The 8 Senate Races Likely to Determine Control of the Chamber

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.

Longer shots

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.

Can Doug Jones Win a Full Term in Alabama?

Alabama’s junior senator, Democrat Doug Jones, has been in office for only 13 months, but he’s already preparing to face voters again in 2020. With the Senate at 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer can’t afford to lose any seats next year if he hopes to win back control of the chamber. Does Jones have any chance of winning, or is the handwriting already on the wall for a GOP pick-up in Alabama?

The top race handicappers are split on Jones’s re-election prospects.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race “Leans Republican,” while The Cook Political Report handicaps the contest as “Leans Democrat” and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball classifies it as a “Toss-up.”

Actually, I don’t agree with any of those calls, though I’m closest to Inside Elections’, where I remain a senior editor. I don’t think Jones has much chance at all of holding on to his seat next year.

Simply put, his special election win was a fluke, not likely to be repeated.

The special

Jones, 64, served a little more than three years as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama during President Bill Clinton’s second term.

He had never been elected to office when he jumped into the Senate special election to fill the remainder of Jeff Sessions’s unexpired term.

Jones had little serious Democratic opposition, winning the primary, and the nomination, with two-thirds of the vote. But only 165,000 votes were cast in the primary, much less than half of the 423,000 votes cast on the GOP side.

No Republican received a majority of that primary’s vote, so the party had a runoff between the top-two finishers: former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (38.9 percent); and appointed incumbent and former state Attorney General Luther Strange (32.8 percent).

While the national GOP establishment was strongly behind Strange, third-place primary finisher Rep. Mo Brooks (19.7 percent) endorsed Moore.

Brooks called the runoff “an epic battle between the people of Alabama who put America first and the Washington swamp that hopes to buy our Senate seat and put America last.”

Moore won the runoff with 54.6 percent of the vote and moved into the special election as a damaged nominee.

However, many national Republicans, including President Donald Trump, who had preferred Strange, rallied around Moore’s candidacy, hoping to keep the seat in GOP hands.

Moore brought a lifetime of political baggage to the Dec. 12, 2017, special election, including being removed from the bench once, being suspended from the bench another time, alleged ties to white nationalist groups, and allegations of sexual misconduct over the years.

Jones ended up squeezing past Moore 50 percent to 48.3 percent in a major upset — and the first Senate victory for a Democrat in Alabama since Richard Shelby was re-elected in 1992. (Shelby switched to the GOP after the 1994 elections.)

2020 outlook

Jones’s special election victory was entirely due to Moore’s nomination.

It was not a repudiation of Trump, a reflection of the state’s partisan realignment or evidence of Jones’ unique appeal.

Fairly or unfairly, Moore was seen by many state voters, including conservatives and Republicans, as a sexual predator, and some of those voters either cast their ballots for Jones or stayed home on Election Day.

In a sense, the special election became a referendum on Moore.

Jones, who had no legislative record that needed defending, campaigned as a moderate Democrat.

That made him acceptable to some voters looking for an alternative to the former judge. While partisan Republicans and conservatives still saw a vote for Jones as a vote against Trump and his conservative agenda, others simply regarded Moore as unacceptable.

Indeed, given all of Moore’s personal and political baggage, and a career of confrontation and controversy, it’s remarkable that he won a Republican Senate primary and almost won the vote in the special election.

Alabama remains as Republican as it has been for the past decade or two.

The GOP vote in the state has been stable during the past four presidential races. George W. Bush drew 62.5 percent in the 2004 presidential contest, while John McCain drew 60.3 percent four years later. Mitt Romney received 60.6 percent of the vote in 2012, and Trump won 62.1 percent in 2016.

Trump remains popular in the state. A December 2018 Morning Consult poll of the states found that his job approval had slipped in Alabama from 62 percent in January 2017 to 58 percent last month, a relatively small dip.

His populism appeals to many white voters in the state. If Republicans select a 2020 nominee without Moore’s baggage — which should be easy — Jones will face a fundamentally different challenge.

He will need to get the votes of Republicans and conservatives who remain loyal to Trump and to the Republican agenda on taxes, spending, immigration, health care, abortion and gay/transgender rights.

Jones hasn’t been the most liberal Democrat, but his high-profile vote against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could well be enough to define him to Alabama voters as liberal and anti-Trump. (West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who narrowly won re-election in November from another very Republican state, was the lone Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh’s nomination.)

Given the state’s fundamentals, I don’t see how the Alabama race can be rated anything other than “Likely Republican.”

The state is polarized along racial and partisan lines, and the 2020 Senate race is likely to look nothing like the 2017 contest, when the Republican nominee had baggage that was disqualifying.

Obviously, Jones’ prospects would improve if the Republicans select another damaged Senate nominee, or even if Democrats nominate a more appealing presidential nominee (possibly like former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper).

So, while there are developments that could change Jones’ prospects, making them better or even worse than they start, the reality of the 2020 Alabama Senate race is simple: Doug Jones is a Democrat and a moderate in a state that is very Republican and very conservative. He starts, at least in my book, as a heavy underdog for re-election.

Note: This column initially appeared in Roll Call on January 9, 2019.

Why Evangelicals Stick with Donald Trump & Roy Moore

Nobody should be surprised that evangelical voters are sticking with the GOP.

I’ve been watching evangelical voting behavior since I worked for Paul Weyrich’s Free Congress Foundation in the 1980s, and I’ve come to believe that, in most cases (though certainly not all), white evangelicals get their religion from their politics, not their politics from their religion.

That is, many evangelicals are first and foremost political conservatives drawn to a church (or a pastor) that confirms their worldviews and, in turn, their political views.

They gravitate to evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches that are spread across the American landscape, particularly in rural and small-town America, because those churches hold views about the Bible and human behavior that are traditional rather than pragmatic. Not surprisingly, most of those church members are politically conservative, particularly on social/cultural issues but increasingly also on the role of government.

There are, to be sure, socially and economically liberal evangelicals, and they gravitate to progressive churches or to groups like the Sojourners, a social justice evangelical group that looks at the exact same scripture as Jerry Fallwell Jr. and Pat Robertson but emphasizes very different values and takes very different political positions.

While the Falwells and Roberstons focus primarily on abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights, Jim Wallis of the Sojourners focuses on the poor and those marginalized by society. All are “evangelicals,” but they have very different concerns and agendas.

Of course, the tendency to affiliate with religious institutions that are consistent with one’s political views and priorities isn’t limited to evangelicals. Most people of faith pick a religion, a denomination, a particular house of worship, a clergyman and a level of observance that is consistent with their world view – and therefore with their core political beliefs.

You aren’t going to find very many political conservatives in Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues, just as you aren’t going to find many extremely liberal Hasidic Jews or pragmatists who attend fundamentalist churches.

The Catholic divide isn’t as easy to see, but it exists, with the religious travels of Paul Weyrich a good example of divisions in the Catholic Church.

Weyrich, a leading figure in what was called the New Right and the person who probably was most responsible for bringing evangelicals and conservative Catholics together after decades (really centuries) of distrust, grew up in Wisconsin as a Roman Catholic. But after Vatican II, he switched to attend St. Gregory of Nyssa Byzantine Catholic Church in Washington, D.C.

Many Eastern Rite Catholic churches were more traditional than their Roman Catholic brethren, retaining time-honored liturgical rites and ancestral languages. Those elements fit Weyrich’s traditional religious orientation and his overall conservative instincts.

Then, one day during a sermon, a priest referenced the Vietnam War in a context that was critical of U.S. involvement. Weyrich and his family walked out of St. Gregory’s, eventually joining a Melkite (Greek) Catholic church that was even more traditional than the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic church they had been attending.

Weyrich looked for a church in which he was comfortable, and that led him to more orthodox denominations, churches and clergy who followed traditions more closely and were not at the forefront of change.

Not everyone is as clear as Weyrich was in searching for a house of worship that reflected his values, principles, trappings and priorities. And certainly, some evangelicals, like former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, have chosen to follow their moral imperatives rather than their partisan and ideological instincts.

But many religious denominations — or branches, in the case of Judaism — reflect a worldview that goes well beyond strictly religious views (such as, the divinity of Jesus or the observance of kashrut, for example).

They tend to be politically conservative or liberal, on social issues, foreign policy and even economic issues, depending on the denomination and the individual church or synagogue. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, including my own synagogue, which tends to avoid matters of public policy except for Israel.)

For many white evangelicals, their religious and political views are so strongly intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. When their views of religion and morality collide with politics, politics often wins out. That’s why it’s naïve to ask why so many white evangelicals continue to support Donald Trump or Roy Moore.

Remember physician Scott DesJarlais (R-TN 4), the pro-life, tea party conservative first elected to Congress in 2010?

DesJarlais admitted pressuring his mistress to have an abortion and acknowledged he had multiple sexual relationships with patients and co-workers. His wife had two abortions. And yet, the Family Research Council, which promotes “traditional marriage and family and advocates for policies that uphold Judeo-Christian values” (according to the Almanac of American Politics, 2016), gave the congressman a 100% rating for 2014. Even more amazing, voters re-elected the Republican in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

The congressman’s hypocrisy is obvious, but no more so than the political behavior of his conservative, evangelical supporters.

If you have any doubt that white evangelicals are as much a political category as a religious one, you need only look at recent elections and exit polls.

In 2016, Donald Trump received the support of 80% of white evangelicals and born-again Christians, while Hillary Clinton drew just 16%. Clinton, on the other hand, won 60% of non-evangelicals. One year later, in the Virginia governor’s race. Republican Ed Gillespie carried 79% of white evangelicals, compared to Democrat Ralph Northam’s 19%. Northam carried a stunning 67% of Virginians who were not white evangelicals or born-agains.

Obviously, I have painted with a broad brush here. Religious institutions are changing all the time – witness Pope Francis’s priorities and comments. And the increasing partisan polarization we have witnessed surely is impacting how people evaluate the behavior and beliefs of others.

What does all of this mean for Roy Moore’s Senate race next month? Given their politics, I expect the overwhelming percentage of white evangelicals in Alabama to vote for Moore, so his prospects depend on turnout by establishment Republicans, Democratic voting groups and Republican women.

If Moore does win – and he is more likely than not to defeat Democrat Doug Jones – it will be because white evangelicals find his politics more important than his morality.

Are the Alabama & Tennessee Senate Races for Real?

Democratic strategists have been searching for ways to put a third GOP-held Senate seat – after Nevada and Arizona – into play in the hope of winning back the Senate next year. Now, some activists think Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement and a special election in two months to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Alabama open seat are providing surprising opportunities.

No, Nevada and Arizona are not sure bets as takeovers, and there are plenty of Democratic senators up next year who could lose their seats to a GOP challenger.

But putting a third Republican-held seat into play would at least give Democrats a theoretical chance of wresting control of the Senate away from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump next year.

But veteran Democratic strategists remain cautious – and skeptical – about Alabama and Tennessee, worrying that a high profile national Democratic role in the contests would be self-defeating.

Past election results don’t offer much reason for Democratic optimism.

Trump won Alabama last year with 62.1% to 34.4% for Hillary Clinton, and he carried Tennessee 60.8% to her 34.7%. In other words, Trump’s margins in Tennessee (26.1%) and Alabama (27.7%) were both large.

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that Alabama was solidly Democratic and Tennessee was politically competitive.

As late as Election Day 1994, both of Alabama’s sitting senators were Democrats. Howell Heflin was re-elected in 1990, while Richard Shelby was reelected in 1992. But the day after the 1994 elections, Shelby changed parties, and two years later Heflin retired. His seat was won, 53%-46%, by Sessions. Since then, no Democrat has drawn as much as 40% of the vote in an Alabama Senate race.

The last Democratic governor of Alabama was Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998. He narrowly lost his bid for reelection four years later, and in 2006 he lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore carried Tennessee in 1992 and 1996, but then the bottom fell out for Democrats in presidential contests. Gore lost his home state by more than three points in 2000, and since then the Democratic percentage of the vote in the Volunteer State has shrunk every election.

But Tennessee has seen some competitive high profile general elections over the past decade or two.

Democrat Phil Bredesen was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in a landslide four years later. He carried every county in the state. And in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race, Democrat Harold Ford lost the open seat contest to Republican Bob Corker, who is retiring next year, by less than three points. Admittedly, 2006 was a terrible year for Democrats nationally.

The Democratic case for making either of these races competitive relies on two pillars: (1) Donald Trump and (2) what you might call the “crackpot factor.”  (For a thoughtful argument that the Alabama race is worth watching, see Zac McCrary’s and John Anzalone’s piece here.)

Midterm voting trends tend to favor the party not controlling the White House, and the President Trump’s unusual style and behavior could in some states be a considerable liability for Republican candidates. If Democrats have any chance in the South, it would be in year when a Republican president is embattled and voters are unhappy.

Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore’s views and his behavior while a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court – including his refusal to accept the legitimacy of United States Supreme Court decisions and his view that God’s Law overrides civil law – could turn off some more moderate and less partisan voters. That could boost the prospects of the Democratic nominee, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones.

If Jones can avoid the national Democratic label and keep the focus on Moore, argue some Democrats, Jones might actually have a path to victory.

In Tennessee, the Democratic scenario is based on the crowded Republican primary field producing a Senate nominee who is also at the extreme end of his or her party. If that happens, and if Democrats can find a credible nominee who can raise money and appeal to a broad swath of Tennessee voters, they could have a chance to win. (In the past, Tennessee has had a history of producing pragmatic nominees rather than anti-establishment bomb-throwers.)

In other words, the Democratic scenarios are mostly wishful thinking at this point. That could change, of course, and there are polls in Alabama that show a Moore-Jones race starts out surprisingly close in the single digits. (See here and here.)

But Trump’s national problems are not likely to be so serious in Alabama, where he is still popular and whites have deserted the Democratic Party.

Smart Democratic strategists are playing it very low-key in both the Alabama and Tennessee races. They will wait to see whether a strong candidate emerges in Tennessee and are conducting polling to see whether they have a serious path to victory in Alabama, but they understand how difficult both of those races are.

If Democratic groups jump in too early and commit major resources, they will essentially “nationalize” the two Senate races, which would undermine the party’s chances in both states. Whatever Alabama Republicans think of Moore and even Trump, they do not want to turn the Senate over to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

While it is difficult to “sneak up” on an opponent these days because of the money and media attention that races can attract, Democratic insiders wisely believe that making either race a cause celebre for the national party or national Democratic figures will actually harm the party’s chances in the two campaigns.

As one Democrat told me, he had no desire to re-play the Georgia 6 special election, which became a partisan fight and was eventually won narrowly by the GOP nominee. “Getting close” in one or both of those races would not be good enough.

We’ll know soon whether Moore is so radioactive that he has turned a Republican landslide into a competitive race, and whether Democrats can find a formidable candidate in Tennessee. For now, the burden is on the Democrats to prove that either Senate race is really winnable.

At this point, both Alabama and Tennessee appear to be too Republican, too conservative and too pro-Trump to elect a Democrat to the Senate.