The lower President Donald Trump’s approval rating sinks, the bolder the projections become about what 2020 could bring for Democrats. This week, Axios wrote of “The GOP’s Nightmare Scenario.” National Journal wrote of “Red Flags All Over For Senate Republicans.” Politco noted in mid-October (when third quarter fundraising numbers were released) that Democratic challengers had out-raised incumbents in most of the competitive states. None of that will matter come November 2020. People predicting the demise of the GOP, particularly in the Senate, are greatly exaggerating.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the reasons why Democrats might fall short, and why that might not be such a bad outcome.
Yes, President Trump’s approval rating continues to decline, hitting 41.3% this week. That is still far above his all-time low of 36.4% in December 2017. Trump claims to have a 94% approval rating among Republicans and doubles-down that his figure represents an historic level among GOP presidents. The president’s actual approval numbers likely fall in the 79% to 84% range based on recent polls by Monmouth University and the AP. President George W. Bush reached 99% approval among Republicans in a Gallup poll two weeks after 9/11.
Haggling over the specific approval numbers aside, Trump remains wildly popular among Republicans. Also, as the 2000 and 2016 elections proved, who gets to be the next president is determined by Electoral votes and not the popular vote. Current polling has Trump losing Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Florida. The polls have him within two points of generic Democratic challengers in each state, however, and he could win re-election by flipping only two of the four (Florida and either Pennsylvania or Michigan) and maintaining his current leads elsewhere. Gone are the days when a terrible candidate could lose 49 states.
Trump is proving to be maybe the most prolific fundraiser in political history. On his own, and in partnerships with GOP entities, Donald Trump has raised $308 million so far in 2019, shattering records. That is a staggering sum for an incumbent who will face only cursory primary challengers next spring and who will likely be able to avoid spending advertising dollars in the country’s three most expensive media markets (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago) as each sits in states Trump can likely ignore. He will not win any, likely not even be competitive. All have Democratic governors not up for re-election and only Illinois has a Senate race on the ticket with incumbent House Minority Whip Dick Durbin still in search of a Republican challenger. Trump will show-up to help the loyalists on the ballots in those states (like Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Devin Nunes of California), to raise money, and take cheap shots at cities and citizens he does not like and does not try to represent. And no opponent can ignore the tens of millions Trump saves each month with the free publicity and promotion the media provides.
Trump also presents a unique wild card for the 2020 election season. Will he survive impeachment and be the 2020 Republican nominee? Will any Senate Republicans dare vote to remove him from office even if the evidence of guilt proves overwhelming? Many Senate Republicans like Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have sold their souls to the devil and gone all-in with Trump.
Could America really have a situation in 2020 where an impeached and deposed former president is the most in-demand campaign trail asset for guys who tied their own campaigns to Trump’s?
Speaking of campaign assets, remember the Politico fundraising story mentioned earlier? Yes, so far in 2019, Democratic challengers are outpacing Republican incumbents at fundraising for the 2020 general election. But other than Martha McSally (R-AZ), who faces a challenge from astronaut (and former Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s husband) Mark Kelly, the Republican incumbents still hold cash-on-hand advantages and will be able to conserve funds by not facing primary opposition so long as they remain loyal to Trump.
Before getting to what races Democrats might (or, might not) be able to win, let’s look at the current status.
Most reporting simplifies the current Senate makeup as 53 Republicans and 45 Democrats, although that is not fully accurate. There are 45 Democrats and two Independents (Angus King, ME and Bernie Sanders, VT) who caucus with Democrats. That distinction matters. You will have to keep reading to learn why.
The only Democratic Senate seat in any real danger is Doug Jones’ seat representing Alabama. Jones defeated former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore in a 2017 special election to become the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama in 25 years (Richard Shelby, then a Democrat, won in 1992 and subsequently defected to the GOP). Jones was the first Democrat to win any statewide election since Lucy Baxley won a race for the Alabama Public Service Commission in 2008. In a special election, in the aftermath of the Trump victory in 2016, and running against an opponent who had been removed from the State Supreme Court and who faced seemingly credible accusations of inappropriate conduct with a child, Jones prevailed by only 22,000 votes. In 2020, with an incumbent Republican heading the ticket, can Jones really prevail? Trump won the state by 28 points in 2016. Mitt Romney won it by 22 points in 2012. The Democrats have to assume they will lose this one and add it to the number they need to take from Republicans. They can consider it a pleasant surprise if they retain it.
That means Democrats need to win 4 Republican seats to control the Senate (if their party wins the White House) or 5 Republican seats to control the Senate (if Donald Trump or his successor retains the White House).
What seats are reasonably in play?
Susan Collins (R-ME) cast key votes in favor of the Republican tax cuts in 2017 and in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2018. She is perceived as one of the last true centrists and is the last remaining GOP Senator in New England. As she neared he most recent re-election run in 2014, Collins had voted with the stated position of President Barack Obama 79% of the time, highest among Republicans in the House or Senate. Since his inauguration in 2017, Collins has voted with President Donald Trump’s stated positions 67% of the time. That is a stunning about-face in one term. Maine leans blue (by between 0.5% and 3% depending on surveys) and the Democrats have a prime challenger in speaker of the state House of Representatives, Sara Gideon. As Maine has ranked choice voting, Independents like Tiffany Bond could also shake up the field. But here’s the thing, when Collins was first elected to the Senate in 1994, she did so with only 49.2% of the vote. By 2015, her fourth Senate win, she tallied 68.4%. Yes, she is beatable, but she is wildly popular in Maine. Maine twice elected Paul LePage as governor, in 2010 and 2014. LePage was confrontational, racist and homophobic. He was basically “Downeast” Donald Trump. Collins needs to walk a fine line between courting Trump voters and rural residents while not losing moderates and independents. Trump won a share of the 2016 Electoral vote in Maine as they are apportioned by Congressional district and not winner-take-all. This is, however, a seat Democrats must win if they have any chance to take the Senate.
Cory Gardner (R-CO) faces a similar challenge as Collins. Colorado skews Democratic by almost 2%. Democratic nominees have carried the state the last three presidential cycles, with Hillary Clinton most recently winning in 2016 by 5%.
Both Collins and Gardner will have a tough road navigating the impeachment process. Defy Trump and risk him going scorched-earth on Twitter and inviting primary challengers or ignore what could be serious evidence of wrongdoing (potentially, crimes) and alienate moderates and independents as well as fortify Democratic opposition?
The conversation could end there, as those are the only two Republican Senators seeking re-election from states that lean blue and/or that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Realistically though, Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Martha McSally (R-AZ) all face tough re-election battles in swing states.
If Democrats lose the Doug Jones seat in Alabama, they need to win ALL five of the races mentioned to win-back the Senate. Winning four of five would be a net gain of three seats that coupled with the Jones loss would leave the Senate with 51 Republicans.
Are there other pick-up options? Sure, but how realistic?
Georgia trends roughly 12 points in favor of Republicans. Both Senate seats are on the ballot in 2020. David Perdue will defend his seat. Johnny Isakson is resigning at the end of 2019. Republican Governor Brian Kemp will name a replacement. The seat will be on the November 2020 ballot without there having been primaries. If no candidate tops 50% of the vote, a runoff will occur in January 2021, a race which potentially could decide control of the Senate. Matt Lieberman, son of former Senator and 2000 Vice Presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) has announced a run for the seat. Stacey Abrams came close to winning the race for governor in 2018 (losing by 1.5%), so Georgia certainly can be considered in-play.
No other Republican seats are up for re-election in states that lean Republican by less than 15%. Effectively, find enough wins from among the listed races or pray for miracles. But realistically, if a 2020 ‘blue wave’ is not big enough to topple purple-state incumbents like Susan Collins and Cory Gardner, could it really take down someone like John Cornyn (R-TX) in a state that leans 16% to the right?
Remember the discussion of Independents (Sanders and King)?
Senator Sanders is currently among the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination. Were Sanders to win the White House, the Governor of Vermont could name a replacement. Currently, Republican Phil Scott would make that replacement, but he has not announced whether he will seek re-election in 2020 or not. The possibility exists that Senator Sanders could win the White House and be replaced in the Senate by a Republican, denying him a Senate majority to begin his term.
The same concern exists with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, like Sanders, a front-runner for the nomination. Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts would name a Senate replacement should Warren win the White House.
What’s with the warning though, that Democrats might be better off not winning the Senate?
Think back to the early days of the Trump presidency.
Who were the thorns in his side?
Susan Collins (R-ME), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).
These three Senators often decided the outcome of legislation and confirmations as the bulk of the Republicans were rubber-stamps for Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and the Democrats were nearly unanimous in their opposition. The Democrats, however, have their own three wildcards that could lead to significant upheaval in the party if they were to block a Democratic president’s Supreme Court nominees or if they stood in the way of legislation from a Democratic House that a Democratic president had promised to sign.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has already gone on record that he would not vote for Bernie Sanders in a general election match-up against Donald Trump. Manchin opposed repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He often sides with Republican Senators on abortion and gun issues. He supported President Trump’s troop withdrawal from Syria, and most of Trump’s nominees that required Senate confirmation. To be clear, he is still a better option than having a Republican in that seat, and as Donald Trump carried West Virginia by 42.2% in 2016, the seat will absolutely turn red as soon as Manchin vacates it. At least Manchin has opposed the defunding of Planned Parenthood, opposed the 2017 Republican tax bill, and voted against repeated Republican efforts to end Obamacare. But just as happened with Republican wildcards after 2016, Democrats need to make sure not to count Manchin in the ‘AYE’ column without closely considering the legislation or nominee being discussed.
Similar concerns could be raised about Senator Jon Tester (D-MT). While more of a reliable ‘AYE’ vote than Manchin, Tester is (like most Montanans) fiercely pro-2nd Amendment and also supported the Keystone XL pipeline. Were a Democrat like former Congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) to win the White House and attempt to follow-through on his pledge to seize AR-15’s, it seems unlikely he would have Tester’s support.
The greatest concern for an incoming Democratic president might be Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). She cited Joe Manchin as her role model. She voted in opposition to the Green New Deal. She voted to confirm Attorney General William Barr. She opposed Senator Charles Schumer’s (D-NY) selection as Senate Minority Leader, something that could become an issue if Democrats take the Senate and Schumer seeks to become Majority Leader. While in the House, she opposed Nancy Pelosi’s nomination as Speaker. She has sided with President Trump’s public position 53% of the time since taking office in January. Arizona is trending leftward, and Sinema will need to adapt her positions slightly if she wishes to avoid future primary challenges, but right now she votes representative of her constituency and Democrats should never expect her to be a rubber stamp.
Which would be worse for an incoming Democratic President, to have a Democratic House and a 51-49 Republican Senate or for that incoming President to think he/she had control of all three branches only to be repeatedly sabotaged by Democratic Senators on controversial issues as Trump was by Collins, Murkowski, and McCain?
Remember, the 2022 Senate map is the most favorable for Democrats since 2016, a rematch in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin but without a presidential race on the ticket. If they messaged it properly, Democrats could use two years of Republican obstruction (especially if Mitch McConnell wins re-election) to win a significant Senate landslide in 2022, which would still allow the President sufficient time to implement an agenda (and fill any Supreme Court openings) before facing re-election in 2024.
The media said there was no way Trump could win in 2016 and that Democrats would take back the Senate. They were wrong and wrong.
Now, the media is saying Trump will be defeated in 2020 and Democrats will take back the Senate. Don’t give up on both of those things happening, but do not get overconfident.
Defeat Donald Trump.
Hold the House.
Narrow the gap in the Senate so just a few seats flip-it in 2022.
Democrats need to think about more than just the next election.
After all, it is nearly impossible to vanquish all one’s enemies in a single battle.
NOTE: For polling, I prefer electionprojection.com and fivethirtyeight.com. Fivethirtyeight also does a great job tracking how closely each member of Congress votes with Donald Trump’s publicly stated positions. Here is link to Kyrsten Sinema’s record, but you can select any member.
NOTE 2: If you enjoy reading these articles, consider one of the donation options at the top of the page.
NOTE 3: If you (or anyone you know) would like to write articles for the site, drop a note with email address and someone will reach out.