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.

Rothenberg’s Dangerous Dozen Open House Seats

Yes, it’s time for another of my “dangerous dozen open House seats” columns, which I have been writing since shortly after the establishment of the Jamestown Settlement (or so it seems).

This cycle’s version has a plethora of seats to choose from, given the 38 Republican and 19 Democratic seats where an incumbent is not seeking re-election, either because he or she is retiring or running for a different office. (The number does not include those districts where a special election has already filled a vacancy or will be held before November.)

Those 57 total retirements are the second largest since 1930, surpassed only by 1992, which had a total of 65 open seats.

Here is my list, in descending order of vulnerability.

The first 10 districts on the list look very likely to flip party control.

After that, things get a bit murkier.

1. Pennsylvania’s 5th (Patrick Meehan, R)

Meehan’s suburban Philadelphia district has been completely redrawn by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, going from a very competitive district that voted for Hillary Clinton by 2 points in 2016 to one that would have backed her by 28 points under the new lines.

Meehan, who recently resigned from Congress, had his own problems anyway, but the new lines guarantee the Republican will be replaced by a Democrat.

2. Pennsylvania’s 14th (Conor Lamb, D)

Pennsylvania’s old 18th District has been chopped up a number of ways. Lamb has decided to run in the redrawn 17th District, where Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus will also be seeking re-election.

That means that the redrawn 14th, much of which is in now in Lamb’s district, won’t have an incumbent on the ballot in the fall.

The redrawn seat went for President Donald Trump by 29 points, making it an almost certain Republican takeover in the fall.

3. Florida’s 27th (Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R)

Ros-Lehtinen proved her political appeal in 2016 when she won re-election while Clinton was carrying her district by 20 points. But now that the Republican congresswoman is retiring, the heavily Hispanic district looks poised to flip party control.

4. Pennsylvania’s 6th (Ryan A. Costello, R).

Costello went back and forth about seeking re-election under the new lines. Clinton carried the old district by a single point but took the redrawn seat by 9 points.

The congressman finally announced that he would not seek re-election, and that almost certainly ended GOP chances of holding this suburban Philadelphia seat.

5. New Jersey’s 2nd (Frank A. LoBiondo, R)

LoBiondo’s district is a contradiction. Trump carried it by 5 points, but President Barack Obama carried it twice, by 8 points each time.

The Republican incumbent lost his first bid for Congress in 1992 but hasn’t had a close contest since he won the open seat in 1994.

The favorite for this year’s open seat is Democrat Jeff Van Drew. National Democrats have wooed the moderate state senator to run for years, but he waited until the seat became open. Smart move.

6. Arizona’s 2nd (Martha McSally, R)

McSally is running for the Senate in what could be a terrible Republican year, both in her state and nationally. While she is a strong candidate, her exit creates a huge hole for Republicans in a district Clinton carried by almost 5 points.

Divisions within the state GOP and a relatively weak Republican showing in Arizona’s 8th District special election last month suggest serious problems for McSally’s party.

7. California’s 49th (Darrell Issa, R)

Issa barely edged out Democratic challenger Doug Applegate two years ago and decided not to try his luck once again. Both parties have multiple hopefuls running, and the top-two open primary complicates any analysis.

But the district has been moving toward the Democrats, and Trump’s unpopularity — Clinton carried the seat by more than 7 points — and Democratic enthusiasm makes this district a prime takeover target. If a Democrat makes the top two, the district will flip.

8. California’s 39th (Ed Royce, R)

Clinton carried Royce’s district by 9 points so it isn’t surprising that this open seat is at great risk. Uncertain GOP turnout in the state, partially a function of Trump’s weakness, adds to Republican woes. Again, if a Democrat makes the top two, the district is likely to flip.

9. Pennsylvania’s 7th (Charlie Dent, R)

Dent has been an extremely popular and savvy officeholder, which has masked the competitiveness of this district. His retirement, and a redrawn district map, combine to make this vacant seat a Republican headache. Trump carried the old 15th District by 8 points, but Clinton carried the redrawn seat by a point — which is why the eventual GOP nominee will be an underdog.

10. New Jersey’s 11th (Rodney Frelinghuysen, R)

Frelinghuysen was first elected to Congress in 1994, a huge Republican “wave” year, and he is retiring in what could become one of the larger Democratic waves in recent memory.

The pragmatic Republican hasn’t been tested in years, but Trump carried his educated, upscale Republican-leaning district by less than a point.

The likely Democratic nominee, Mikie Sherrill, is a Naval Academy graduate, former Navy pilot, former federal prosecutor and a woman. Looks like a giant migraine headache for GOP strategists — and a Democratic pickup.

11. Michigan’s 11th (David Trott, R)

This suburban district located northwest of Detroit usually leans Republican, but Obama carried it in 2008. Trump won it by a bit over 4 points, hardly an overwhelming margin. Both parties have crowded primaries that include current and former candidates and B-team hopefuls.

12. Minnesota’s 1st and 8th (Tim Walz, D/Rick Nolan, D)

Trump carried both of these districts by about 15 points, but both voted for Obama twice. They both have a substantial chunk of rural and blue-collar voters, giving the eventual Republican nominees the opportunity to flip a Democratic seat even while the national trend is going very much in the opposite direction. But since I’m not certain which is more likely to flip, I’ll put both on the list for now.

This list almost certainly will change as primaries play out, general election races engage and polls show how voters are reacting to the nominees and the broader political environment.

Honorable mentions

Keep an eye on a handful of races that just missed being included on my list but could be added later.

Those open districts include Washington’s 8th (Republican Dave Reichert), North Carolina’s 9th (Republican Robert Pittenger) and Kansas’ 2nd (Republican Lynn Jenkins). And even the open seat of Speaker Paul D. Ryan in Wisconsin’s 1st District bears watching.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on May 10, 2018.