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Sunday, May 05, 2019


Asleep at the Senate

by Tom Sullivan

Keeping track of how many Democrats are running for president in 2020 is futile. The candidate count stands somewhere above 20, making the chances of actually winning the primary contest a long shot for most, if not simply an expensive vanity project. Democrats have a wealth of riches, goes the popular narrative. What they lack are candidates for U.S. Senate. Thirty-four seats are on 2020 ballots.

Salon Deputy Politics Editor Sophia Tesfaye worries talented Democrats itching to take down Donald Trump may leave the Senate and approval of federal judges in Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's control. Red-state Democrats who need more control in their state legislatures could use some local races to boost voter turnout and may not get it.

"Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Steve Bullock in Montana, and John Hickenlooper in Colorado all gave up opportunities to challenge potentially vulnerable Republicans for Senate seats" to run for president, Tesfaye writes. With rumors that Joe Manchin may leave his West Virginia Senate seat to run for governor, a Democrat in the White House could face an even more hostile Senate in 2021 if Democrats loose ground there. Democrat Doug Jones could lose his Alabama U.S. Senate seat in 2020.

After running a headline-catching campaign for Senate in 2018 and narrowly losing to Sen. Ted Cruz, O'Rourke passed on a chance to challenge Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn. Last elected with 62 percent of the vote, Cornyn's approval stands at 62 percent to Cruz's 83 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) appears to be backing MJ Hegar for Senate in Texas. Rep. Julian Castro has all but bowed out and Hegar, another almost-won Democratic candidate from 2018, has proved "formidable" at fundraising. But so has O'Rourke, and he ran a statewide race and lost by an even slimmer margin.

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams has decided not to contest Republican Sen. David Perdue's seat in 2020. With a national profile, Abrams could be the first Democrat to win statewide office in Georgia since 2000, Tesfaye observes. Abrams seeks a more executive position.

Eric Levitz cautions (as I have) that even should Democrats win the White House in 2020, a Democrat in the White House will need McConnell's permission to do most anything:

Right now, the odds of Team Blue winning control of the Senate next year are slim, and getting slimmer. Democrats will need a net gain of three seats next November to wrest the upper chamber from Mitch McConnell’s caucus. And while Republicans will have 22 of their incumbents on the ballot in 2020, only two of those represent states that have leaned Democratic in the past two presidential elections — Colorado and Maine.
Democrats need three seats to reach 50-50 Senate parity. Yet the most vulnerable Republican seats in Texas, Georgia, and Montana may see Democrats' most promising challengers sitting out those races to run for president. Abrams has not ruled out a run and could find a place as vice president on the national ticket. Gov. Steve Bullock, the Montana Democrat, is hiring staff he may need for a presidential run instead of challenging Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines whose seat is on the 2020 ballot.

The sitting president may be drawing all the fire to himself, but Democrats need more attention to their flanks. There is little to suggest a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020 will pay much attention to red states, especially to red states with no competitive contests for U.S. Senate. The longer the Senate goes under-contested, the worse it will go both for Democrats and American democracy.

As David Birdsell, professor of political science and dean at Baruch College, has observed, “By 2040, 70 percent of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states, which are also home to the overwhelming majority of the 30 largest cities in the country. By extension, 30 percent of Americans will live in the other 35 states. That means that the 70 percent of Americans get all of 30 Senators and 30 percent of Americans get 70 Senators.”

"Imagine," writes Levitz, "a Democratic president who isn’t just too weak to advance any of the ambitious legislation she promised her base, but also to rebalance the courts or effectively implement her regulatory agenda. Might this dampen Democratic voters’ enthusiasm for electoral politics when the midterms come around?"

Those red states across the American South and West will have effective veto power over any president, rendering the position largely ceremonial with a Democrat in the Oval Office. Someone at the switch had best wake up.