Stacey Abrams and Joaquin Castro did Democrats a favor by not running for Senate

Now the field is open for fresh faces without baggage to establish themselves and grow the party's roster of candidates.
Image: Joaquin Castro, Stacey Abrams and Cindy Axne
Joaquin Castro, Stacey Abrams and Cindy AxneGetty Images
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By Leah Askarinam

The steady stream of political big shots who have turned down invitations from Democratic Party leaders to run for the U.S. Senate is admittedly not a good look ahead of 2020. When Georgia politician Stacey Abrams, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro and Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne last week added their names to the list of those who’ve declined, it wasn’t exactly a confidence booster for the party.

But if the goal is to reclaim the Senate rather than score a publicity boon early in the cycle, these public rejections might be blessings in disguise. Holding competitive primaries that feature ambitious, lesser-known candidates can help the party in the long run.

Bringing in new candidates means introducing a fresh slate of personalities, allowing a diverse group of state-level politicians and political outsiders to enter the fray.

On the face of it, recruiting high-profile contenders has its benefits, which is why parties tend to seek them out. They certainly offer logistical perks: Since they are already well-known in their states, they don’t need to spend as much money to introduce themselves to voters. And the money they do need can often be drawn from existing fundraising networks. Given these advantages, prominent candidates often prevent primary challengers from entering the field, meaning they can focus on a general election message from day one and avoid the risk of having to go through a divisive intraparty battle.

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For the politicians themselves, however, there isn’t as much to gain. If they have national aspirations and an established profile, it can make more sense to run directly for president — even a long-shot candidacy comes with countrywide exposure and networking — rather than risk losing a difficult race in their home state.

Some of these well-known politicians might also simply prefer spots in the next Democratic president’s administration, a vice presidential nomination or some other position that holds more appeal than serving in what could well be the Senate minority. Democrats need to gain four seats in 2020 to reclaim control of the chamber. Their path includes taking at least a couple of the Republican-leaning states of Texas, Georgia, Iowa, Arizona or North Carolina. That’s no cakewalk.

But the Democrats’ failure to recycle their past talent isn’t all bad news for the party — and is positively good news for lower-level elected officials. By definition, bringing in new candidates means introducing a fresh slate of personalities, allowing a diverse group of state-level politicians and political outsiders to enter the fray free from the baggage of long careers in politics.

In Iowa, for instance, former governor Tom Vilsack’s decision not to run for Senate back in February opened up the primary field. When Axne followed suit, that cleared the way for two other promising Democrats: Theresa Greenfield, who can now try to redeem herself after dropping out of the 3rd Congressional District primary (which Axne later won) due to campaign irregularities, and J.D. Scholten, the 39-year-old paralegal who almost ousted Republican Rep. Steve King last year.

Moreover, the most highly sought candidates tend to be people who have already won statewide elected office — and that pool is mostly made up of older white men who need to exit the political arena in order to create slots for more a diverse Senate. While Abrams, Castro and Axne indicate that the face of the Democratic Party is evolving, their decisions not to compete for the Senate followed refusals by Vilsack, former Gov. John Hickenlooper (Colorado), Gov. Steve Bullock (Montana) and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (who is the youngster in this group at 46).

In Texas, O’Rourke’s decision to run for president placed Castro as the natural successor. Castro’s decision not to run positions MJ Hegar, a decorated Air Force veteran, to grab the spotlight in what could be a closely watched Senate election. She previously earned some national attention for an autobiographical advertisement in her 2018 House race, which she lost by 3 points in a longshot suburban Texas district.

The most highly sought candidates tend to be people who have already won statewide elected office — and that pool is mostly made up of older white men.

Hickenlooper similarly created an opportunity for a more diverse pool. Former ambassadorDan Baer’s candidacy means there could be an openly gay man elected to the Senate for the first time in history. Rep. Joe Neguse, the first Eritrean-American elected to Congress, has also been mentioned as a potential candidate, among a long list of others.

Of course, if their presidential runs don’t go as planned, some of the high-profile candidates who have passed on statewide runs for now could reverse course (particularly Hickenlooper and Bullock). Yet there’s no guarantee that they’d do better than the candidates running in their stead. Last year, former Gov. Phil Bredesen entered the Tennessee Senate race to high hopes from the Democratic Party, given that he won a landslide victory statewide in 2006. But a dozen years later, he lost by 11 points.

Whoever ends up running, Democrats have an uphill climb in states such as Georgia and Texas. But whether or not the Democratic nominees end up winning there, the party will add new talent to its pipeline. That could help produce additional candidates for statewide office, the president’s Cabinet and even a future presidential ticket.