Why the Senate Is the Big 2020 Story

Just about everyone interested in American politics these days is focused on what Special Counsel Robert Mueller is expected to do in the coming weeks, along with the unfolding presidential contest.

To the extent there is any remaining political bandwidth, it’s mostly on the U.S. House, where Republicans would need a gain of only 18 seats to recapture a majority (that number might move to 19 depending on the outcome of a special election for North Carolina’s 9th District expected later this year). In terms of changes in net House seats, 18 is not a particularly big number, but usually a change of that magnitude occurs in a midterm, not a presidential-election year.

In six of the past 10 presidential-election years, the net change in the House was in the single digits. In the other four, it ranged from as few as 10 seats (1992) to as many as 34 (1980). Interestingly, it isn’t always the side prevailing in the presidential race that gains House seats. In 1988, Democrats actually scored a net gain of two House seats. Four years later, Republicans gained 10 House seats. In both of the recent presidential elections with split Electoral College and popular-vote outcomes, the party winning the popular vote had modest House gains—Democrats gained two seats in 2000 and six in 2016.

Now what about 2020? At this early stage, President Trump looks more likely to lose than win reelection. So it is a decent bet that the GOP is less likely to score a net gain of 18 seats. Yet even if Democrats capture the White House while holding onto a House majority, just how much could they get done with Republicans still holding a majority in the Senate? For that reason, I think the Senate may end up being a big story before all is said and done.

Behind the scenes, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is moving heaven and earth to put the Senate in play. Republicans have 53 seats to 47 for Democrats, meaning that Democrats need a net gain of three seats to be in a majority if they win the White House; if they don't, they would need to pick up four seats. Realistically, Democrats need to take at least four or five GOP-held seats, because by far the most vulnerable seat in the Senate up next year is the one held by Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama.

Jones was a strong candidate with a terrific campaign operation and plenty of money, but the odds of him drawing a Republican opponent as weak as former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore are very slim. GOP Rep. Bradley Byrne announced his candidacy last week, ensuring that there will be at least one credible Republican running. The good news for Democrats is that they have no other seats that look particularly endangered. Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota is worth watching, but no others jump off the page.

No Republican Senate seats appear to be in extreme danger, but there are several that can be expected to see stiff challenges. The two open GOP seats—in Kansas and Tennessee—are not expected to be terribly problematic for them. Democrats are expected to mount top-tier bids against GOP Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and Susan Collins of Maine, but Democrats winning all three while holding Jones in Alabama looks exceedingly unlikely. To have any kind of real shot at a majority, they need to put a few more GOP seats in play.

Most eyes are on Sens. David Perdue if Georgia and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and sometimes the name of Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa will come up. You will hear a lot of noise about going after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but Kentucky is still a very Republican state, not the kind of Southern or border state that is getting better for Democrats. A Democrat might be able to get within striking range, but those last three or four points will be extremely difficult. Keep in mind that it is states with big suburban and college-educated populations where Democrats are moving the needle these days, not states with substantial rural and small-town, working-class white populations.

Part of the challenge for Democrats is that some of their recruiting targets seem more intent on running for president than for the Senate. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper would likely have made a first-class challenger against Gardner in Colorado, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock could have made an interesting challenge to Sen. Steve Daines. Whether the Senate will truly come into play remains to be seen, but you can count on Schumer to try to bludgeon enough quality recruits—and then Democrats can just pray for a GOP meltdown to give them a realistic shot.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on February 26, 2019