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Opinion

Get Out: 2020 Democrats focus on the White House Over the Senate

As the chance to vote President Donald Trump out of office approaches, Democrats are dropping everything for a chance to finally make the White House a little less orange. With 21 presidential hopefuls in the primary collectively raising around 128 million dollars, candidates and donors are pulling out all the stops in a desperate scramble for the nomination. Such singular focus has led both groups to neglect the arguably more critical Senate and gubernatorial races that are also taking place in 2020. These races are an opportunity for the Democrats to reclaim control of Congress and to start contesting Republican dominance over state government. These down-ballot races offices offer the chance to change the fundamental rules of the political game. 

Democrats have historically prioritized flashy races, the presidency in particular, over these more mundane offices. Setting aside the concerning implications of American governance becoming increasingly centered around the presidency and the executive branch, the Democratic party’s lack of focus on the Senate could cost them, and the country, for years to come. The Senate, through its control over court appointments, not only has substantial influence over policy but the ability to change the rules of American politics. It controls appointments to the Supreme Court and the heads of departments. Beyond those appointments at the highest level, the Senate also controls appointments to appellate courts, which have been some of the strongest bulwarks against Trump’s most egregious excesses. The courts could become steadily less impartial over time, hindering reasonable Democratic policies while allowing ever greater Republican excesses. 

This year’s Senate races in particular represent a substantial opportunity for Democrats, yet well-known Democratic candidates seem like they couldn’t care less. Candidates who burst onto the scene during the 2018 elections, like Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke, are either declining to run entirely or mounting long-shot bids for the presidency. Popular former governor Steve Bullock is foregoing the historically well-trodden path from governor’s mansion to the Senate in favor of the increasingly rocky one to the White House. Established political figures like Julián Castro are passing up easier elections against opponents who literally tweet Mussolini quotes just to show up on the presidential debate stage. And that is to say nothing of sitting executives, like Bill de Blasio and Steve Bullock, who have set aside reelection or actually doing their jobs in favor of further cluttering the field.

This is not to say that there aren’t Democratic candidates in many of these critical down-ballot races. Despite the trouble faced by Democratic leadership in recruiting candidates in some states, Democratic Senate primary races in Kentucky and Texas, among others, are crowded with would-be candidates. Yet the only Senate candidate with any widespread name recognition is Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and the husband of former representative Gabby Giffords. And name recognition makes a huge difference for candidates’ chances of success. It accounts for substantial polling swings—up to 5 percent—in certain elections, and is generally held to be a close-to-decisive factor in close election. Politics, as most clearly shown by Donald Trump, is driven by personality and name brands. A recognizable name and personal brand allow candidates to get around party allegiances and win votes from otherwise unreachable voters. It will be hard for any of these unknown down ballot candidates to break into the field in a meaningful way.

Candidates like Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams, and Pete Buttigeg, with frequent media exposure and compelling stories, would have had solid odds of victory challenging Republican strongholds. The relative unknowns who are running instead, like MJ Hegar in Texas, face a rockier path to victory. This lack of interest in lower offices among established Democrats suggests a belief that the presidency is the only way to create actual change. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, when asked about his reasons for pursuing the presidency rather than a Senate seat a few months ago, said “Senators don’t build teams. Senators sit and debate in small groups… I’m a doer.” He has since dropped out. When approached with a similar question, Beto O’Rourke responded that he wants to be in a “more consequential position.” 

But it’s not all ambition and wasted money. As the Democratic primaries have dragged on, polling percentage and donation requirements for debates are growing tighter.  Long-shot candidates are increasingly facing the pressure to do something more useful than stand around on a debate stage waiting desperately for a chance to speak. Quixotically burning money just doesn’t cut it anymore. John Hickenlooper  finally got the right idea and dropped out of the presidential race to run for Senate. Given the current polling, he still has a strong chance of winning the Senate race.  But, where he once would have cruised through the primary and outpolled his Republican opponent by double digit margins, he now faces a bruising, 15-person primary fight not unlike the presidential race he just quit. 

 While the Democrats fight amongst themselves for the party’s presidential nomination, in recent memory, only the Republican Party has worked to systematically undermine democratic institutions. In Oregon, Republican state lawmakers literally went on the lam to deny quorum for a bill that had a crushing majority in favor. In Michigan, as the new Democratic governor was just about to enter office, the Republican legislature voted to effectively strip the governor’s office of most of its powers. Across the country, Republican legislatures have redrawn district maps in order to make it easier for Republican candidates to win, part of a nationally coordinated strategy referred to as REDMAP. Republicans across the country private acknowledge that their recent efforts at voter ID laws have been, in effect, efforts at voter suppression. Within the Senate, Mitch McConell’s many abuses of the filibuster and other parliamentary procedures, as well as his promise to be the “grim reaper” for just about any Democratic policy, demonstrates a willingness to subvert public opinion in favor of electoral and lobbying interests. From the lowest levels of state governance to the Senate and the presidency, there is a clear effort by the Republican party as a whole to maintain power by undermining democratic institutions. 

Winning the House of Representatives won’t fix this problem: it can’t redraw legislative maps, reshape courts, or fundamentally change the institutions of this country. Winning the White House won’t either; Merrick Garland’s confirmation is example enough of that. Individual offices or chambers of Congress or state legislatures aren’t enough. There must be a strategy to contest every institution, not just whatever is most eye-catching. Democrats historically have focused on singular races, particularly for the Presidency, at the expense of down-ballot races like the Senate and state legislatures; it cannot happen again. And the first step to not neglecting down-ballot races is convincing well-known candidates, somehow, to swallow their ambition for a few years and run for offices where they are needed, not offices they think they deserve. John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, and Kirsten Gillibrand are a good first step.  Hopefully the next three candidates to drop out won’t waste too much more time and money.