Oregon's junior U.S. senator, Jeff Merkley, flirted publicly over the last few months with the idea of whether he would join the crowded Democratic field jostling to win the party's presidential nomination. (The field already features more than 20 candidates.)
Merkley eventually made what we thought was the right decision, choosing to stay out of the presidential race. Among the reasons why he decided to take a pass was the fact that Oregon law bars candidates from running for more than one paid office in the same election. Merkley apparently made some discreet inquires with legislators about changing the law and found little enthusiasm for doing so. Since Merkley faces a re-election campaign in 2020, he would have been forced to choose between a Senate race in which he is the heavy favorite and a presidential run in which he would be a long shot.
In addition, although Merkley has emerged as a consistent voice in opposition to President Donald Trump and has made some national news, he would face name recognition and fundraising challenges in the crowded presidential field.
But maybe there's another reason why Merkley decided to steer clear of a presidential run in 2020. If he's a student of history, he might know that Democratic presidential candidates from the West face long odds.
It's an amazing bit of political trivia that you can use to astonish your friends, but it might also say something about the political structure of the United States: The Democratic Party has never nominated, for either president or vice president, a candidate who rose to political prominence in a state west of the Central time zone. The Republican Party has done so 15 times.
(We are indebted to "Smart Politics," a nonpartisan website run by the University of Minnesota's Eric Ostermeier, for unearthing this historical nugget. We initially stumbled upon it while reading a New York Times profile about another long-shot Democratic candidate, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
You may be raising objections: You might be asking, "What about Barack Obama?" He was born in Hawaii — or, depending on your political leanings, in Kenya. Those of you with deeper political memories might be raising the case of John Kerry, who was born in Colorado.
But the question here isn't where a candidate was born: It's where he (and, of course, in this case, almost all the candidates are men) rose to political prominence. Obama first found political success in Illinois. Kerry rose to prominence in Massachusetts.
According to Ostermeier's research, the closest Democrats have come to nominating a Western presidential nominee are Williams Jennings Bryan (Nebraska), Lyndon Johnson (Texas) and George McGovern (South Dakota) — close, but no cigar in terms of the West. Democrats never have nominated a vice-presidential candidate from the West — unless you choose to count the Southern Democratic ticket in 1860, in which U.S. Sen. Joseph Lane (from Oregon!) was nominated as the running mate on the pro-slavery ticket headed by John Breckinridge. (Yes, this is the Lane after whom Lane County is named.)
Republican presidential nominees include Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan and John McCain. The Republicans' first nominee, back in 1856, was former California Sen. John Fremont.
By our count, at least eight of the announced Democratic candidates would qualify as westerners and therefore, if history is any guide, have no shot at the nomination.
And a glance at the Electoral College map starts to suggest why: A Democratic presidential candidate would have to run a positively inept campaign to lose any of the West Coast states in 2020. In fact, only two Western states (Colorado and Nevada) typically are competitive in national races, and they only have 15 electoral votes between them. Democrats will be looking for a candidate who can win in the heartland, and that might once again freeze out candidates who hail from the West. (mm)