Shouldn’t More Democrats Run for Senate?

Aiming a little high.

Photographer: Stephen Lam/Getty Images

As someone who wrote a column more than a year ago asking why several marginal presidential candidates weren’t running for a more realistic office, I suppose I should be happy that Democrats are now complaining about all the people vying for the Oval Office instead of the Senate and how they’re dooming the party.

The truth is, though, we’re way beyond overkill. The most persuasive case of misallocated political resources is the newest officially declared presidential candidate, Montana Governor Steve Bullock. As Politico reports, Democrats think Bullock could move a Montana Senate seat from solid Republican to toss-up all by himself. So it’s a big deal that he’s running for president instead, especially since he’s a highly improbable nominee at this point.

But beyond that? There’s little reason to think the huge presidential field is otherwise harming the party’s prospects. Some have argued that Texans Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro would be better off running for Senator John Cornyn’s seat next year. But Texas Democrats seem pretty happy with M.J. Hegar, who announced her candidacy last month, and it’s not at all clear that either presidential candidate would be stronger than she is. Others have said that John Hickenlooper should run for Senate in Colorado. But again, local Democrats seem satisfied with the solid group of candidates they already have. Even in Montana, I suspect there’s some exaggeration: Republican Senator Steve Daines would probably be at least a slim favorite against Bullock, and it’s possible that Democrats will still wind up with a solid alternative.

All in all, I’d say the whole thing is fairly close to a non-story. As Nathan Gonzales at Inside Elections pointed out recently, it’s still too early to know how Senate recruitment is going for either party: Potential contenders are still making up their minds and it’s not always obvious which candidates will do well. I’d also caution that outsiders who don’t know a state’s politics well sometimes assume that the name or two they recognize is the strongest candidate.

There’s also a larger point to keep in mind. National parties have never had more control over politicians’ career paths than they do now, mainly because there were no significant national parties until recently. Mostly, the U.S. system gives politicians a lot of independence in choosing which offices to contest, even when the parties are strong enough to influence nominations. That is, even when parties have a great deal of power over recruitment for specific offices — as they do now — individual politicians still maintain a lot of control.

None of this is to take back what I said before: Some presidential candidates probably could’ve made better choices, both for themselves and for the issues they care about. It’s just that most of those choices don’t really involve Senate elections in 2020.

1. Michael Robinson at the Monkey Cage on President Donald Trump’s latest pardon and the military.

2. Jennifer Victor on the impeachment question. Excellent, although I’m somewhat more optimistic about the House’s other potential weapons.

3. James Wallner on how Congress could reassert its authority on trade.

4. Lara Brown on the Electoral College.

5. Jingnan Peng and Jessica Mendoza with an excellent short video about reforming Congress.

6. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Francis Wilkinson on foreign interference in U.S. elections.

7. Karen Tumulty makes the case for daily White House press briefings – and asks Democrats if they’ll restore them.

8. Fred Kaplan on escalation with Iran.

9. And the great Alice Rivlin has died. Rivlin, an economist, was an exemplary public servant, both in and out of government, for decades. Most notably, she set up the Congressional Budget Office and set it on a path of independence and respected expertise, but there was much more. A great American and true hero of the republic.

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Jonathan Bernstein

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