On Monday night, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley said on Twitter that he was going to make an “announcement about my plans for 2020" on Tuesday morning. Thankfully, the announcement wasn’t the kind we’ve come to expect so far.
Merkley is one of the most progressive members of the Senate (not exactly a great feat, but still), having co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill in the last Congress, signed onto the Green New Deal, and most importantly, helped to shed light on the barbarism of family separation by almost getting arrested at a detention center last summer.
But faced with the prospect of running for president in an already intensely crowded field that includes likeminded politicians like Bernie Sanders (whom Merkley endorsed in 2016) and Elizabeth Warren, Merkley made an extremely wise decision: choosing to stay exactly where he is. (A Republican hasn’t won a Senate election in Oregon since 2002.)
Obviously, deciding to stay in the Senate isn’t exactly a selfless act of bravery. But Merkley’s decision not to run for president is making him stand out more than it would if he did decide to run for president.
His reasoning is also exactly right: no matter who wins the presidency in 2020, what the Senate will look like when they take office in January 2021 is just as important. And there’s not a lot of room for error for Democrats. The GOP currently has a three-seat advantage in the Senate, plus a very advantageous matchup in Alabama, presuming Sen. Doug Jones doesn’t run against an accused child molester. The most charitable reading of the 2020 map—including states like Alaska, Georgia, and Texas—is that the Democrats have eight opportunities to pick up Senate seats from the GOP. That’s not a whole lot of room for error.
Yesterday, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper made the opposite choice of Merkley. After saying in February that he wasn’t “cut out” to be a senator, Hickenlooper turned down a chance to take on freshman Republican Sen. Cory Gardner—in a state that’s grown more liberal since Gardner’s election in the Republican wave of 2014—in favor of a run for president as a moderate Democrat.
Aside from people who want fracking to be bipartisan, it’s not exactly clear who wants this to happen, considering the field already has plenty of moderates and that the most prominent one, Joe Biden, is seen as very likely to run. To be clear, someone with Hickenlooper’s politics wouldn’t necessarily be a good senator for Colorado. But it’s one of the most prime pickup opportunities for Senate Democrats in 2020, and Hickenlooper dwarfs the rest of the Democratic field in name recognition in Colorado. There’s no reason this guy should be running for president instead.
Likewise, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, fresh off a near-monumental upset in last year’s Texas Senate race against Ted Cruz, is also reportedly nearing a presidential announcement, and the Dallas Morning News reported last week that he had decided not to challenge Sen. John Cornyn in 2020. This is dumb as shit.
The Texas Democratic Party is basically a tumbleweed, and O’Rourke’s run was the first sign of life it had seen in decades. And early polling indicates that O’Rourke actually would have a fighting chance against Cornyn:
To add insult to injury, the other Texan who might be able to win statewide, former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, is also running for president. And so if O’Rourke ultimately decides to run for president, that’s not one but two chances down the drain for Texas Democrats to win a U.S. Senate seat.
The next major figure to make this kind of decision will likely be Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate who nearly became the first black woman to govern a U.S. state. Abrams, who delivered the State of the Union response last month, has been courted heavily by Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer to run in 2020 against Sen. David Perdue, the millionaire former CEO of Dollar General. But according to a New York Times story on Tuesday, Abrams is considering a presidential run as well, and said she’d decide on her next move by early April.
If the Democrats are lucky, she’ll decide to run against Perdue. Abrams’ perspective, as a black woman from the South, is certainly more underrepresented in the presidential race than Hickenooper’s or O’Rourke’s. But as Merkley said, the Senate is “not prepared to be a full partner in this battle” to tackle problems like healthcare, climate change, racial justice, and inequality. It really never has been a partner in the battle against the biggest problems that have faced the country. And the only way it could ever possibly be something different is if progressives like Abrams start getting elected in both blue and purple states. In order for them to do that, they need to run first.
So thanks, Jeff Merkley, for deciding that your talents are better suited outside of a presidential field that already has way too many people in it. If more people follow your lead, we just might get a Senate in 2021 that doesn’t rubber-stamp accused sexual predators for the Supreme Court.