Why are you running for president? Drumbeat grows for some 2020 Democrats to shift sights

Stephen Gruber-Miller, Aamer Madhani and Phil Drake

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a long shot contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, took to social media last week to cheer Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath for launching her bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

It didn’t take long for the Twitter-verse to pounce.

“I can think of another person who could help stop McConnell by winning a new Senate seat," one reply read. "His name is ... wait, let me think, i'll get it ... oh yeah – Steve Bullock! Have you heard of him?”

The response was one of dozens tweeted back at Bullock, urging him to ditch his presidential campaign and instead run against incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

Such is the political atmosphere for Bullock and fellow embattled presidential hopefuls John Hickenlooper and Beto O’Rourke – three candidates whose White House bids are languishing but are seen by party leaders and Democratic voters as attractive candidates to take on vulnerable incumbent Senate Republicans.

Unless they find momentum in the weeks ahead, political analysts and party operatives said, the trio will find themselves facing two difficult questions: What are you still doing in the race, and why aren’t you running for Senate?

“What I keep hearing is that people wish Bullock would run against Daines,” said Carl Donovan, a state committeeman for the Cascade County (Montana) Democrats. “I hear that from everybody, not just people who are political.”

The drumbeat is likely to grow louder now that the Democratic National Committee imposed tougher rules to qualify for nationally televised debates in September and October. All three candidates said they have qualified under easier polling and fundraising requirements the DNC set for the debates this month.

Making the stage for the fall debates will be a steep climb for Bullock and Hickenlooper, who have struggled to attract donors and show a significant measure of support in early polls. Candidates have to hit 2% in four qualifying polls and tally at least 130,000 individual donors to get on stage, according to the DNC rules.

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Only five candidates – former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren – have met both thresholds, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight. O’Rourke reached the donor requirement but needs to cross 2% in one more poll.

Polling has consistently shown that all three are failing to make significant headway with voters nationally or in early voting states. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published last week found 2% of likely Democratic voters back O’Rourke, 1% back Hickenlooper and not one of the 800 voters surveyed say they support Bullock.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke speaks during the National Education Association Strong Public Schools Presidential Forum Friday, July 5, 2019, in Houston.

Why they would be competitive Senate candidates

Before entering the race, all three rebuffed recruitment efforts by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer to put their White House ambitions aside and run for Senate seats.

Though the three candidates are, at least for the moment, hovering in also-ran territory in presidential polls, they are still seen as attractive Senate candidates by Schumer.

Bullock is a two-term governor who won Montana in 2016 even as Donald Trump took the state by more than 20 percentage points. Hickenlooper, a former Colorado governor and Denver mayor, left the governor’s office in January as 49% of voters in his state approved of his performance  – a better standing than incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, who analysts said is among the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in 2020.

In Texas, former congressman O’Rourke was narrowly defeated last year by Sen. Ted Cruz. O’Rourke, who deftly used social media and gained national fame in that race, gave Democratic leaders reason to believe they had the ideal candidate to take on Texas’ other GOP senator, John Cornyn, who faces reelection next year. Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who lost a bid to win a Texas congressional seat in the fall but captured national attention with her viral ads, announced she will seek the Democratic nomination to take on Cornyn.

All three presidential candidates said they remain committed to running for the White House.

It’s a stance that’s frustrated Democrats who fear the party might blow its chance to win control of the Senate when 22 of 34 seats up for reelection in 2020 are held by Republicans. Democrats need to make a net gain of four seats to win control of the upper chamber.

“In other words, three of the strongest Senate candidates, people who could get the Democrats three-quarters of the way to a majority, are making what looks like futile races for the Democratic nomination,” said Elaine Kamarck, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration and is governance expert at the Brookings Institution.

All three have plenty of time to change their minds.

The filing deadline for the Texas primary is Dec. 9. Montana hasn’t announced it’s filing deadline but in the past set it in early March. The Colorado Democratic Party doesn’t decide who it will put on the ballot until April – meaning that Hickenlooper could theoretically get beyond the Super Tuesday contests in March before making a decision.

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A moment of truth?

Veteran Texas Democratic operative Harold Cook said O’Rourke and fellow Texan and White House contender Julian Castro, whose polling has also hovered in the low single digits, could face difficult questions about the viability of their candidacies after the Detroit debates this month.

O’Rourke received more attention as a possible Senate candidate than Castro, a former Housing and Urban Development secretary and mayor of San Antonio, in part because of O’Rourke’s strong performance in the 2018 race against Cruz. Castro’s twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, weighed running for the Senate seat before opting against it.

Cook said O’Rourke and Julian Castro might find themselves having to "look around and see how else they can contribute” after the second debate.

"To me, I think that means the U.S. Senate," he said. "I think it's entirely possible that one or both of the candidates from Texas will be faced with the possibility they will not make it to the third debate."

O’Rourke insisted it’s too early in the 2020 election cycle to give up.

"It’s hard to think of a poll at the beginning of July before the year of the presidential election that was accurate,” O’Rourke said on the sidelines of a presidential forum in Milwaukee last week. “There were so many examples of people who were low in the polls, nonexistent in the polls who did well, folks who were high who didn’t do so well.”

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Indeed, recent history suggests that the front-runner at this point in the race often doesn’t end up as the party’s nominee. In July 2015, Jeb Bush was atop the race for the GOP nomination. Around this time in 2007, Hillary Clinton appeared on the glide-path to the Democratic nomination. Joe Lieberman was at the top of the Democratic heap around this moment in 2003.

But the eventual nominees in all those cycles – Trump in 2016, Barack Obama in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004 – though not front-runners at this point in their races, did not register the low level of support that Bullock, Hickenlooper and O’Rourke see.

Bullock has said flatly that he’s not interested in the Senate and that his background as a Democratic governor who appealed to voters in a conservative state makes him uniquely qualified to take on Trump.

“I think we are going to have a lot of good candidates to take on Daines,” Bullock said upon launching his campaign in May. “My experience in public office has always been on the executive side. I think what we have done in Montana, both electorally and in getting government to work, is something that a lot of people can learn from."

Hickenlooper has similarly said that his experience as a governor leads him to believe he’s suited to serve in the White House.

He pushed back against the notion that the party needs him to run for the Senate with a large field of high-profile Colorado Democrats who already announced their candidacy.

“There are several other top-flight candidates running for Senate in Colorado, I think any one of which could beat Cory Gardner,” Hickenlooper said during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa. “I mean, he is amazingly vulnerable.”

Hicken … who?

2020 Democratic presidential hopeful John Hickenlooper speaks at a July 11, 2019 forum on gun violence in Chicago.

Hickenlooper had enough buzz during his second term as governor that Hillary Clinton’s campaign vetted him in 2016 as a potential vice presidential candidate. She picked Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

Hickenlooper got off to a solid, if not earth-shattering, start after the launch of his campaign in March, raising $1 million in the first 48 hours of his candidacy.

He acknowledged he’s struggled to break through with voters and has been at a disadvantage against top-tier candidates who had the cash to run robust digital and small donor outreach campaigns in the early going. He raised a little more than $1 million in the second quarter, according to his campaign.

His most notable moment in the campaign may have come last month at the California Democratic Party Convention when he was booed by attendees after saying the party would guarantee Trump winning a second term if it veered too far to the left.

This month, several senior campaign aides – including his campaign manager – parted ways with Hickenlooper. He said some on his team wanted him to give up and instead run for Senate.

Hickenlooper insisted his heart remains in the presidential race, though he won’t discount the possibility of changing his mind.

“I'm not thinking about it. I don't have time,” Hickenlooper said. “My gosh, I don't have the time. I don't have enough time to do the stuff I really need to be doing. I don’t got time to think about things that are way out in the future.”

Hickenlooper said he’s struggling to get on the radar of voters, most of whom know little to nothing about him.

He was about 45 minutes into a campaign roundtable in Chicago last week when the moderator forgot his name.

The former Colorado governor had been listening intently as the participants – a group of elementary-school-age children, formerly incarcerated men, worried mothers and retirees – described how a mix of gun violence, government indifference and systemic racism had decimated their neighborhood.

The moderator, Peace Coleman, stumbled when he sought to bring Hickenlooper into the conversation.

“With great power comes great responsibility, and in the place of power, there is a power dynamic for one person to fail, for one people to fail and for one people to be up,” Coleman said. “So I ask the question to Hicken–.”

The governor bailed out Coleman and said he should call him John.

Coleman apologetically told USA TODAY he hadn't heard of Hickenlooper until a day before the forum.

Stay in the race?

Before the first presidential debates in Miami last month, a Hill-HarrisX poll showed 72% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters said there are "too many" candidates vying for their party's presidential nomination. Just 16% of respondents said the number of candidates is "about right," and 12% said there are "too few" candidates in the race.

In Iowa, which will hold the first-in-the-nation caucuses in February, some voters who attended a Bullock rally last week bristled at the suggestion that the Montana governor make an early exit and turn his attention to running for a different office.

“One of the things I'm not liking about the public in general, even among my friends, is how they are dismissing some candidates because they think they would be better as attorney general or they'd be a better cabinet person,” said Barbara Clark of Coralville, Iowa. “I keep hearing these things, and I keep saying, no, you go for the person you want.”

Another Coralville resident, Ellen Welborn, said she hopes Bullock sticks it out through at least the Iowa caucuses.

“Sooner or later the people who poll low will have to drop out, but I'd like to see him in here longer,” she said.

Contributing: Mica Soellner in Milwaukee, John C. Moritz in Austin, Texas, and Zachary Oren Smith in Iowa City, Iowa

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper and Beto O'Rourke are still running for president