Jeff Merkley, a two-term Democratic senator from Oregon who has flirted with a White House campaign for months, announced Tuesday morning that he will not run for president and will instead run for reelection to the Senate.
"Over the last year, I've weighed whether I could contribute more to the battle by running for president or by running for reelection to the Senate," he said in a video announcing his decision. "I've had amazing encounters with Americans in every corner of our country. And those conversations reinforce the urgency for bold action now, but to win these battles we need both strong leadership in the Oval Office and strong leadership in the Senate. Today, I'm announcing that I am not running for president. I believe that there are Democrats now in the presidential race who are speaking to the importance of tackling the big challenges we face."
Merkley is up for reelection for his Senate seat in 2020, and under state law he would not have been able to run for both his seat and the White House. In December, he dropped a push to change Oregon law to allow him to do so (a similar law was recently changed in New Jersey, allowing Cory Booker to run for both offices). Merkley worried in an interview in February that leaving his Senate seat could allow a Republican in. "I cannot let an Oregon Senate seat go to someone who is fighting for the privileged and powerful," he said at the time.
Merkley's decision to skip the presidential race in favor of one for the Senate is unusual so far this year. Former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, whom Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer had tried to persuade to run for a Republican-held Senate seat, announced on Monday that he would run for the White House. Beto O'Rourke, who ran for a Texas Senate seat last year and has been pressured to do so again in 2020, has decided he won't run for Senate as he waits to announce potential White House plans.
Merkley knew his presidential campaign would have been uphill in a field that has now surpassed a dozen candidates. In a speech in December to the annual Progress Iowa dinner, Merkley said his campaign would be a "David and Goliath" effort (he would not be Goliath). But, he said then, "There are so many curious and unexpected things that can happen in the course of a campaign. Who knows how that will all unfold?”
In the announcement video, Merkley said America now faces three "great crises" — a "democracy crisis," defined by voting rights and campaign finance issues; a "climate crisis"; and an "opportunity crisis," which limits economic and educational options for Americans. He said that he plans to help elect a new president and new Democratic senators over the next two years to address those problems.
Merkley, first elected in 2008, is one of the more progressive US senators. He has been one of the leading opponents in Congress of President Donald Trump's immigration policies and how the Department of Homeland Security has carried them out.
He's one of 11 Democrats in the Senate to cosponsor the Green New Deal resolution, and he has pushed policy to address climate change for years. Merkley introduced a plan in 2017 designed to move the US to 100% clean and renewable energy by 2050. That bill was introduced along with two presidential candidates: Booker and Bernie Sanders.
Merkley was the first senator to back Sanders' presidential campaign in 2016. He did not say Monday whether he would endorse Sanders' new 2020 campaign.