Between the House voting on articles of impeachment on Wednesday, a deluge of new polls, and the widest open Democratic presidential nomination fight in memory, it is enough to make any political junkie’s head explode. In fact, it’s hard to remember any odd-year December having this much uncertainty.
The conventional wisdom is that Democrats' move to impeach President Trump may cost them some seats in the House, but probably not control, whereas the calculus gets tricky for Senate Republicans. There are 31 Democratic House members representing congressional districts that voted for Trump in 2016, versus only three Republicans in districts where Hillary Clinton prevailed. That 40-seat Democratic gain in the House last year was propelled by victories in historically Republican districts in the suburbs of Atlanta; Dallas; Houston; Kansas City; Oklahoma City; and Richmond, Virginia; not to mention New Jersey, where 11 of 12 districts are now held by Democrats—soon to be 10 out of 12 with the defection of Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew to the GOP.
In most of these, support for impeachment is little better than the almost even split in national numbers—hardly the broad support that a party would want in embarking on such a momentous move. While Democrats have far more exposure in terms of where their vulnerable seats are, they are still ahead in the national generic congressional ballot test by about a half-dozen points, roughly the same as where it was in the November 2018 election. So their exposure on impeachment works against Democrats, but the political climate seems to tilt toward them.
The Senate is another matter. Last year, Senate Democrats had many more seats at risk than did the GOP. This year, the battlegrounds are overwhelmingly in red, Republican-tilting states. Again, more of the fight will be in the suburbs, where Republicans are playing defense, than in rural and small-town America, where the tide is shifting against Democrats. Whether Republicans hold their majority will be determined in suburbs of Phoenix and Tucson, where Sen. Martha McSally is defending her Arizona seat; Atlanta, with two GOP seats up in Georgia next year; Denver, with Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado holding on for dear life; the suburbs outside of Des Moines for Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa; Portland, Maine with Sen. Susan Collins; and in North Carolina’s Research Triangle and Charlotte for Sen. Thom Tillis. Some argue that Sen. John Cornyn faces a threat in the suburbs of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, though I remain skeptical that he will have quite as much difficulty as Sen. Ted Cruz had last year. Texas is trending purple, but maybe not fast enough for Democrats in 2020. Impeachment will do no favors for Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, but his race was so difficult before, it couldn’t get much steeper than it already was.
Where there is little volatility these days is for Trump himself, in terms of his approval ratings or general-election trial heats. His numbers still seem impervious to news developments, either positive or negative. Minds have been largely made up about him since the earliest days of his presidency, arguably even before that. The popular vote is a heavy lift for him, but the Electoral College remains more like an even-money bet. His numbers in the three states that effectively determined the presidential race in 2016—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—have held up better than his national numbers. His base of whites without a college degree, rural voters, and whites who attend church regularly is holding up pretty well. All three of those states have a large number of voters in at least two of those groups. He may be able to thread the needle in those states once again, but he may find greater challenges in some of those faster-growing Sun Belt states, such as Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina.
Democrats: Bernie proves durable
When Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy ascended in the summer and early fall, it was easy to dismiss Bernie Sanders, but the reality was that neither he, nor his supporters were likely to go away quickly or quietly. While Warren is still a formidable contender, and I think is still the favorite to be the progressive finalist for the nomination, it will take her plenty of time to consolidate that lane because Sanders is hanging in so well, running stronger than many had expected.
Meanwhile, front-runner Joe Biden finds himself facing a money problem. He has to stay alive in Iowa and New Hampshire, then do very well in Nevada, South Carolina, and Super Tuesday. With Michael Bloomberg expected to spend at least $100 million in these Super Tuesday states, competing with Biden for many of the same voters, will Biden have the money? His fundraising so far has been anemic, so his year-end reports coming out in January will be very instructive. The Sanders-Warren matchup keeps the Left split, but Bloomberg’s personal money, coupled with Pete Buttigieg's prodigious fundraising, presents an enormous challenge for Biden.