopes fade. Florida Senator Marco Rubio successfully sought reelection to the Senate after Donald Trump humiliated him as “Little Marco” in the 2016 primaries.
“The Senate has lost its luster because it deserves to,” says Ira Shapiro, author of The Last Great Senate, an account of a time when the country looked to the body for landmark legislation on civil rights, to debate and end the war in Vietnam, and to hold President Nixon accountable for Watergate.
Shapiro left the Senate 30 years ago, after working as a legislative aide to senators he regarded as admirable. He says the decline has been gradual and he blames it on the arrival 12 years ago of Democratic leader Harry Reid and Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who saw themselves as more partisan, factional leaders than their predecessors.
McConnell famously said his goal was to make President Obama a one-term president, and his obstructionism forced Reid’s hand to waive the filibuster for lower court judges or McConnell would have put a full stop on judicial appointments. Even so, McConnell kept Obama from filling a Supreme Court seat, a highly irregular display of power that Democrats were powerless to combat.
“He doesn’t reflect the times, he made the times,” says Shapiro. Recruiting someone to run against McConnell in 2020 is on Schumer’s list. Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, who lost a hotly contested House race in Kentucky last year, would make the race competitive, but she hasn’t yet said yes. So far, no one has won betting against McConnell.