A palpable nervousness is taking hold among Republicans as they look ahead to the 2020 elections, and the word “firewall” is coming up frequently in the same sentence as “Senate.”
Republicans certainly could still pick up the 18 seats needed for a House majority—it’s not an enormous number—and President Trump could sure surprise and pull off a victory against the same odds that he had in 2016, capturing the 270 electoral votes needed to win even if losing the popular vote. But worries about both the House and White House have Republicans wondering if the Senate majority could be what stands between them and a Democratic sweep next November.
With a 53-47 majority, Republicans can lose as many as three seats if they hold the White House and Vice President Mike Pence is still in a position to break ties. A loss of the White House plus three seats does flip the chamber, which is not likely but a possibility that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Republican Conference would prefer not to face. The stepped-up pace of running judicial nominations could be a reflection of that nervousness.
The legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel is said to have plaintively asked about his hapless 1962 New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Baseball aficionados will recognize this line as the title of Jimmy Breslin’s book about the first season of the expansion Mets team, and it reminds me at times of the Trump administration.
The resignation on Sunday of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen is unlikely to reverse the blood-pressure spike that so many GOP leaders are having, as chaos and strife seem to surround this president and White House in the same way that the Peanuts character “Pig-Pen” attracts dust. Another character in the long-running Charles Schulz cartoon strip, Violet, once remarked, “Pig-Pen, you’re the only person I know who can get dirty just by walking down the street.” Washington has never been particularly well-organized, no administration has ever been accused of running a “tight ship,” and the moniker of his predecessor being “no-drama Obama” was clearly an exaggeration, but the Trump presidency is definitely one for the record books. All of this chaos and intrigue and questions of overall effectiveness—again, can’t anybody here play this game?—are not likely to diminish Trump’s base or add to his hard-core opposition, but they do affect his ability to win over those who fall in between.
On the Senate campaign front, keeping track of exactly which Democrats are coming to Washington to meet with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is more than just idle curiosity, particularly if it is a follow-up visit. Democrats will need a favorable political environment and a strong group of recruits to capture a majority. Watch for them to target six states. Keep an eye on the races of appointed Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona and Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, David Perdue of Georgia, Susan Collins of Maine, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and John Cornyn of Texas. While there are Republican open seats in Kansas, where Sen. Pat Roberts is retiring, and Tennessee, with the departure of Sen. Lamar Alexander next year, neither is seen as nearly as plausible as the previous six.
On the Democratic side, after Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, the only targets at this point to keep an eye on are Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota, a state with less-than-impressive margins for Democrats in recent years, and New Mexico, where Sen. Tom Udall has announced his retirement. The saving grace for Republicans is that none of their seats can be said to be deep in enemy territory; none can rival the challenge faced in 2018 by Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, or Claire McCaskill of Missouri, not to mention what Democrats have to deal with in defending Jones in Alabama.
One good question is whether Democrats are going to chase shiny objects, spending time and money going after McConnell or open seats in states that are unlikely to elect Democrats, or are they going to concentrate their fire on places where their party is on the upswing—legit plausible targets.
While the presidential contest is, should, and will continue to dominate the attention of the political world, a Senate fight will top the undercard. The House was the center of the American political universe for the 2018 elections; this cycle, it’s the Senate’s turn. It is hard to overstate the importance for Republicans to hold onto their Senate majority if they come up short in the House and presidential races. Conversely, it would be tough for a newly elected Democratic president to get much done if a McConnell-led GOP still runs the Senate.