Why Steve Bullock, John Hickenlooper and Beto O’Rourke are still running for president
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a longshot 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 just 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 say 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 only likely to grow louder now that the Democratic National Committee has imposed tougher rules to qualify for nationally-televised debates in September and October. All three candidates say they have qualified under easier polling and fundraising requirements the DNC set for the July debates.
But 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.
DNC fall debates: It just got harder to make the later 2020 Democratic debates
Who?: An interactive guide to who is running for president in 2020
So far, only five candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren — have met both thresholds, according to an analysis by the website FiveThirdayEight. O’Rourke has reached the donor requirement but still 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 a single of the 800 voters surveyed said they supported in Bullock.
Why they would be competitive Senate candidates
Before entering the race, all three rebuffed recruitment efforts by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to put their White House ambitions aside and run for Senate seats.
While 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 for good reason.
Bullock is a two-term governor who won Montana in 2016 even as President 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 with 49% of voters in his state approving of his performance — a markedly better standing than incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, who analysts say is among the most vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in 2020.
And in Texas, former congressman O’Rourke last year was narrowly defeated 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 re-election 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, has already announced she will seek the Democratic nomination to take on Cornyn.
Still, all three presidential candidates say they remain committed to running for the White House.
It’s a stance that’s frustrated Democrats who fear the party might blow their chance to win control of the Senate when 22 of 34 seats up for re-election 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,” notes Elaine Kamarck, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration and is currently governance expert at the Brookings Institution.
All three still 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 yet, but in the past has 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 March Super Tuesday contests before making a decision.
He said it: Trump says he’s ‘so great looking and smart, a true Stable Genius’ in tweet bashing 2020 Dems
When Democrats will vote: When are the 2020 presidential election primaries?
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 following the Detroit debates this month.
O’Rourke had 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, also weighed running for the Senate seat before opting against it.
Cook said both O’Rourke and Julian Castro might find themselves having to “look around and see how else they can contribute” following 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 insists 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.”
Courting Latino voters in Milwaukee: ‘Wow, he’s going to follow the law?’: 2020 Dems slam Trump on census, border issues at LULAC national convention
New Poll: Biden, Warren lead, while Sanders and Harris tied in 3rd place
Indeed, recent history suggests that the frontrunner 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 — President Trump in 2016, President Obama in 2008 and Sen. John Kerry in 2004 — while not frontrunners at this point in their races were not registering the low level of support that Bullock, Hickenlooper and O’Rourke are seeing.
Bullock has said flatly that he’s not interested in the Senate and that his background as a Democratic governor who has 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’s pushed back against the notion that the party needs him to run for the Senate with a large field of high-profile Colorado Democrats already announcing 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 recent campaign stop in Des Moines. “I mean, he is amazingly vulnerable.”
Hicken … who?
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 eventually picked Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.
Hickenlooper seemed to get off to a solid, if not earth-shattering, start following the launch of his campaign in March, raising $1 million in the first 48 hours of his candidacy.
But he acknowledges he’s struggled to break through with voters and has been at a disadvantage to top-tier candidates who have had the cash to run robust digital and small donor outreach campaigns in the early going. He raised little over $1 million in the second quarter, according to his campaign.
His most notable moment in the campaign thus far may have come last month at the California Democratic Party Convention when he was booed by attendees after in his address to the convention that the party would guarantee Trump winning a second term if it veered too far to the left.
Earlier this month, several senior campaign aides — including his campaign manager —parted ways with Hickenlooper. He says some on his team wanted him to give up and instead run for Senate.
But Hickenlooper insists his heart remains in the presidential race, though he won’t entirely discount the possibility of changing his mind down the road.
“I’m not thinking about it. I don’t have time,” Hickenlooper responded when asked whether he would change his mind and run for Senate. “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 says he’s still struggling mightily to even get on voters’ radars, most who 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-aged 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 of the conversation, Peace Coleman, sought to bring Hickenlooper into the conversation when he stumbled.
“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,” said Coleman. “So I ask the question to Hicken–.”
The governor bailed out Coleman and amiably said he should call him John.
Coleman later apologetically told USA TODAY he hadn’t heard of Hickenlooper until a day before the forum.
Stay in the race?
Ahead of the first presidential debates in Miami last month, a Hill-HarrisX poll showed 72% of Democratic and Democratic-leaning independent voters felt 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 holds 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.