Why is Steve Bullock running for president?
Sure, the Democratic governor of Montana is popular with his own people. But nationally, he is probably not even the 20th—or 22nd!—name to come to mind if you had to name all the Democratic candidates. Meanwhile, the Montana Senate seat held by freshman Republican Steve Daines is up in 2020. Democrats need to take only three seats to recapture the chamber. If Bullock were running for the Senate in Montana, the race would instantly become a toss-up and the map would suddenly go from iffy to meh for the GOP.
But Bullock isn’t alone.
Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper is running for president, too. Spoiler: He’s not going to be the Democratic nominee. There is literally no way he could become the Democratic nominee. Even if he showed up in Iowa in February with a copy of the Pee Tape. Not gonna happen.
But Hickenlooper would be a very formidable candidate against Senator Cory Gardner in a state that’s trending purple and which, if a Democrat wins the White House, will likely be carried by the Dems at the top of the ticket.
Then there’s Texas, where John Cornyn is up for re-election while both Julian Castro and Beto O’Rourke are running for president. O’Rourke is at least polling above the margin of error. But that’s about the best thing you can say at this point.
What’s going on here?
Democrats have a real pathway to take the Senate in 2020. It’s not easy, but it’s doable: Republicans are defending 22 seats; Democrats are defending only 12.
Of the Democratic seats only one, Alabama, is a serious candidate to flip.
On the Republican side, Maine, Arizona, North Carolina, and Georgia are all gettable if the Democratic presidential nominee is outperforming Hillary Clinton. If Montana, Colorado, and Texas drew top-tier Democratic challengers, the party’s chances of flipping the Senate would increase dramatically.
So why are these Democrats running for president instead of statewide office?
The answer may be: Joe Biden.
Biden is, so far, a runaway frontrunner. He’s leading every poll by double digits. His primary opponent at this point is an aged socialist who isn’t even a Democrat. And he has history on his side: Just about every vice president in the modern era who has sought his party’s nomination, has won it. (The exception being Dan Quayle.)
But if he were to win in 2020, it would mean that Biden would be 81 years old on Election Day in 2024. It seems at least possible that part of the deal with a Biden presidency is that—either explicitly or implicitly—he would be a one-term president.
Which means that whoever he picks as a running mate this go-round would begin the 2024 cycle as the presumptive Democratic nominee.
So imagine that you’re John Hickenlooper and you want to be president. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper is never going to win the Democratic nomination.
But Vice President John Hickenlooper could. And the chances of Hickenlooper acquitting himself well in a couple of debates and then looking like a sensible veep pick because he’s from a swing state and reinforces Biden’s moderate value-proposition is . . . well, let’s be honest, this isn’t a high percentage play.
But compared with Hickenlooper trying to win the nomination himself, it’s much, much more plausible. In fact, if you’re Hickenlooper, this is the only conceivable way in which you could become president.
You could become another senator from Colorado any time. But if you want to win it all, this is the only shot you’re ever going to get.
You could say the same about Bullock, though his longshot-bankshot is even longer and banksier than Hickenhlooper’s. Ditto for Castro.
O’Rourke alone is a plausible presidential contender on his own, and you can understand why taking a shot at Cornyn would actually be a bigger risk for him than running for president. It’s one thing to lose a Senate race and then lose a presidential primary. It’s another thing to lose back-to-back Senate races. It’s not clear what the path forward from that would be.
If the Democrats are serious about contesting the Senate, at some point they’re going to have to sit some of their presidential candidates down and talk to them about their duty to take one for the team.
The real question is how long they can wait to have those talks.