The Senate wasn’t their first choice. Will that matter for Bullock and Hickenlooper?

Pluses include fundraising, but past statements could haunt them

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced this week that he is running for Senate. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo) (CQ Roll Call)
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock announced this week that he is running for Senate. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo) (CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 12, 2020 at 11:10am

When Montana Gov. Steve Bullock launched his Senate campaign this week, he became the second 2020 presidential hopeful to run for Congress instead. One question facing both Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is whether their failed White House runs could haunt their Senate campaigns or help them — or both. 

National campaigns come with higher profiles and larger donor lists. But as Bullock and Hickenlooper ran for the White House, both Democrats also repeatedly said they did not want to run for Senate, only to reverse course after their national ambitions came up short.

Republicans are ready to use statements made on the presidential campaign trail against them. Still, national Democrats view both candidates as their best chances for ousting freshman Republican Sens. Cory Gardner in Colorado and Steve Daines in Montana. Democrats need a net gain of three or four seats to flip the chamber, depending on which party wins the White House, since the vice president casts a tie-breaking vote in the Senate.  

There is precedent for a presidential hopeful to disparage life in the Senate, only to turn around and run for a seat in the chamber that same election cycle. Just ask Florida Republican Marco Rubio. He decided at the last minute to run for reelection to the Senate after ending his 2016 presidential run, and won. 

“Obviously voters in Florida did not hold Rubio’s presidential ambitions against him when he ran for reelection in the Senate,” said Alex Conant, who worked on Rubio's presidential and Senate campaigns in 2016. “It was something, obviously, that the Democrats really tried to push. But I think voters assume all politicians are ambitious and don’t necessarily fault them for it.”

Shifting focus

Both Bullock and Hickenlooper said they ultimately ran for Senate because they couldn’t stay on the proverbial sidelines. Both were also facing pressure from Democratic leaders to launch Senate runs.

As governors, both candidates have previously won statewide elections, which makes them attractive Senate recruits. Running for Senate after president means shifting the focus back to their respective states, and they may have enough time between their presidential runs and their Senate campaigns to do that.

“I think they’re going to have a more traditional Senate race,” Rubio said Tuesday, noting that he had a much more compressed time frame in 2016. Rubio decided to run for reelection less than five months before Election Day.

Asked how his presidential bid affected his Senate campaign, Rubio said, “The engine was still warm, so we had a lot of things in place already that we had to turn around.”

Conant noted that a presidential run allows candidates to grow their email lists beyond state-based donors, so they can raise money online more quickly. He also said being tested at the presidential level can help politicians hone their skills.

“The lack of room for error, the importance of having a clear message, are skills you develop on a presidential campaign trail that can be really useful if you later run for governor or Senate,” Conant said.

It is possible that both Bullock and Hickenlooper’s campaigns have benefitted from a national profile when it comes to fundraising. Bullock’s campaign announced it had raised $1.2 million in the first 24 hours after announcing his Senate bid, which exceeded his presidential campaign’s initial 24-hour haul and nearly matched Daines’ $1.4 million haul for the entire fourth quarter of 2019. Hickenlooper’s initial fundraising also outpaced his presidential campaign and has since surpassed it.

Unlike Rubio, both men are challenging incumbents who have financial advantages. At the end 2019, Daines had more than $5 million in his campaign account and Gardner had $7.7 million. Hickenlooper’s Senate campaign had $3.2 million.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Colorado Senate race a Toss-up and the Montana race Leans Republican.

Double-edged sword?

Allies of Bullock and Hickenlooper do not believe their presidential runs will significantly affect their Senate races.

“He’s run and won three statewide campaigns here,” said Bullock senior adviser Matt McKenna. “People know him. People trust him. And I don’t think his decision to run for president in any way erodes that relationship or erodes that trust.”

Hickenlooper spokeswoman Melissa Miller said in a statement, “Coloradans know John Hickenlooper’s record of bringing people together to get things done and trust he’ll bring change to a broken U.S. Senate.”

But Republicans are ready to use some of the comments Bullock and Hickenlooper made on the campaign trail and tie them to national Democratic figures.  

One GOP strategist cited Bullock’s support for impeaching and removing President Donald Trump as an example of a remark that could be a problem in a state Trump carried by 20 points in 2016. Democrats have countered that Trump’s approval rating in Montana has waned since then, while Bullock has proved he can outperform the top of the ticket. In 2016, he won reelection by 4 points as Trump was carrying the state.

Gardner’s campaign is also tying Hickenlooper to the presidential race. Campaign spokeswoman Meghan Graf said in a statement, “Governor Hickenlooper has made it clear to voters that, just like his far-left presidential and Senate primary opponents, he wants to impose a radical agenda that consists of socialized medicine, higher taxes, and eliminating energy jobs, even telling voters that he’s just as progressive as self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders.”

In a July presidential debate that featured Sanders, Hickenlooper said, “I’m as progressive as anybody up on this stage.” Hickenlooper has described himself, though, as pragmatic, and he has said he does not support Sanders’ signature “Medicare for All” proposal.

Loading the player...

While running for president, Hickenlooper repeatedly said he did not want to run for Senate, even going so far as saying he was “not cut out” for the job. But he tried to address those comments during his Senate campaign launch, saying in his first video, “I’ve always said Washington is a lousy place for a guy like me who likes to get things done. But this is no time to walk away from the table.”

Unlike Bullock, who effectively cleared the primary field when he announced his Senate run, Hickenlooper still has a primary to get through. His chief opponent, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, said he hasn’t made Hickenlooper’s presidential bid central to his case against the former governor. But Romanoff said it has come up in the campaign.

“We’ve heard from voters a lot: Why is John running? Where is he? Why should we believe him now when he spent most of last year telling us what a terrible senator he’d be?” Romanoff said.  

On Saturday, Romanoff won the Senate preference poll at the Colorado caucuses with support from 55 percent of the less than 16,000 caucus-goers, compared with 30 percent for Hickenlooper. When Romanoff ran for the Democratic nomination for Senate in 2010 against Michael Bennet, he also won the caucuses and dominated the party’s state assembly, but he went on to lose the primary to Bennet. Romanoff said he believes he’ll prevail in 2020 because the Democratic Party and the state have shifted to the left since then.