The Fight for the Senate Grows More Interesting

Increased concern about the likelihood of an economic slowdown, new questions about President Donald Trump’s standing with voters, and a special election in Georgia certainly give Democrats some reason for optimism about next year’s fight for the Senate.

But while the Senate map surely is better for Democrats in 2020 than it was last cycle, the party will need an upset or two to win control of the chamber next November.

The national dynamic looks to be a problem for the president’s party. An Aug. 11-13 Fox News poll had Trump’s job rating at 43 percent approve/56 percent disapprove. The Democratic Party had a net favorable of 6 points (51 percent favorable/45 percent unfavorable), while the GOP had a net unfavorable of 13 points (41 percent favorable/54 percent unfavorable.

Trump’s personal rating was 42 percent favorable/56 percent unfavorable, while former President Barack Obama’s personal rating was a much stronger 60 percent favorable/37 percent unfavorable.

These are national ratings, of course, but they could well reflect similar changes in crucial states with competitive Senate races next year.

In fact, a series of state polls conducted online for Morning Consult showed the president’s job approval in July well below his vote in the 2016 election in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa and even Ohio.

Colorado remains the biggest headache for the GOP, even though incumbent Cory Gardner is a skilled campaigner who continues to position himself as an “independent.”

That message worked with Obama in the White House, but it’s a much harder sell after four years of Trump.

Like his Republican Senate colleagues, Gardner has not been very critical of Trump in a state that looks increasingly blue.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s entry into the race adds to Gardner’s problems, though Democrats were already pretty well positioned before Hickenlooper switched contests.

If the 2020 elections are mostly “about Trump,” as I expect, Gardner faces an uphill battle in his bid for a second term.

Mark Kelly’s entry into the Arizona race was good news for Democrats, who are trying to defeat Republican Martha McSally for the second election in a row.

McSally’s narrow loss to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018 demonstrated both the Republican’s assets and liabilities in a state that appears to be inching toward the Democrats.

Trump carried the state by about 3.5 points in 2016, but the state’s sprawling suburban areas and minority voters are obvious targets for the Democrats next year.

Kelly needs to demonstrate that he has the focus and campaign skills to keep up with McSally, who is adept at earning positive media coverage. If he does that, the race has all the markings of a toss-up.

Democrats are notably upbeat about their prospects in North Carolina, where freshman Republican Thom Tillis is seeking a second term.

Trump carried the state by just over 3.5 points, while Tillis won his 2014 race by 2 points during Obama’s second midterm election.

Democrats face a competitive primary between state Sen. Erica Smith, Mecklenburg County Commissioner Trevor Fuller and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham. Cunningham, who is white, is the early favorite for the Democratic nomination. Both Smith and Fuller are black.

For Democrats, the key to the race probably boils down to turnout of black and younger voters, as well as whether Cunningham (assuming he is his party’s nominee) can make gains among suburban white voters turned off by Trump’s agenda and personal style.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales now rates the race Tilts Republican.

But even if Democrats sweep Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina, they are likely to need a fourth seat, since the party is unlikely to hold Doug Jones’s Alabama seat. They will also need to hold their three potentially vulnerable seats (in Michigan, New Hampshire and Minnesota) and win the White House to control the Senate.

Maine is an obvious Democratic target. Hillary Clinton carried the state in 2016, and Republican incumbent Susan Collins’s vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court rattled abortion rights supporters who have backed her in the past.

But even veteran Democratic strategists acknowledge Collins has built up plenty of goodwill in the relatively small state, where personal relationships matter.

Still, the likely Democratic nominee, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, is a credible challenger.

Democrats talk about making Texas and Iowa into competitive races, and that could happen if Trump’s standing drops further in either or both states.

But savvy Democrats believe that Georgia may well be the surprise state of the cycle. They note they almost won the governorship last year, and Trump carried the state by just over 5 points in 2016.

The state continues to change, as suburban voters grow uncomfortable with Trump. Freshman GOP Sen. David Perdue’s seat is up next year, but the state will also have a special election following veteran Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s resignation for health reasons.

Those two seats give Democrats a surprising opportunity in the Peach State.

But while Democrats promise they will make a major effort to recruit quality candidates, they don’t yet have even one heavyweight who frightens state Republicans.

Of course, the likely runoff in the special election “jungle primary” (if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first election) could create specific circumstances that could benefit one party or the other.

The Senate landscape hasn’t shifted dramatically, but the small change benefits Democrats. They currently have about a 4-in-10 chance to net at least three seats and win the presidency.

Growing Democratic strength and Trump’s weakness in the suburbs, combined with stronger Democratic turnout (compared to 2016) and some Trump fatigue even among Republicans should make the fight for Senate control in 2020 increasingly interesting.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on September 4, 2019.

Do Democrats Need a Backup Plan?

With many surveys showing multiple Democratic hopefuls leading President Donald Trump in hypothetical 2020 ballot tests, Democrats should feel confident they can deny the incumbent president a second term. But many don’t.

In spite of the huge field, the Democratic race is muddled because of questions about Joe Biden’s campaign skills, the progressive agendas of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and the difficulty in finding a nominee who can appeal to a variety of constituencies, from the party’s base to suburban swing voters to possibly even working-class white women.

A series of hiccups by Biden on the campaign trail, including in the initial debates, ought to bother party pragmatists, who correctly see the former vice president as the Democrat with the broadest appeal.

If Biden continues to stumble and his candidacy ultimately implodes, pragmatists will need to find a new standard-bearer. At the moment, there is no obvious alternative.

Sanders and Warren are both so far left that many question whether they can win suburban voters generally and college-educated voters in particular.

Warren has potentially broader general election appeal than Sanders — at least she has never embraced socialism. But she certainly isn’t a pragmatist, given her attitudes toward business and her support for “Medicare for All,” the Green New Deal and canceling student debt. While Warren has moved up in the polls, Sanders’s candidacy, which looks weaker now than it did four years ago, limits her ability to unite populist progressives.

California Sen. Kamala Harris would seem to be an obvious alternative should Biden implode, but her performance in the second debate and her shifting position(s) on Medicare/health care raise questions about her candidacy. So far, she seems unwilling to position herself as a pragmatic progressive, even though that would likely benefit her.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has had his moments in the early going, but he remains stuck in the mid-single digits in national polls, and his youth and questionable appeal to minority voters limit his prospects.

The rest of the Democratic field has an even longer road to travel. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet has done well in debates but lacks charisma. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke has not answered questions about his substance and heft. And Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who as much as anyone has explicitly positioned herself as a pragmatic progressive, has so far made little headway, let alone caught fire.

All of this leads to an obvious question: As late as it is in the election cycle, is there still time for someone with proven broad appeal to enter the race?

The ideal candidate

If you are a Democratic strategist responsible for winning back the White House in 2020, you would want someone smart, thoughtful and knowledgeable. You would prefer someone with Washington, D.C., experience, but not someone who is seen as “too Washington.” You would look for someone personable, charismatic and relatable. And of course, the ideal candidate wouldn’t have a lot of political baggage, thereby keeping the focus on Trump.

Finally, thinking about the primaries and the general election electorate, you’d want someone who can energize the Democratic base and appeal to suburban swing voters, particularly white women (and men) with a college degree. If he or she could also win some white, working-class voters, particularly women, that would be icing on the cake.

Add up those qualities, and one name jumps out: Michelle Obama.

No, the former first lady is not running for president, and she has disavowed any interest in doing so. But she would have plenty of assets if she did run, she might have a better chance of defeating Trump than anyone currently in the contest.

A Princeton graduate with a degree from Harvard Law School, Obama is a dynamic speaker. Empathetic and passionate, she appears sincere, authentic and dignified. It’s no wonder that she connects with so many people. Can’t you imagine her on the same stage as Trump?

The former first lady has never sought or held elective office, but that might even be an asset. Certainly, Trump proved it isn’t a requirement.

She’d benefit from her husband’s current standing. A year and a half ago, Gallup asked adults how they viewed Barack Obama’s job performance during his time in the White House. In hindsight, the survey found 63 percent approved.

recent Aug. 11-13 Fox News poll found 95 percent of registered Democrats with a favorable view of Barack Obama. Among all voters, his favorable rating was 60 percent.

Of course, the former president has some baggage, and it would be transferred to his wife. His critics would become hers, and Trump would surely run against a “third Obama term.” But given Barack Obama’s electoral performance and current polling, the 44th president of the United States would be a clear asset for his wife.

Clinton redux?

Some Democrats believe that Hillary Clinton’s loss shows that a woman can’t win. But Clinton had tons of baggage that Michelle Obama doesn’t have, and Obama could change voters’ perceptions about electability with an effective campaign and strong showing in the polls.

From an electoral point of view, the former first lady reaches exactly the audiences that Democrats need. She could turn out her husband’s voters, and she should have strong appeal in the swing suburbs and among younger and minority voters.

If the Democrats are fortunate, they’ll find that the president is so weak next year that almost any nominee with a “D” behind his or her name will win. Indeed, that’s the case right now, with Biden, Warren, Harris and Sanders all leading Trump in recent national surveys.

But, it’s difficult to count on that some fifteen months before the election.

Democrats have a large and interesting field. And yet, only Biden — or at least the Biden of 2008 — looks to have broad enough appeal to give Democrats a clear advantage in 2020. If he implodes, the party would need to look elsewhere for a standard-bearer. That person may now be stuck in the lower tier of the Democratic contest, or may have already ruled out a bid.

Admittedly, the idea that Michelle Obama would change her mind and seek the Democratic presidential nomination is ridiculous, especially late in the contest. It’s absurd. It can’t happen. In fact, it’s about ridiculous and absurd as Donald Trump running for president and winning.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on August 20, 2019.

Democrats Still at Square One

With two debates down and too many more still to go, Democrats are pretty much where they were before the June debates in Miami and the July debates in Detroit.

That shouldn’t surprise you. The Iowa caucuses are still almost six months away, and voters are just starting to tune into the campaign. They know full well they don’t have to embrace one hopeful now.

Instead, they can continue to comparison shop, evaluating performances in debates, on television interviews, on the stump and in the heavy news coverage.

And those who care about electability can watch the polls. After a rather combative set of debates — courtesy of CNN, which was more interested in roughhousing by the candidates than in uncovering their priorities and management styles — where does the Democratic race now stand?

President Donald Trump is still the egotistical, abusive promoter of division that he has been, which is one reason why his job approval ratings are so poor given low unemployment rates, substantial wage growth and a generally vibrant economy.

Sure, there are things to complain about — e.g., growing deficits and debt, trade wars and the growing wealth gap — but if Trump acted like a normal president, he would be coasting to reelection.

Instead, the president, who drew 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016, sits generally in the 40 percent to 43 percent range in hypothetical ballot tests against a variety of top-tier Democratic hopefuls.

Former Vice President Joe Biden performs best against Trump, but he isn’t the only Democrat to lead in head-to-head ballot tests.

Democrats have a number of ways of increasing their vote share in 2020, including attracting more base voters (who either didn’t turn out or voted for a third party candidate in 2016) and/or improving their showing among suburban women and women with a college degree, swing groups that turned more Democratic in the 2018 midterms.

If they improve their showing among one or both of those groups, the president will have a difficult time winning a second term.

Of course, Trump still has a narrow path to 270 electoral votes, and Republicans will try to demonize and discredit the eventual Democratic nominee, making him or her unacceptable to enough voters to produce another Trump victory.

Obviously, Trump’s chances of discrediting his opponent varies with that challenger. He’d use different tactics against Biden than he would against Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

But no matter whom the Democrats nominate, Trump’s campaign will be built around destroying him or her.

The Democrats will be in much better position if they can make the 2020 about Trump.

Sure, their nominee will need a positive agenda and appealing vision, and the party will adopt a platform in Milwaukee at next summer’s nominating convention.

But the Democratic nominee needs to spend much more time making the 2020 election a referendum on Trump than a choice between two ideologies.

Electability will become a bigger concern in the months ahead. But right now, ideological positioning, candidate skills and past records are more important.

So how have the Democrats fared so far? Not particularly well.

Biden, the early national front-runner, continues to be the best-positioned Democrat in the race.

As Barack Obama’s former vice president, he starts off with considerable support in the black community. But he also has a long-developed reputation for appealing to working-class white voters, like the ones in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin who elected Trump.

A progressive with more than a mere touch of pragmatism, he has appeal to both his party’s base and swing voters.

But Biden received underwhelming reviews in Miami. He recovered somewhat in Detroit, but he didn’t appear agile during his second debate, stumbling more than a few times.

Yes, I know, we all stumble. But at 76, he (and Sanders, who is 77) are under a microscope.

Biden’s lengthy record continues to give plenty of ammunition to his opponents. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro all raised issues with him in Detroit that he either didn’t answer or was ineffective rebutting.

Fortunately for him, he will have more opportunities to put doubts about his campaign skills to rest. California Sen. Kamala Harris was the clear winner of her first debate with Biden, but she found out how quickly things can change.

Targeted by others onstage in Detroit, she was put on the defensive immediately about the latest version of her “Medicare for All” plan.

Quickly, Harris’ shoulders drooped, and her smile vanished. She looked at various moments deflated, bored and frustrated.

Yes, it is only one night. But it was a missed opportunity. With Biden and Harris having less than ideal nights, Sanders and Warren are, at least briefly, the short-term beneficiaries.

Both are passionate populists, with boundless energy and an unquenchable desire to bash corporations and the rich.

But Sanders embraced the “socialist” label years ago, and his agenda has not strayed fundamentally from that goal, leaving him open to Republican attacks that his election would destroy Trump’s greatest accomplishment — the economy.

Of course, Sanders leads Trump in most polls, and his supporters will argue that shows his electability, to say nothing of his appeal to progressives who never warmed to Hillary Clinton.

But the amount of opposition research on Sanders must be mind-numbing, considering that he is now 77 years old and his political activism goes back to the early 1960s. He first ran for office in 1971.

Warren doesn’t quite have Sanders’ baggage, but she is vulnerable to the same criticism.

Maybe more importantly, those hopefuls who embraced “Medicare for all” suddenly find themselves on the defensive against those defending Obamacare and those workers not eager to give up longtime union-negotiated health care coverage.

So, Democrats face an uncomfortable reality.

Trump is damaged goods, but most of their own top-tier hopefuls have their own liabilities — or at least have to worry about their ideological positioning, campaign skills and electability. Luckily, Iowa is still many months away.

Note: This column appeared initially on Roll Call on August 6, 2019.

How Third-Party Votes Sunk Clinton, What They Mean For Trump

For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.

An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.

Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.

Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.

Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.

In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerrycombined for 99 percent of the popular vote.

Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.

But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.

Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.

Breaking down the votes

Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.

The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.

The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.

But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.

Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.

While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.

The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.

Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).

Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.

Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.

At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.

Major-party baggage

Elsewhere, the same thing happened.

In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.

In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.

Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.

But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.

Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.

In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.

Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.

On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.

What it means for 2020

In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.

That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.

On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.

Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.

But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.

While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.

She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.

And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.

Republicans Want an Election About Socialism. They Likely Won’t Get One

If there was any doubt congressional Republicans want to make the 2020 election about something other than President Donald Trump, look no further than the House GOP’s campaign chairman.

“Republicans will make 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom, NRCC Chair Emmer says, w starring role for AOC & Squad as ‘Speaker in fact,’ & rest of Democrats as the ‘new Red Army,’” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted last week about National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer.

That’s not a complete surprise, of course, since Republican candidates, officeholders and strategists have appeared intent for months to transform the 2020 elections from a referendum on Trump into a referendum on socialism.

Even before Emmer’s chat with reporters last week at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, in which he said “This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” the Minnesota Republican had signaled his intentions in an op-ed for Roll Call.

“After 100 days of accomplishing nothing but tax increases and bad headlines, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives boldly proclaimed her socialist Democratic caucus have the 2020 elections in the bag. Her faux confidence is misplaced; the past three months for her band of socialists were disastrous,” he wrote on April 15.

But one side doesn’t dictate what an election is going to be about, and you can be pretty certain that most Democratic strategists want the 2020 elections to be a referendum on the president’s character, judgment, integrity and priorities.

And since Trump occupies the highest and most powerful elected office in the land, it’s easier to make next year’s elections about him than about a handful of freshman members of Congress.

Democratic message

If Democrats are going to run on any “ism,” it’s probably going to be the alleged “racism” of the president and his party, a message that should have considerable appeal among minorities, progressives and college-educated swing voters.

Last cycle, Republicans spent time and resources trying to make the 2018 midterms about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They failed — as I suggested they would in a Feb. 21, 2018, column — because the leader of the minority party in the House simply isn’t seen as running the country.

With Trump in the news daily and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans never had a chance to make 2018 “about” Pelosi.

As I wrote last year, Republican campaign operatives didn’t have many options in their effort to hold the House, so I could understand the strategy. But that didn’t mean that it was likely to be successful.

This cycle, Pelosi and the Democrats control the House, so at least the NRCC can plausibly label her responsible for the nation’s ills and Trump’s failures.

Plus, some Democrats on the party’s left have become more vocal about moving their party in a more progressive direction, which plays into GOP hands next year.

But most voters don’t see the speaker of the House — or the Senate majority leader, for that matter — as dictating the direction of the country. They think of the president as in control.

That’s particularly likely to be the case when the incumbent president has a large personality, dominates the news and is inherently controversial, either because of his policies or his character and personality. And that description fits Trump perfectly.

Presidential contests are part referendum on the occupant of the Oval Office and part choice between the two parties’ nominees. But Trump’s personality and profile enhance the chance that 2020 is more about him than about anyone else.

All about the nominee

Of course, Emmer’s (and the White House’s) strategy is more likely to be effective if Democrats nominate someone for the presidency who can more easily be portrayed as a radical, and particularly as a socialist.

The most obvious example is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced the “democratic socialist” label over the years. But even Sanders currently leads Trump in national ballot tests.

But can’t Republicans use the high profiles of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — a.k.a. “the squad” — to define the entire Democratic Party, as well as the party’s national ticket?

Probably not, though it may be worth a shot given the paucity of other options available to GOP strategists.

The small band of controversial, progressive Democratic women might be able to keep themselves in the limelight if they make an effort so do so next year, which would play right into Republican hands.

But they almost certainly are too junior to become the face of their party, even though they receive an inordinate share of national media coverage now.

By next fall, almost all of the media’s attention will be on the presidential contest — and particularly on the two presidential nominees.

That’s why the Democratic presidential nomination is so crucial to Trump and Emmer’s strategy.

Trump will likely continue to use the squad as punching bags if he needs to (and he will), but most voters will see 2020 as a clear choice between him and his Democratic opponent, especially if Democrats nominate someone who wants to occupy the political center during the general election campaign.

Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 23, 2019 issue of Roll Call.