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Competing Battlegrounds: How will 2020 campaigns for the White House and the Senate shape each other

By: Andrew Sugrue

01 May, 2019

The race seems to start earlier each cycle. With the afterglow of the 2018 Blue Wave slowly dissipating, north of a dozen candidates have thrown their hats in the ring for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The presidential election is shaping up to be a clash of the titans regardless of whom the Democrats nominate. Another battle, though, is brewing, one that is receiving much less attention: the race for control of the U.S. Senate. A glaring question leading into 2020 is to what extent the battles for the Presidency and the Senate will shape each other. Here’s a wonkish deep dive into how that’s likely to happen.

The Senate

Some background might be helpful. The Senate is currently in Republican hands, with the GOP holding 53 seats to the Democrats’ 45. Two Independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, caucus with Democrats to bring their ranks to a total of 47. Despite a blowout win in the U.S. House—Democrats flipped the chamber with a 40-seat victory—Republicans gained ground in the Senate. Even though Democrats flipped seats in Nevada and Arizona, Democratic incumbents were toppled in Missouri, Indiana, Florida, and North Dakota. This resulted in a net loss of two seats. (This turn of events was widely anticipated. To find out why, check out an article I wrote a few days before the midterms).

Upon first glance, the 2020 Senate map looks much friendlier than the one Democrats were served with in 2018. Fewer Democratic incumbents are up in red states, whereas more Republican seats may be competitive than before. Already in the crosshairs are Republicans Susan Collins of Maine, David Perdue of Georgia, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and John Cornyn of Texas. Democrats aren’t scot-free here, though—Doug Jones of Alabama, Gary Peters of Michigan, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire are all likely to land strong GOP challengers.

The Cook Political Report has published a set of ratings for Senate races, pictured below via 270toWin:

This map looks to be a reasonable one, and is helpful for visualizing that a) there are plenty of seats in play, and b) that retaking the Senate is still going to be a heavy lift for Democrats.

The Presidential Election

However, sucking most of the oxygen going into this next cycle is likely to be the Presidential election. 2020 is going to be a knock-down, drag-out blood sport for which the stakes could not possibly be higher.

Since Hillary Clinton stunningly lost three Midwestern “Blue Wall” states (Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania), allowing Donald Trump to win the election, Democrats have been scrambling to recover lost ground in the Rust Belt. While Southern and Southwestern states like North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona are likely to be strenuously contested, the Rust Belt looks to be the most white-hot battleground of 2020.

This map shows the two main regions of competitiveness in 2020: the so-called “Rust Belt” path (including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania), and the so-called “Sun Belt” path (including Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Arizona). A clean sweep of either region would hand the victor of those states the keys to the Oval Office for the four years to follow.

Presidential and Senatorial Worlds Collide:

The two maps we’ve seen are likely to influence each other hugely. While there is significant overlap between battleground states, there are also uncompetitive states in the general election with Senate elections that may well be competitive.

The most interesting example of this is probably Montana, a state which voted for Donald Trump by double digits in 2016. However, the state has two statewide elected officials who are Democrats. There’s Senator Jon Tester, who was re-elected in 2018 by a narrow margin; and term-limited Governor Steve Bullock, who is contemplating a 2020 run for President. Montana’s other Senator, Steve Daines, is up for re-election, and the seat would genuinely be in play if a well-liked, moderate-in-visage Democrat like Bullock decided to pursue it.

If Bullock made a competitive bid, then it’s even possible that the state of Montana could come into play in the general election. The last time it was even close to competitive was 2008, and John McCain still managed to win it. But if there’s a Senate race that demands resources, and possibly if Montana’s at-large Representative Greg Gianforte (yes, the same one who beat up a reporter and was praised by President Trump for doing so) faces another tough re-election bid like he did in 2018, the state could foreseeably move from “solid red” to “likely red”.

Let’s move on to a state that falls into some sort of middle ground— one which is somewhat competitive and has a potentially competitive Senate race. That state is Texas. The politics of the Lone Star State were set ablaze by the energetic campaign of Beto O’Rourke against incumbent Ted Cruz in 2018, an effort that was ultimately unsuccessful. There are two Texans running for President already: O’Rourke himself, and former San Antonio mayor/Obama cabinet official Julián Castro.

As for the general election, Democrats are already eyeing the state’s whopping 38 electoral votes as a potential pickup. Turning Texas purple has long been a pipe dream of Democrats, one that seems to be getting closer and closer to being within the realm of possibility. If either of Texas’s two native sons currently in the race end up being the nominee, we can expect an all-out brawl in the Lone Star State.

Another Presidential candidate who could have made a strong Senate bid is former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, whose equal-parts avuncular and eccentric campaign has yet to sway more than 2% of Democratic primary voters. Colorado’s incumbent Cory Gardner is probably the most vulnerable Senate Republican up for re-election, and Hickenlooper would have been a formidable candidate to take him on. However, regardless of how the Democratic nominating process plays out in that state, the eventual nominee will have at worst even odds to unseat Gardner.

The reason why the Democratic nominee is likely to have a strong chance is because of Colorado’s place in the general election. It’s a state that leans blue but is likely to remain a battleground. It would behoove Democrats to not take any state for granted (i.e. to avoid not visiting states that are more competitive than they seem, which is apparently a novel concept), and Colorado should be no exception. The Democratic nominees for President and Senate are likely to have a synergistic “coattail” effect, which could carry both over the finish line in the state.

Speaking of Presidential candidates, rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams has recently floated the idea of throwing her hat in the ring. Even in a crowded field, her electrifying public presence and formidable intellect would immediately make her a strong candidate. This would be much to the chagrin of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who’s been making a full-court press to get her to run for the Senate. If Abrams ultimately opted to go the Senate route, she’d probably the Dems’ best shot at knocking off incumbent Sen. David Perdue. That being said, though, Georgia remains a red-tinted state. Furthermore, Stacey Abrams lost a statewide gubernatorial bid in a Democratic wave year (although the fact that her opponent literally presided over the election is suspicious at best and criminal at worst). She’d start out as a slight underdog but it’d be anyone’s guess what the race would end up looking like.

The fact that Georgia is looking more competitive, though, is not lost on Democratic strategists and pundits. It’s very possible that the Democratic nominee ends up making a strong play for the state in the general election, which could bring about a mutual “coattail effect”. No Democrat has won the Peach State since Bill Clinton in 1992, but the the fact that the state was closer than expected in 2016, combined with regional demographic changes, serve as potential premonitions for a real battle for the state next year.

The battle for the south and southwest doesn’t stop there, though. Arizona is going to be squarely in the sights of both parties because of its potential competitiveness in the general election, as well as for the marquee Senate race that’s going to be taking place. Democrats sensed an opening when we won a Senate seat in that state last year for the first time in decades. Kyrsten Sinema defeated Republican Martha McSally in one of the closest-watched races of the midterms. However, due to the passing of John McCain, Martha McSally was ultimately appointed to serve out the rest of his term. She will have to face the voters again in 2020, and it’s already shaping up to be an exciting race. The likely Democratic nominee is combat veteran, scientist, and former astronaut Mark Kelly. Kelly is married to former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who survived an assassination attempt and has become a leading voice on gun control. This will be a battle royale between two incredibly strong candidates.

The Democratic presidential nominee is also likely to make a strong bid for Arizona’s 11 electoral votes. Donald Trump won the state in 2016 by a smaller margin than previous nominees did. That, plus Sinema’s win, means that the state is going to be vigorously contested next year. If the Democratic nominee adopts a “Sun Belt” strategy, then the money pouring into the state from both sides will increase the competitiveness in both the Senate and Presidential contests.

The rest of the potentially-competitive races are less interesting, so let’s do a lightning round:

In Maine, incumbent Republican Susan Collins is probably going to pick up a significant challenge, due to Maine’s status as a blueish state. The fact that she was the deciding vote that made Brett Kavanaugh a Supreme Court Justice is likely to have plenty of Democrats chomping at the bit to enact vengeance.

In New Hampshire, incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen seems to have caught a break: Governor Chris Sununu has indicated he’ll be seeking re-election rather than contesting the Senate seat. Shaheen should have an easier time coasting to re-election than the Democratic nominee will in winning her state, though: New Hampshire “tilts blue” at best.

In North Carolina, since the state’s AG Josh Shapiro declined to run, it’s looking more and more like Republican Senator Thom Tillis will have a relatively clear path to re-election. However, the state is likely to be a red-tilting battleground in the general election, so strong competition in either race certainly isn’t out of the picture.

In Alabama, Senator Doug Jones is probably going to lose. Republicans are already lining up to defeat Jones, who won his seat with a narrow plurality over credibly-accused child predator Roy Moore. As long has his challenger isn’t certifiable electoral poison, Jones’s underdog status is basically assured. As for the general election, it’s unlikely the Democratic Presidential nominee is going to come within ten points of winning the dark-red state.

Finally, Michigan’s Senate race is likely to be fairly quiet. Incumbent Democrat Gary Peters may pick up a vigorous challenge from veteran John James, but it seems most likely that Peters would beat him the same way Michigan’s other Senator Debbie Stabenow did in 2018.

However, in the general election, Michigan is likely to be part of the epicenter of the fight for the White House. Its 16 electoral votes and newfound swing-state status mean that both campaigns are probably going to devote immense time and resources to putting the state in their column. If the Democratic nominee wins the state, then it’s almost certain that Peters will have won his race as well. However, if Trump manages to catch lighting in a bottle twice and win the state again, it’s possible that Peters will have some problems.

The Upshot

So why is this important? If a Democrat wins in 2020, she or he will need Congressional majorities to enact progressive policies. Given the skullduggery displayed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in dealing with Merrick Garland, the government shutdown(s), the Green New Deal, H.R. 1, gun control, immigration, and countless other issues, it’s laughably improbable that he’d have any interest in bipartisan cooperation. That’s going to mean that we’re going to need a Senate majority to get anything done.

So here’s the upshot: it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck effort to put the levers of power safely in Democratic hands again. Then—and only then—can we can bring the catastrophic Trump Era to a screeching halt and enact meaningful progressive change in America.


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