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Some Democratic presidential hopefuls are under pressure to run for Senate

Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke,

Democratic presidential candidate former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, speaks during a candidates forum at the 110th NAACP National Convention in Detroit on July 24. Credit: AP/Carlos Osorio

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently traded his long-shot presidential candidacy for a more viable Senate bid, but Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke have insisted they won’t follow suit.

“That is an absolute no,” Bullock said at his CNN presidential town hall.

“That would not be good enough for El Paso. That would not be good enough for this country,” O’Rourke said in a reset of his presidential campaign following the mass shootings in El Paso.

Hickenlooper, Bullock and O’Rourke hail from states with Republican-held Senate seats that the Democrats hope to flip in 2020 in efforts to regain control of the chamber.

The three represent some of their party’s best chances for Senate pickups — Hickenlooper and Bullock because they’ve governed as moderates working on both sides of the aisle and O’Rourke because he mounted a competitive challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018.

Unseating Republican senators in Colorado, Montana and Texas — along with Arizona, Maine and Georgia — is crucial to the Democrats’ aspirations to capture a majority in the Senate while keeping control of the House and electing a Democratic president, strategists say.

“We don’t win unless we have control,” said Brad Bannon, a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic consultant. “You can talk about the Green New Deal, Medicare For All, reforming the immigration process and controlling gun violence, but as long as Mitch McConnell’s the Senate majority leader, it’s all pie in the sky.”

Of the three, Hickenlooper has the best odds at defeating the incumbent senator, according to polling and political experts. An Emerson College poll of registered voters in Colorado showed the former governor leading Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, 53 percent to 40 percent. Hickenlooper's lead was helped by his strength among independents, who supported him over Gardner by a 21-point margin, the poll found.

Hickenlooper, a former geologist, mayor of Denver and two-term governor, backed methane emissions restrictions in his state but also supported hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"He is liked across the political spectrum," said Curtis Hubbard, whose Denver-based firm, OnSight Public Affairs, worked on Hickenlooper's gubernatorial races.

Meanwhile, in Texas, a poll conducted by Emerson College for The Dallas Morning News found the Democratic primary race to be "wide open" for the seat held by Republican Sen. John Cornyn. It also showed Cornyn with only a 37 percent job approval rating and found that 51 percent of Democrats said O'Rourke should run for Senate instead of the White House.

The Houston Chronicle editorial board after the shootings in El Paso called on O’Rourke, who served three terms in the House and lost to Cruz by only 2.6 points in 2018, to run again for senator.

“The chances of winning the race you’re in now are vanishingly small,” the editorial board wrote. “And Texas needs you.”

In Montana, Bullock faces pressure to challenge Republican Sen. Steve Daines, a vocal supporter of Republican President Donald Trump. Bullock, who ushered a Medicaid expansion through Montana's Republican legislature, was re-elected governor in 2016 in a state that Trump won by 23 percent.

Lee Banville, a University of Montana journalism professor and political analyst, noted that Bullock is one of the few Democrats in Montana who has run repeated, successful statewide campaigns, but called the Senate election “Daines’ race to lose.”

Hickenlooper as a presidential candidate had publicly shrugged off pressure to run for Senate. "I don't think that's my calling," he said in July. 

But in an Aug. 22 video announcing his Senate candidacy, the former Colorado governor said: "I’ve always said Washington was a lousy place for a guy like me who wants to get things done. But this is no time to walk away from the table.”

Strategists note that O’Rourke and Bullock have time to change their minds and abandon their presidential bids for Senate ones.

Texas’ filing deadline is Dec. 9. Montana’s is March 9, 2020.

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