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.

The most vulnerable Republican senator in 2020

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.

Previewing 2020

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.