Issues & Ideas

3 perks and pitfalls of running from the Senate to the White House

FRIENDS ON TRAIL: Presidential candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., center, greets Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
FRIENDS ON TRAIL: Presidential candidate, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., center, greets Republican presidential candidate, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. The Washington Post

There’s an old adage that when a senator looks in the mirror, he or she sees a future president. Now, five current senators are hoping to turn their reflections into reality and win the White House in 2016.

Being a sitting senator has its perks: the ability to impact policy, easy access to potential donors, and tons of adoring staff at your beck and call. But there are pitfalls serious enough that only three lawmakers – Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama – have ever gone straight from the Senate chamber to the Oval Office.

Can Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida or independent Sen. and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who’s running for the Democratic nomination, buck history?

Here are some of the perks and pitfalls they face:

Perk: You can establish a record

Senators are part of a rarified club – one of 100 lawmakers who can influence domestic and foreign policy, confirm judicial and cabinet nominations and show voters where they stand on the major issues of the day. Paul did so earlier this month with his opposition to the USA Patriot Act surveillance legislation.

Pitfall: You can establish a record

The longer you’re in the Senate, the more votes you take. The more votes you take, the more ammunition opposing campaigns have to use against you. Senators as presidential candidates sometimes have trouble explaining their votes. In 2004, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., sounded senatorial – but not presidential – when he explained a shifting vote on money for the war in Iraq.

His “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” explanation helped George W. Bush’s campaign portray him as a flip-flopper.

Obama’s 2008 campaign rode Sen. Hillary Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq all the way to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Perk: Run now, young senator

Borrowing from Obama’s 2008 election playbook, Cruz, Paul and Rubio are running for president as first-term senators. The average length of service of senators seeking the White House has dropped from 2.6 terms in 1972 to about 1.7 terms in this presidential election cycle, according to Eric Ostermeier, a University of Minnesota political science researcher and author of the “Smart Politics” blog.

Running early in a Senate career helps avoid amassing a lengthy voting record and makes it difficult for opponents to label you as a creature of Washington’s Beltway.

“You still have the fresh-out-of-box-smell versus a career Washington politician,” Ostermeier said.

Pitfall: Board member vs. CEO

Senators are members of the “World’s Greatest Deliberative Body,” where they contemplate, debate, sometimes procrastinate, and eventually vote. Governors are largely viewed by the public as action figures – chief executive officers of their states.

“Part of it is Americans connect the presidency with other executive jobs – governor, cabinet secretary, supreme allied commander in World War II,” said Larry Sabato, who directs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Senators are vulnerable because they have to vote on so many things. Governors don’t have to vote, they make executive decisions.”

Four of the last six presidents – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – were governors. It’s no wonder that former governors Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, George Pataki of New York, Martin O’Malley of Maryland and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island have launched presidential bids, and current Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin are considering getting in.

Pitfall: Absentee voter

Senators seeking the White House tend to miss votes, and this year’s crop is no exception. Cruz, Rubio and Graham are among the biggest offenders, according to media and watchdog groups monitoring voting activity.

“You’re trying to ride two horses at once,” former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., told the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call earlier this month.

Unable to keep up the demands of his 1996 presidential campaign and his office, Dole retired from the Senate to focus on his unsuccessful battle against incumbent President Clinton.

Cruz had a high-profile miss in April when he lambasted Loretta Lynch’s nomination as attorney general on the Senate floor, then skipped the confirmation vote to attend a fundraiser.

Cruz’s office defended his action, noting in a tweet that he voted against Lynch in an earlier procedural vote that brought her nomination to the Senate floor.

Perk: Keep your friends close...

With so many senators running for president, it should be easy to keep an eye on what the competition is doing. That’s if opposing senators show up.

Email:; Twitter: @williamgdouglas.


Between 1972 and 2012, 50 sitting or former senators from 31 states ran for president a collective 62 times.

Only one made it.

Source: Eric Ostermeier, a University of Minnesota political science researcher and author of the “Smart Politics” blog.