I understand Democrats’ frustration with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as their desire to send him into retirement in the 2020 elections. But once again Democrats have gotten ahead of themselves in their optimism that they can defeat the Kentucky Republican.
Six years ago, Democrats and many in the national media gushed about the prospects of Alison Lundergan Grimes against McConnell. Grimes was young, articulate and personable, and she was the state’s sitting secretary of state.
Plus, her family had a boatload of money and more national political connections than you could count.
We heard repeatedly how old and unliked McConnell was. He had been in Congress for decades and represented gridlock and the past. Voters wanted change and fresh ideas, just what Grimes said she was offering.
“McConnell continues to have an abysmal job approval rating with 54% disapproving and just 36% approving of his performance,” wrote Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, in an April 9, 2013, memo entitled “Democrats within striking distance of Mitch McConnell for 2014.”
But I never bought the hype, and McConnell ended up clobbering Grimes 56 percent to 41 percent, a reflection of the state’s partisan bent and his campaign defining Grimes as a liberal. Grimes carried only 10 of the state’s 120 counties.
Another year, same story
Amy McGrath is this year’s Alison Lundergan Grimes. A graduate of the Naval Academy and a veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, McGrath was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the Marines.
Clearly, she has an interesting story, and she also has one congressional race under her belt and success as a political fundraiser. (Her haul of $2.5 million for her initial day of fundraising was remarkable.)
McGrath has plenty of assets, but she has the same liabilities as Grimes — maybe even more.
Her biggest problem is Kentucky’s demographics and political fundamentals, both of which make it difficult for a Democrat to win a statewide federal election.
McGrath won a competitive Democratic primary last year in the Lexington-based 6th District for the right to take on three-term Republican incumbent Andy Barr.
She raised about $8.6 million, and many observers expected her to win if Democrats had anything approaching a good year nationally.
But Barr carried 17 of the district’s 19 counties, defeating McGrath 51 percent to 48 percent at the same time that Democrats were netting 40 seats nationwide.
How did Barr survive? He and his GOP allies used McGrath’s own words to paint her as a liberal, including her comment at a Massachusetts fundraiser that she is “further left … than anyone in the state of Kentucky.”
McGrath’s decision to turn around and run against McConnell seems odd (considering the real possibility of consecutive defeats), though it is easy to understand why state and national Democrats would want her to run.
The state is even more Republican than the 6th District, so McGrath starts off with a more challenging electorate.
Democrats hold just one of the state’s six districts, while the other five voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
Barr’s district was the most competitive of the bunch, since Trump received “only” 55 percent of the vote here.
In the other four GOP districts, he drew 80 percent, 72 percent, 67 percent and 65 percent.
McGrath should win the Democrat-held 3rd District, centered in Louisville, and she should be competitive in the 6th. But her prospects elsewhere in the state, initially at least, appear bleak.
How could the fundamentals be worse for McGrath than they were for Grimes, especially since Democrats have a chance of winning the state’s gubernatorial election in less than four months?
For one, Grimes’s loss occurred in 2014, a full two years before Trump won the presidency. Since then, national politics has become even more polarized and partisan.
That increased partisanship makes it more difficult for Democratic candidates to win statewide federal elections in Kentucky, Trump’s fifth strongest state, behind West Virginia, Wyoming, Oklahoma and North Dakota.
McGrath will need a large number of Trump voters in a state he won by almost 30 points. That is a heavy burden even if McConnell is not personally popular and Democrats have a politically appealing challenger.
McConnell will have plenty of opportunities to make the Senate race about both Trump and McGrath, and indeed, the overwhelming national Democratic response to McGrath’s candidacy gives Kentucky Republicans another weapon to brand the challenger as a liberal, a Trump critic and a favorite of the coastal elites in California and New York. Her comments on Wednesday about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, saying in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal she “probably” would have voted to confirm him, then reversing herself a little later, only add fuel to the GOP line of attack.
As for the 2019 gubernatorial race, it will tell us little about a federal contest, where party and ideology are more important.
McGrath has received a Beto O’Rourke-like reception from Democrats across the country who rightfully see McConnell as a poster child for hypocrisy and partisan abuses in government.
But Kentucky’s fundamentals are actually worse than Texas’ for Democrats. (And remember: O’Rourke lost his statewide race there to the unpopular Sen. Ted Cruz.)
Non-Hispanic whites made up 85 percent of the Kentucky population in 2017, according to Governing, and by most measures the state ranks near the bottom on education.
It is not the kind of electorate that seems poised to embrace an anti-Trump Democrat.
Democrats would almost certainly be better off to focus on their top four Senate prospects — Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine, as well as longer shots in Iowa, Texas and Georgia — than sink resources into Kentucky.
As I wrote about Grimes in July 2013, the burden is on McGrath to prove she can overcome the state’s fundamentals. At this point, I’m skeptical her prospects are much better than Grimes’ were.
Note: A earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
Michigan is surprisingly relevant in 2020.
The Democratic presidential nominee almost certainly has to carry the state next year to have any chance of denying President Donald Trump a second term. And Republicans are eyeing the seat of first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters.
Democrats must net three Senate seats next November and win the White House to take control of the chamber. That is almost impossible if Republicans swipe two Democratic seats.
Alabama is an obvious GOP target and a likely flip. But there are a handful of other Senate seats that look appealing for Republicans, including Minnesota, New Hampshire and Michigan.
Trump won only one of those states, Michigan, which puts the state at or near the top of the Republican Senate takeover list.
Last year was a banner year for Michigan Democrats. They won races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state, the state board of education and the Michigan State board of regents.
Democrats also picked up two U.S. House seats, and while Republicans retained control of both the state Senate and House (largely because Michigan is heavily gerrymandered in their favor), their margins shrunk dramatically.
But some Democrats remain nervous about their positioning in the state, particularly among white working-class voters.
In the 2016 exit poll, nonwhites accounted for 29 percent of all voters nationally but only 25 percent of Michigan voters. White men without a college degree — Trump’s core supporters — constituted 16 percent of voters nationally but 20 percent in Michigan.
Trump carried Michigan 47.5 percent to 47.3 percent in what was widely regarded as a stunning surprise.
Two years later, underdog GOP Senate nominee John James lost his challengeto Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow by only 6 points, 52 percent to 46 percent.
James is running again this cycle, hoping to upset Peters.
For Republicans, these two results demonstrate that Michigan can and will be competitive next year, with both the president and Peters on the ballot.
Numbers tell the story
A more detailed look at Michigan election results, however, demonstrates that the GOP has a steep hill to climb in both contests.
No Republican presidential nominee has drawn a majority of the vote in Michigan since George H.W. Bush in 1988 (54 percent).
His son, George W. Bush, took 48 percent in 2004 — three-tenths of a point more than Trump — but he still lost the state by 3 points.
In the four presidential elections immediately before 2016, the GOP nominee received 45 percent (2012), 41 percent (2008), 48 percent (2004) and 46 percent (2000).
Given those numbers, Trump’s 47.5 percent does not look so different, except in one way — he won.
Trump’s victory was more about Hillary Clinton’s weaker-than-normal showing rather than his own performance.
The last Republican Senate winner in the state was Spencer Abraham in 1994, when he flipped a Democratic open seat by a comfortable 9 points.
Of course, that was during Bill Clinton’s rocky first midterm election, which produced a Republican wave.
Since then, Democrats have won eight consecutive Senate elections, including Abraham’s unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2000, when he drew 48 percent while losing to Stabenow.
In the last three Senate contests, the GOP nominee received 46 percent (James in 2018), 41 percent (former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land in 2014) and 38 percent (Rep. Peter Hoekstra in 2012).
The 2014 race, during President Barack Obama’s second midterm election, should have been the Republicans’ best chance in recent years to win a Senate seat in Michigan. Instead, Peters ended up winning by 13 points.
The point is clear: Michigan remains a difficult state for the GOP in statewide federal races.
Trump carried the state by a mere 10,704 votes and didn’t come close to winning a majority of the vote.
James’ showing last year was better than the performance of most recent Republican Senate nominees, but that isn’t saying much.
Given all that, and considering Clinton’s relatively casual attention to Michigan three years ago, 2020 will be a challenging test for the GOP in both the presidential and Senate contests.
Democrats took Michigan for granted in 2016 and lost it to Trump. They are not likely to repeat it, though they will need strong turnout among minority and younger voters.
James looks like a credible contender next year. But he’ll need to outperform Trump’s 2016 showing and, like the president, avoid any defections in the suburbs and from white women with a college degree to have any chance of winning.
Michigan could be competitive again next year, but it probably is more likely that the Great Lakes State reverts to its traditionally Democratic bent, as it did in 2018.
Note: This column appeared initially in the June 18, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
The fight for the Senate starts off with only a handful of seats at risk. And that’s being generous.
A few other states are worth your attention because of their competitiveness or questions about President Donald Trump’s impact, but almost two-thirds of Senate contests this cycle start as “safe” for the incumbent party and are likely to remain that way.
Of course, a retirement or a public scandal could create a contest where one should not exist, and an implosion of the Trump presidency could create an opportunity or two for Democrats.
But the nation’s polarization and intense partisan divide, combined with the fundamentals of the 34 states that will have a Senate race next year, suggest that only a few states — and a few voters — will decide which party runs the chamber in 2021.
The Senate now stands at 53 Republicans and 47 in the Democratic Conference. So Democrats need a net gain of three or four seats to win control, depending on who wins the White House (since the vice president, as president of the Senate, casts tie-breaking votes).
Seven of the dozen Democratic seats up this cycle are in strongly Democratic states and not competitive: Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island. Even Sen. Tom Udall’s retirement does not put New Mexico into play.
Among battleground states with Democratic incumbents, Virginia has been moving toward the Democrats as the Washington, D.C., and Richmond suburbs have grown. And Hillary Clinton’s 5-point victory in the state in 2016, combined with the following year’s gubernatorial result, suggests Trump is likely to be an albatross around the neck of the eventual GOP Senate nominee in the Old Dominion.
Minnesota and New Hampshire are competitive states that Democrats cannot afford to lose. (Clinton carried each narrowly.) Both states bear watching, though Democratic incumbents Tina Smith of Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire start off with clear advantages.
In Michigan, a state surprisingly carried by Trump in 2016, freshman Democrat Gary Peters starts off with the advantage but must also prove his mettle. Again, his seat is a “must hold” for Democrats.
On the GOP side, 15 of the party’s 22 seats up next year are in states Trump won handily in 2016.
All are both Republican enough and conservative enough to not likely be competitive next year: Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.
The eight key races
That leaves eight Senate races for 2020 worth mentioning — two in states won by Clinton (Colorado and Maine) and six in states that backed Trump (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and Texas).
Alabama, won by Trump by 28 points in 2016, is all but lost for Democrats.
Alabama Republicans would have to nominate Judge Roy Moore again to have any chance of losing this race, and while that’s possible, it’s unlikely.
Losing Alabama means Democrats will need to swipe four Republican Senate seats and win the presidency to regain control of the Senate. That’s a challenging task, but far from impossible.
Colorado and Arizona remain the Democrats’ top two targets.
In 2014, I repeatedly noted what a strong candidate Cory Gardner was and what a perfect race he ran, but 2020 is likely to produce a very different political environment in Colorado.
Gardner was an outsider who ran as a pragmatic conservative. He benefited heavily from Democratic incumbent Mark Udall’s ill-advised campaign, including his focus on reproductive rights.
Gardner ended up winning by just under 2 points. But two years later, Trump lost Colorado by 5 points, and the state’s growing suburbs clearly are not advantageous territory for him, as evidenced by former GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s double-digit loss and Democrat Jared Polis’s double-digit gubernatorial victory in last year’s midterm elections.
Democrats look headed for a primary, but Gardner has not done enough to demonstrate his political independence.
While handicapping websites like Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all start Gardner’s race off as a Toss-up next year, the Colorado Republican is really more of an underdog in his bid to win a second term. (Check out my March 5, 2019, column about his prospects.)
Trump carried Arizona by only 4 points in 2016. The GOP retained the governorship last year, but Republican nominee Martha McSally narrowly lost her Senate bid, and she is likely to be her party’s nominee again next year.
Democrats have come up with an interesting and potentially formidable candidate in former astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot during a campaign event in 2011.
Kelly isn’t a politician by trade, and he’ll need to prove that he has the candidate skills necessary to win. But he has a great story, and Giffords’ presence on the trail should be a huge asset.
North Carolina looks like the Democrats’ next best shot at a takeover. Trump carried the state by 4 points, a similar margin to Arizona. But that was a stunning disappointment for Democrats, since most Tar Heel State polls conducted between mid-September and late October showed Hillary Clinton ahead by at least a couple of points, sometimes as much as by 6 or 8 points.
The incumbent, Thom Tillis, is a generic Republican who has generic Republican appeal. That should be good enough if Trump carries the state, but North Carolina could well be a presidential battleground.
Tillis unseated Democrat Kay Hagan 49 percent to 47 percent in 2014 (Barack Obama’s second midterm election), so he doesn’t have much margin for error.
The GOP’s fourth headache is Maine, where Republican Susan Collins has survived difficult challengers and hostile political environments.
She has built up personal relationships over the years, and she’ll point to instances where she has split from her party to show her independence.
But can Collins survive again after her vote supporting Brett Kavanaugh? We will have to see.
Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon clearly is interested, but others have also been mentioned. Democrats must make the 2020 Senate race in Maine about Trump, Kavanaugh and control of the Senate, while Collins will try to make it about herself.
Democrats may well need to defeat Collins to have a chance of taking over the Senate, so this is one of the top races to watch.
Meanwhile, Democrats cite three long shots to watch: Texas, Georgia and Iowa.
Trump won Texas and Iowa by 9 points, and Georgia by just 5 points.
Democrats will need a big Hispanic turnout in Texas and a continuation of the anti-Trump trend in Georgia’s suburbs to put those Senate contests in play.
They’ll probably need a rural revolt against Trump and the GOP, and a blue-collar swing back to the Democrats, to put Iowa in play.
And Democrats need to defeat Trump to have a chance at flipping the Senate. That would require strong Democratic turnout and possibly some additional defections from the GOP.
If the president loses re-election, the fight for the Senate is likely to come down to North Carolina and Maine. The Senate is broadly “in play,” but Democrats need things to break just right to flip the chamber.
Note: This column appeared initially in the June 4, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
If you’re on any Republican list, you’ve undoubtedly received emails from one of the GOP campaign committees or a Capitol Hill communications staffer calling the Democrats “socialists.” To those of us who were around in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s nothing new. We remember the late GOP campaign consultant Arthur Finkelstein’s strategy: Call your opponent a liberal again and again until voters believe it.
Finkelstein’s style was “unmistakable,” wrote Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post in 1996, “an avalanche of attack ads painting Democrats as ‘liberal,’ ‘ultraliberal,’ ‘embarrassingly liberal’ and ‘unbelievably liberal.’”
Each cycle, Finkelstein returned to his name-calling strategy, and each cycle, political reporters and handicappers rolled their eyes and snickered at his ads, which were as shallow and superficial as they were predictable. They were all about labeling and demonizing.
But in Finkelstein’s case, shallow didn’t necessarily mean ineffective. “Liberal” became a pejorative, and Finkelstein took advantage of that.
The consultant, who died in 2017, worked for a long list of high-profile and successful Republicans and conservatives, including Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Connie Mack of Florida, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Alfonse M. D’Amato of New York. He also worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
After a while, Finkelstein’s strategy grew stale. Democrats wisely nominated a politically moderate Southerner in 1992 in Bill Clinton, and 12 consecutive years in the White House left the GOP with enough baggage to hand the presidency to the Democrats (albeit with a little help from Ross Perot).
Still, it’s undeniable that the liberal label has been an albatross around the necks of Democratic nominees for decades.
A successful strategy
Now, Republicans have raised the stakes by trying to brand the entire Democratic Party as advocating “socialism.”
Of course, the Democratic Party is a long way from being socialist, but the election of a few high-profile, self-declared Democratic socialists has given Republicans the hook they need to portray the entire party as “socialist.”
Defining Democrats as “liberals,” “progressives” or “socialists” is likely to continue to be a successful strategy for the GOP.
February’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found only 23 percent of respondents identified themselves as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal,” compared to 38 percent who embraced the “very conservative” or “somewhat conservative” labels.
Of course, those numbers reflect how people see themselves, not where they actually fall on the ideological scale. But since people are more likely to pick a category they like over one with negative connotations, it is surely relevant that a strong plurality chose the conservative label over the liberal one.
As always, there is another side to the coin. The same February NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey asked respondents whether government should do “more things” (usually seen as a more liberal response) or whether it was already doing “too many things,” (the normally more conservative answer).
A surprising 55 percent of respondents said government should do more compared to only 41 percent who said it should do less. In fact, attitudes seem to be changing.
While Gallup recently found Americans age 30 and older continue to have a much more favorable view of capitalism than socialism, those aged 18-29 have a more favorable view of socialism.
The right response
In the near term, Democrats need to figure out how to respond to the GOP’s attempts at branding the party of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joe Biden.
Do they merely laugh off the “socialism” charge, aggressively dismiss the characterization or look for a way to fight back, possibly by turning the tables on the party of Donald Trump, Steve King, Mike Pence and Sean Hannity?
One possible but very risky approach would be to link Trump and his party to an extreme form of conservative populism: fascism. But few Democratic candidates or officeholders would want to get into a name-calling war with the president, and equating Trump and GOP with fascism would likely be seen as demagoguery.
Fascism is such a loaded word — evoking images of Mussolini and Hitler — that it could generate a backlash, putting the Democrats on the defensive. The obvious answer is to create and repeatedly use a new term, possibly “Trumpism,” that describes the president’s attributes and behavior, from his narcissism and problem telling the truth to his crude language, his appointments of unqualified people and his demeaning of opponents. It would include his gentle treatment of dictators, especially compared with his attitude toward America’s allies, and his efforts to undermine key American institutions when it suits his purposes.
Of course, instead of looking for a new label to define the GOP, Democrats could simply fall back on their traditional attacks – including charging that Republican policies are dividing the country and are hurting children, seniors, women and racial minorities. Depending on where the economy is, those more traditional attacks might well be enough to keep Republicans on the defensive.
Perhaps the best way for Democrats to push back against the socialist label is the simplest — to nominate a pragmatic progressive who, on an issue or two, deviates from liberal orthodoxy and is more concerned with self-discipline, integrity, tolerance, and the ability to unite opponents of Donald Trump than with mere ideological purity.
That would make the GOP’s “socialism” charge both hollow and ineffective.
This column appeared initially in the April 30, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
For most of the last campaign cycle, Republican ad-makers treated then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi like a piñata.
They used her name and image in thousands of GOP television spots around the country, trying to turn the midterm election into a referendum on her liberalism and “San Francisco values.” That effort failed, of course, because midterms are never about the minority party’s congressional leadership, at least not when the president is someone as controversial and polarizing as Donald Trump.
But Pelosi, who turns 79 today, didn’t merely survive the GOP attacks. She has prospered and continues to be the glue that holds the Democratic Party together, proving again and again that those of us who believed last summer that her party would be better off with new leadership were completely wrong.
In fact, Pelosi may be the only individual now able to keep her party together and keep Trump back on his heels. Pelosi — not Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nor Sen. Elizabeth Warren nor Rep. Ilhan Omar — remains the leader of the Democratic Party, no matter how often Republicans and their allies try to paint the Democrats as a lunatic band of socialists preparing to ban cows and air travel.
Since last year’s election, Pelosi has shown her gifts as a leader, vote-counter and strategist. She succeeded in winning another term as speaker and, so far, has kept a more fractured party together.
Last August, almost three months before the midterms, The New Republic published a piece titled “The Democrats’ Real Pelosi Problem Is After the Midterms.”
The focus of that piece and others was the substantial number of Democratic House hopefuls who insisted that they could not and would not support Pelosi for speaker.
And yet, she successfully maneuvered through the mini-revolt of newly elected pragmatists from suburban, swing districts and outspoken progressives who wanted fresh leadership and were impatient for change.
Yes, she had to make a handful of deals to keep the speakership, including agreeing to only four more years in the position. But making deals is nothing new for Pelosi.
Only a few weeks later, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer gave Trump enough rope to allow him to hang himself (politically, that is) when the government shutdown and the president shouldered most of the blame.
Between two wings
How was Pelosi able to survive those very different challenges? One of the congresswoman’s great skills, a former House Democratic staffer told me recently, is that “she is comfortable both with being in the establishment and with challenging the establishment.”
While Pelosi has long political bloodlines and was elected to the Democratic National Committee in her mid-30s, she hasn’t always been the insider she has become.
When she defeated Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer in a fall 2001 contest to become the House Democrats’ new whip, The Washington Post observed that while Hoyer “had chaired the Democratic Caucus and served in other leadership posts, Pelosi styled herself as an outsider who would bring a fresh approach to inside-the-Beltway politics.”
Only 13 months after winning the whip job, Pelosi was elected House minority leader by her party. That made her the first woman to lead a party in either the House or Senate.
She ran, she said back then, “as a seasoned politician and experienced legislator. It just so happens that I am a woman, and we have been waiting a long time for this moment.”
Apparently, Pelosi had no problem morphing from insurgent outsider to experienced legislator in the blink of an eye.
As a woman in an arena dominated by men, Pelosi had to see herself as something of an outsider intent on making history.
That fact may well make it easier for her to understand the ambition and impatience of her younger House colleagues, many of whom are women.
In spite of her liberal bent, Pelosi is smart enough and strategic enough in her thinking to know where her party can and cannot go.
Her efforts to short-circuit talk of possible impeachment is just the latest example of her savvy.
Her ideological positioning in the party, her gender and her fundraising IOUs have allowed her to survive when others might have lost control of House Democrats.
Even those new House members who would like the party to change more are quick to respect Pelosi.
They understand that she rose up through leadership starting at a time when junior members were expected to be “seen but not heard.”
Of course, Pelosi’s role as party leader will end about a year from now, when the Democratic Party has a de facto presidential nominee.
That person will represent the party nationally, though Pelosi, as speaker, will still have a significant voice.
For years, observers of the House have been asking each other when Pelosi will call it quits. Her recapturing of the speakership, combined with her promise not to serve more than two more terms in the House’s top post and her age, suggest that retirement is fast approaching.
That development, whenever it happens, is likely to be a far bigger headache for the Democratic Party than the gentlelady from California has ever been.
Note: This column appeared initially in the March 26, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
Under normal circumstances, Sen. Cory Gardner would be a clear favorite for re-election.
Personable and politically astute, the Colorado Republican ran a terrific campaign in 2014 to oust Democratic incumbent Mark Udall. But President Donald Trump has energized partisan Democrats and alienated suburban swing voters nationally, and that has made Gardner the most vulnerable GOP senator up for re-election in 2020.
Still, it would be unwise for Democrats to count their Colorado chickens before they’ve hatched. Gardner has an uphill fight, but it’s not an impossible one.
Racking up wins
Gardner was just 30 years old when he was appointed to the Colorado state House in 2005. He won a full term the next year and was re-elected in 2008.
In 2010, he challenged and defeated Democratic Rep. Betsy Markey. After initially announcing in May 2013 that he wouldn’t run for the Senate, Gardner reversed himself the following year in late February.
National Republicans, who never stopped recruiting him for the Senate, were overjoyed, while Democrats realized that Udall had a serious fight on his hands.
Gardner opened his general election campaign with a renewable energy/pro-environment television ad that showed he would run from the center and woo suburban voters.
It was a savvy move and a smart strategy, given the likelihood that Democrats would portray him as a conservative ideologue.
The challenger was simply more likable than Udall, who didn’t help himself by obsessively focusing on reproductive rights at the same time that Gardner was stressing economic and energy themes.
Gardner won narrowly, 48 percent to 46 percent, a margin of just under 40,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast.
While he ran a strong race, Gardner definitely benefited by running during Barack Obama’s second midterm election. Without the dynamic that produced a nine-seat Republican Senate gain nationally, he may well have fallen short in his Senate bid.
The state of the state’s politics
Though Republican presidential nominees have carried Colorado in 10 of the last 15 elections, the state has been generally competitive for years. More recently, however, it has been sliding away from the GOP.
Last year, Democrats retained the state’s open governorship, took over the offices of attorney general, state treasurer and secretary of state, and gained a new congressional seat. The party also flipped the state Senate.
Democrats now control the state House with 41 seats to 24 seats for the GOP, and the Senate more narrowly, 19-16.
But state election results tell a slightly more complicated story.
Donald Trump received a smaller percentage of the vote in 2016 (43.3 percent) than Mitt Romney did in 2012 (46.1 percent) or John McCain in 2008 (44.7 percent), but Trump’s losing margin (4.9 points) was actually less than Romney’s (5.4 points) or McCain’s (9 points).
And while Democrats won an at-large University of Colorado regent seat last fall, Republicans held the other at-large regent seat in 2016 at the same time Trump was losing the state.
University board of regents or board of governors races often reflect a state’s partisan fundamentals, combined with the particular election cycle’s partisan dynamics.
Still, Democrats have won 10 of the last dozen gubernatorial elections, a remarkable feat that suggests something more than mere chance.
Interestingly, the state’s senior senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, has not exactly blown away his Republican opponents, both of whom were regarded as relatively weak.
Bennet, who was appointed to the seat in 2009, squeezed by Ken Buck 48.1 percent to 46.4 percent in 2010, which probably reflects the strong anti-Obama midterm message more than the two candidates’ quality or the state’s underlying partisanship.
Six years later, Bennet beat Republican Darryl Glenn, then an El Paso county commissioner, 50 percent to 44.3 percent.
Both parties seem to have relatively low ceilings and high floors in statewide races, which means a tight Senate race next year is very possible.
A couple of recognizable Democrats are already in the race. Andrew Romanoff is a former speaker of the Colorado House who lost a 2010 Senate primary to Bennet and a 2014 challenge to Republican Rep. Mike Coffman. (Coffman lost re-election by a surprisingly large margin last year in a suburban swing district.)
Mike Johnston is a former Colorado state senator who finished a credible third (with almost a quarter of the vote) in last year’s Democratic primary for governor.
Other prominent Democrats, including Rep. Ed Perlmutter, continue to be mentioned as possible candidates, though one of them, former Colorado House Speaker Crisanta Duran, has decided to run for the House instead.
Democrats haven’t yet given up on their hope that former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who announced a presidential bid recently, will eventually forgo his White House ambitions and instead enter the Senate race.
Gardner is lucky his seat is up next year instead of 2018.
It’s generally easier for an incumbent to swim against the tide in a presidential year than during a midterm election, when voters use their House and Senate votes to make a statement about a president who is not on the ballot.
Next year, voters who dislike Trump but generally view Gardner favorably have separate votes to cast, giving the Republican senator a better opportunity to attract ticket-splitters.
Nevertheless, Trump will be a significant liability for Gardner, since a vote for the incumbent is one for continued GOP control of the Senate and inevitably a vote in support of the president.
Gardner, after all, chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee last cycle (making him a member of the party’s Senate leadership), and he generally has been a loyal soldier in Trump’s Senate army.
He will have to depend on his campaign skills and, possibly, some Democratic division to hold his seat next year. It will be a difficult challenge with Trump at the top of the ballot.
Of course, Democrats Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana squeaked out even more difficult victories last year, so Gardner at least has a roadmap to follow.
Note: An almost identical version of this column first appeared in Roll Call on March 5, 2019.