Can senators overcome odds in run against Trump?

WASHINGTON — The growing field of presidential candidates now includes six U.S. senators seeking the Democratic nomination to run against President Donald Trump in 2020.

But while senators have all kinds of advantages when running for the nation’s highest office, only three in U.S. history have moved directly from their Senate office to the Oval Office.

Whether or not history is on their side, Democrats in the upper chamber have shown no hesitancy in jumping into the latest campaign.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats, on Tuesday leaped into the race, joining Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, of New Jersey; Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York; Kamala Harris, of California; Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, and Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts.

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Sanders surprised a lot of political observers with his strong challenge of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But he is expected to have a more difficult time separating himself from the large group of Democratic candidates this time around.

No favorite

“This Democratic nomination contest does not have a clear favorite at this point,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

He said in an interview with WTOP that Sanders was a “kind of a protest candidate” in 2016, which allowed him to pick up votes not only from the left edge of the Democratic Party, but from people who didn’t want to support Clinton.

“In a much bigger field, the dynamic is different, and he is not going to be getting those kinds of protest votes,” Kondik said, adding that those types of votes may no longer exist, since people will have so many choices.

Each of the senators running, along with other Democratic candidates, is working to set themselves apart. At the same time, they’re trying to show potential voters they can defeat Trump.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. senator to be directly elected to the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960. The only other senator who moved directly from Capitol Hill to become president was Warren G. Harding, who was elected in 1920.

A total of 16 senators have served as president, but the vast majority were elected after they had left the U.S. Senate.


Senators often have strong name recognition, but they also have voting records that can be pored over and cherry-picked by opponents.

“You actually have to take stances on things that might be unpopular in your own party, or might be unpopular, or open yourself up to attack in a general election,” Kondik said.

Kondik pointed out that when Trump was a candidate, he was free to talk about issues he supported or opposed. Since he had never held public office before, there was no voting record to scrutinize, though his past statements on various issues could be reviewed.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s previous Senate votes were pored over — not only in her 2016 run against Trump, but in her first run for the White House against Obama in 2008, when she was a New York senator.

Kondik said that her 2002 vote in support of the war with Iraq was crucial during the 2008 campaign.

“That vote, I think, cost her the White House in 2008,” Kondik said, noting that Obama was not yet in the Senate when that vote was taken.

If former Vice President Joe Biden decides to run for president, his Senate record will no doubt be closely scrutinized by opponents, Kondik said. Though he hasn’t served on Capitol Hill in many years, he had decades of votes from his time in the Senate representing Delaware, between 1973 and 2009.

“There’s just going to be this laundry list of things that come up in opposition research,” Kondik said.

Mitchell Miller

Mitchell Miller has worked at WTOP since 1996, as a producer, editor, reporter and Senior News Director. After working "behind the scenes," coordinating coverage and reporter coverage for years, Mitchell moved back to his first love -- reporting. He is now WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

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