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The Majority is in Play

jduffy
December 20, 2019

A year into this election cycle, the overall Senate landscape generally looks much like I thought it would. The races that seemed likely to be the most competitive are, in fact, the most competitive today. And, if the race ratings don’t quite reflect it yet, Democrats appear to have expanded the playing field enough to put Republicans’ majority at risk.

Whether it’s a discussion about general themes in Senate contests, or a race-by-race analysis, the parties hold very different views on how the cycle is progressing. While Democrats say that Senate Republican incumbents’ allegiance to President Trump is enough to turn off voters, particularly in suburb-heavy swing states, and cost them seats and the majority, Republicans counter that Democratic challengers are tainted with progressive agenda items like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal even if they won’t talk about these issues. If Trump is Democrats’ poster child, then U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is theirs.

This difference of opinion extends to impeachment. Recent polls have shown Trump’s job approval numbers have ticked up a bit during the House’s consideration of the Articles of Impeachment. While the gains are small and not especially meaningful, Democrats weren’t expecting such gains, but the reverse. Voters’ opinions on impeachment are as galvanized as they are polarized. There does not seem to be much gray area in voters’ attitudes toward impeachment. It’s not unreasonable to think that impeachment might just turn out to be a wash, depending on the Senate trial. Still, there are four Senate incumbents seeking re-election in November for whom the vote to acquit Trump or to remove him from office will be difficult. For Alabama Democrat Doug Jones, a vote to acquit Trump won’t be received well in a state that gave him 62 percent of the vote in 2016, yet it would also put Jones at odds with his party, especially activists and donors.

For Republican U.S. Sens. Martha McSally in Arizona, Corey Gardner in Colorado and Susan Collins in Maine, a vote to remove Trump from office is likely to earn them very credible primary opposition, something that would hurt their re-election efforts. But, a vote to acquit Trump doesn’t help them appeal to the kind of college-educated suburban voters they need to win. For these four incumbents, there is no easy answer, making the possibility that there might not even be a Senate trial seem appealing.

If there is anything that sticks out in Senate races this cycle, it’s the early spending on television advertising in the most competitive races. As of December 19, just over $32.5 million has been spent in eight key races. Democrats have outspent Republicans, $21.9 million to $10.6 million, according to data provided by Advertising Analytics. The Senate race in Maine has seen the highest level of spending at $8.2 million. To put this in some perspective, Collins spent $5.6 million on her 2014 re-election bid, and independent expenditures amounted to less than $2 million. Advertising Analytics estimates that $55 million will be spent on television advertising in Maine this cycle, an astonishing amount for a state with three relatively inexpensive media markets. Democrats have outspent Republicans almost two to one and nearly all that money has been on ads criticizing Collins.

Democrats have also outspent Republicans in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa and Kentucky. Republicans have spent considerably more than Democrats in Alabama and North Carolina, but most of the money is being spent in GOP primaries. Spending in Michigan is comes closest to resembling something like parity with Democrats spending $1.8 million to $1.25 million for Republicans. For those who still believe that this race won’t end up in Toss Up before the fall, this level of spending should put those doubts to rest.

2019 Senate Race Spend

 


The State of Play

The Senate math hasn’t changed. If Democrats want to win the majority, they need a net gain of three seats if they win the White House or four if they don’t. There are only two Democratic-held seats in jeopardy: U.S. Sens. Doug Jones in Alabama and Gary Peters in Michigan. It is hard to see how Republicans expand the playing field beyond these two races.

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions joined the GOP primary field in Alabama and is the frontrunner given his name ID and war chest, but U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville are backing down. It’s been a very long time since Sessions has been in a race that will be as competitive as this one. The one benefit to Sessions’ entry is that it has relegated the candidacy of former state Supreme Court Justice and ’17 Senate nominee Roy Moore to the nosebleed seats. He is now an asterisk in this race as opposed to the threat that Democrats hoped for and Republicans feared. The primary does give Jones some breathing room to raise money and put his organization together. Democratic strategists argue that Jones does have a path to victory, but they also acknowledge that he needs a few breaks.

If Democrats were initially dismissive that Peters had much to worry about in Michigan, they have tempered their optimism some, acknowledging that Peters isn’t well known and that this will be a race. Republican John James, who outperformed expectations in 2018 against Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, has proven to be an able fundraiser. Democrats contend, though, that James has never been tested. While he might have flown under the radar against Stabenow, Democrats are now very focused on him.

Republicans have three seats in Toss Up: U.S. Sens. Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado, and Susan Collins in Maine. Of the three, many Democratic strategists believe that Colorado is more vulnerable than the other two. It certainly leans more Democratic. Presumptive nominee, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, hasn’t had an easy time. He is getting challenged from the left, has committed a couple of gaffes, and is the subject of an ethics investigation that will be the subject of a March hearing. Still, Democrats say that voters understand that Hickenlooper is quirky, while they believe that Gardner isn’t the Senator they elected in 2014. To paraphrase one strategist, the Happy Warrior has become a car salesman. For his part, Gardner has a record of legislative accomplishments on which to run, which GOP strategists contend will carry more weight with voters.

In Arizona, while presumptive Democratic nominee and former astronaut Mark Kelly devotes nearly all his time to the Senate race (he has been an outstanding fundraiser), McSally is focused on her duties in the Senate. This has got to be frustrating given how little the Senate is able to accomplish, and it will provide Democrats with plenty of fodder with which to challenge McSally. Republicans contend that she is very focused on addressing issues critical to the state like water, noting that Kelly can’t claim Arizona-specific accomplishments.

The contest in Maine is playing out on television. If Democrats were hoping that Collins would opt to retire, they were disappointed this week when she made her re-election bid official. Democrats’ message is that Collins is no longer the bi-partisan moderate she claims to be. Republicans counter that no one can match Collins’ record when it comes to watching out for Maine’s interests, particularly when it comes to jobs and the economy. The DSCC has endorsed state House Speaker Sara Gideon, but Gideon can’t take the primary for granted. Former Google executive and Maine native Ross LaJeunesse is running and is likely to have the resources to give Gideon a credible race.

The secret to Democrats’ ability to win the majority is in their ability to expand the playing field. The first race on that list is in North Carolina where GOP U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis is seeking a second term. With competitive races for President, Governor and Senate, as well as several House races, North Carolina will resemble a very expensive ground zero this cycle. Tillis caught a couple of breaks over the past couple of weeks when wealthy businessman Garland Tucker ended his primary bid, and U.S. Rep. Mark Walker decided to retire with an eye toward a 2022 Senate bid rather than a primary challenge to Tillis. This has kept Tillis out of the Toss Up column for now, but that doesn’t mean the general election won’t be very competitive. The DSCC has endorsed Cal Cunningham, a lawyer and Major in the Army Reserve. Cunningham is an attractive candidate, who won’t be that easy to label an AOC progressive.

Beyond North Carolina, it appears that Democrats have put Iowa in play where GOP U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is seeking a second term and is likely to face DSCC-endorsed businesswoman Theresa Greenfield. Democrats argue that Ernst campaigned as part of the solution to the problems facing Washington, only to become part of the problem.

Democrats also believe that they can put both seats in Georgia in play. They argue that the state is becoming less Republican, and Democrats have registered tens of thousands of new voters. There is a lot of truth to their argument, but the question is whether they will have strong enough challengers. The filing deadline isn’t until March, so there is some time. Putting just one of the two seats in Toss Up would be a major victory for Democrats.

Finally, strategists believe that they can put the open seat in Kansas in play. They are enthusiastic about Barbara Bollier, a state Senator and retired physician who switched parties a year ago because Republicans had moved too far to the right. Given the current GOP primary field, it’s easy to understand Democrats’ optimism, but the race could see a dramatic shift if Secretary of State Mike Pompeo returns home to seek the GOP nomination.

Both Kentucky and Texas will be expensive races that will get a lot of attention, but neither is likely to make the Toss Up column.

 


Bottom Line

It appears that there will be at least five GOP-held seats in play, with a chance that Democrats could add one or two more. This puts Democrats in a position to win the majority, even if they lose Alabama and/or Michigan. This is not to suggest that Democrats will win the majority, only that their prospects are considerably better today than they were five months ago.

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images