Senate: Taking Baby Steps

Comparatively speaking, Senate races have gotten off to a glacial start this cycle. In recent cycles, a number of first-tier candidates had announced in the first quarter of the off year, largely setting the table of competitive races early. This cycle, it may be clear where the most competitive races are and where the potentially competitive contests might be, but the identities of first-tier challengers aren’t yet known.

Over the past four weeks or so, a series of events that can best be described as baby steps has brought a bit of clarity to the Senate map. More importantly, this movement has largely benefitted Democrats, who had endured a spate of news reports in April about recruiting failures. In truth, some aspects of these reports were overblown. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was never a realistic recruit for Democrats as he has long maintained that he doesn’t have any interest in serving in the U.S. Senate. So, is the reality that he isn’t running really a recruiting failure? There are cases in which Democrats didn’t get their first choice like in Georgia where 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams decided not to run. This doesn’t mean that Georgia can’t or won’t be competitive, only that the eventual nominee is going to have to earn a Toss Up rating whereas an Abrams’ candidacy would have meant an automatic move to Toss Up. The same can be said for Iowa, North Carolina and Texas.

It’s clear where the most vulnerable seats are. For Democrats, it’s Alabama where U.S. Sen. Doug Jones is seeking a full term. For Republicans, U.S. Sens. Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado and Susan Collins in Maine make up the first tier of vulnerability, although there isn’t a frontrunner among a field of 10 announced Democratic hopefuls in Colorado and there isn’t yet an announced first-tier challenger against Collins in Maine. Only the race in Arizona seems well defined at this point as Democrat Mark Kelly is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s endorsed candidate against McSally.

If Democrats really want to make a play for the majority, which would require a net gain of three seats if they win the White House or four seats if President Trump is re-elected, they need to expand the playing field. This is where the party has seen the most positive activity in recent weeks. In Iowa, where GOP U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst is seeking re-election, Democrat Theresa Greenfield announced her candidacy. Greenfield grew up on a family farm, and became an urban planner. She is currently president of a real estate and development company in Des Moines. Last cycle, House Democrats were enthusiastic about Greenfield’s candidacy in the 3rd congressional district, but she was disqualified from the race when it was revealed that her campaign manager had falsified nominating petitions. Although Greenfield faces primary opposition, the DSCC has endorsed her. Democrats and Greenfield argue that Ernst hasn’t kept the promises she made when campaigning for the seat in 2014; namely that she would work to cut spending and not be a go-along-to-get-along Republican.

In Montana, Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins has announced his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the right to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines. Yes, Democrats would like to see Gov. Steve Bullock end his bid for the presidential nomination and jump into the Senate race, but that seems unlikely. He told Politico’s California Playbook earlier this month, “The Senate is very, very important, [but] for me, this was never an either/or proposition, “he said. “My whole experience … [is that] I’ve never been a legislator. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t learn it. But my passion has been getting things done and putting people together to do it.“

Collins, 55, brings an interesting narrative to the Senate race. He came to the United States in 1994 to escape civil war in his homeland of Liberia, joining his wife who had moved to Montana two years earlier. Collins spent many years working at the Department of Veterans Affairs in several capacities before joining the Montana Department of Health and Human Services as a child protection specialist. He’s also an adjunct professor. Collins was elected Mayor of Helena in 2017, defeating a four-term incumbent. Not much has been heard from Collins since his May 13 announcement, but his first test comes on June 30, the deadline for 2nd quarter fundraising. This will be the first clue as to whether he can make this race competitive, or whether Democratic strategists need to keep searching for a first-tier challenger.

In North Carolina, Republican businessman Garland Tucker handed Democrats a gift by announcing a primary challenge to U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis. Tucker retired as Chairman and CEO of Triangle Capital in 2016. While he made some statements critical of President Trump during the 2016 campaign, he now seems to embrace Trump and is running to Tillis’ right. Tucker is already on radio and television. According to Advertising Analytics, he has spent $530,000 on spots to date. It’s not clear whether Tucker intends to invest his own resources into his campaign, but he has boasted that past contributors to Tillis are donating to his effort.

Democrats haven’t settled on a candidate yet. There are three announced challengers: Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller, attorney Eva Lee and state Sen. Erica Smith. National Democrats would like to see state Treasurer Janet Cowell or state Sen. Jeff Jackson get into the race. Strategists are more than happy to see Tillis occupied with a primary that is likely to push him further to the right while they sort out their field of candidates.

If Democrats need to expand the playing field in pursuit of the majority, Republicans need to find other Democratic targets to help protect their majority. They made some progress in Michigan when businessman, Iraq War veteran and 2018 Senate nominee John James announced his candidacy. James got very little attention last cycle, and yet managed to raise $12.7 million and take 46 percent to 52 percent for Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Republicans argue that Democratic U.S. Sen. Gary Peters starts the cycle in a considerably weaker position than Stabenow was in at this point last cycle. Strategists cite polling that shows that Peters is not very well known and thus undefined in the minds of voters. Democrats are concerned about Peters, but point to their electoral successes in 2018 when they won the Governor’s, Attorney General’s and Secretary of State’s offices and picked up a U.S. House seat as reasons to be optimistic. The state will once again be a presidential battleground, which both sides count as a plus for their candidate.

None of the events described above are significant enough to change the ratings in any of these races, but they have certainly nudged these contests forward in small ways, reiterating that so far this cycle has been more one of baby steps than great leaps.