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Senate: Do Democrats Have a Path to the Majority?

Senate Democrats believe that winning the majority in 2020 is well within their reach. While the map looks much better for them than it did in 2018, do they have a clear path to the majority?  At least today, this is not a yes or no question.  The real answer is: it depends.  It depends on a range of factors; some of which are in Democrats’ control and some that just aren’t.  

To win the majority, Democrats need to score a net gain of three seats if they win the White House or four seats if Republicans prevail.  

It is true that Democrats are looking at a better map this cycle than the one they faced in 2018.  Of the 12 seats that they are defending, only one – U.S. Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama – is in a state that President Trump carried in 2016.  If Republicans want to put other states in play, there are really only three possibilities, U.S. Sens. Gary Peters in Michigan, Tina Smith in Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire.  But, Republicans will have to recruit very credible first-tier candidates if they are going to turn potential into possibility.  The only way other opportunities might open up is if there is a retirement.  At this point, all Democratic incumbents have said that they intend to seek re-election.  If that holds, this will be the second consecutive cycle without a Democratic retirement.

Of the 22 seats that Republicans are defending this cycle, including open seats in Kansas and Tennessee, there are three in real danger: U.S. Sens. Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado and Susan Collins in Maine.  While Trump carried Arizona by four points in 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won Colorado by five points and Maine by three points.  These races will be very competitive as long as Democrats recruit credible candidates.

If this represents the Senate landscape in the fall of 2020, Democrats would be hard pressed to win the majority.  In this scenario, they would have to hold on to Alabama, win the White House and pick up Arizona, Colorado and Maine.  Certainly, this is possible because anything in politics is possible.  It’s just not probable.

Thus, Democrats have to work to expand the playing field beyond the GOP’s most vulnerable seats.  To that end, they believe that they can put Georgia and North Carolina, where U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Thom Tillis are seeking second terms, in play.  Trump carried Georgia by five points and North Carolina by four points in 2016.  If Democrats want to make these competitive, they will need very solid first-tier candidates.  In Georgia, party strategists are waiting to see if 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams runs.  Abrams’ candidacy would put the race in Toss Up.  Most other potential candidates would have to earn their way to Toss Up.  

Although it’s still very early, North Carolina has been something of a recruiting disappointment for Democrats.  Their first choice, state Attorney General Josh Stein, has opted to run for re-election rather than take on Tillis.  Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who was Mayor of Charlotte from 2009 – 2013, has also taken a pass.  And like Georgia, there isn’t another obvious first-tier candidate.  

Democrats are also actively recruiting in the open seat in Kansas, as well as in Iowa where U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is seeking a second term, in Kentucky against GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and in Texas against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. 

They can and do make credible arguments in each of these states: Democrats won the gubernatorial race in Kansas in 2018, creating an opening for the party; Ernst is running in a presidential year in a state in which Trump isn’t as popular as a Republican President would be expected to be; McConnell appears to have weak poll numbers; and Democrat Beto O’Rourke came within three points of defeating GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2016 (in truth, Cornyn is in better shape than Cruz was at this point in the cycle). 

None of these is an easy race for Democrats.  They might be able to recruit candidates who can make these races competitive, but their chances of winning any of them seem slim today.  It’s more likely, though, that Democratic strategists are looking to make Republicans devote resources to these races and hopefully at the expense of other, more vulnerable contests. 

So what is Democrats’ path to the majority?  Let’s stipulate simply based on presidential performance that Alabama is the North Dakota of 2020 and Jones doesn’t win a full term.  That means that Democrats need to pick up four Republicans seats if they win the White House or five if they don’t.  To do this, they would need to sweep the three most vulnerable GOP-held seats (Arizona, Colorado and Maine) and then win both Georgia and North Carolina, or see lightning strike in Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky or Texas.  Is this a plausible scenario?  Sure, in theory.  But, if nothing else, this scenario demonstrates how narrow Democrats’ path to the majority really is.   

Of course, the biggest “it depends” factor is the identity of the Democratic presidential nominee.  Will the party nominate someone who is acceptable to voters in Georgia and North Carolina?  Will the nominee be too progressive for Arizona voters, or not progressive enough for Democratic base voters in Colorado?  The answers to these questions won’t be known for more than a year, but the eventual nominee will be important in defining what kind of path Democrats face in their quest for the majority. 

Image Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite