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.

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 2018 Isn’t Already in the Bag for Democrats

With the president’s job approval ratings sitting in the mid-30s, why isn’t a Democratic House takeover next year a slam dunk?

The answer doesn’t have anything to do with the low unemployment rate, the growth of the gross domestic product over the last two quarters, or the soaring Dow Jones Industrials average. Nor does it have anything to do with the Republican tax cut plan or ISIS, or with the fact that “anything can happen.”

In spite of Donald Trump’s poor job approval numbers, his meanspirited denunciations of the media and the FBI, his exaggerations and untruths, his endorsement of Roy Moore, his attacks on honorable public servants like Bob Corker, Mitt Romney and Jeff Flake, and his repeatedly unwise statements that undercut or embarrass America’s allies in Europe and Asia, the president has not yet cost his party control of the House of Representatives.

The reason involves campaign dynamics and partisanship.

Just as Senate hopeful Moore has tried to rally his base in the final weeks of the Alabama Senate election, Donald Trump, his cheerleaders at Fox News, and Republican strategists will try to turn the 2018 midterms away from being a referendum on Donald Trump’s character, integrity and judgment and into a referendum on party and ideology. And if they are able to do that, Republicans can limit their damage eleven months from now.

Moore was at his weakest when the public focus was on his behavior and his character. Polling in Alabama showed Democrat Doug Jones pulling ahead when that was the case. But as the focus in Alabama changed to Jones – to his party label, position on abortion and overall ideology – Republican voters started to “come home.” (Whether enough have come home is still an open question.)

That’s only natural, since election results reflect the voters’ agenda.

Trump’s post-inauguration speeches, like the recent one in Pensacola, Florida, are campaign rallies intended to play to his base and rally his supporters. He often portrays his opponents as “evil.”

These rallies rarely seek to convince Americans about his policy proposals. Rather, they offer red meat to people already committed to Trump – and to those whose support has started to wane.

Sure, campaign rallies are often about mobilizing supporters, but they rarely are as narrowly targeted as Trump’s are. The president doesn’t seem to care at all about broadening his appeal, no matter how narrow his existing support.

Trump is betting that by the time the midterms roll around he will be able to bring back into the fold voters who were turned off by his style and language but who distrust the national media, liberals and Democrats more.

Given the states with Senate races in 2018 and the relatively few competitive House districts, that’s a calculated gamble by Trump and his allies.

Democrats need to net 24 seats next year to take back the House. That’s a challenging number considering that only 23 Republicans sit in districts that went for Hillary Clinton last year. Moreover, some of those Republicans are proven vote getters with demonstrated political skills, including John Katko (NY), Barbara Comstock (VA), Erik Paulsen (MN), Pat Meehan (PA) and Jeff Denham (CA).

If many of those talented Republicans can retain their seats, and if GOP strategists can get Trump voters to turn out next year and vote Republican, the party will have a chance to keep the control of the House during the midterms. That’s not close to a sure thing, of course, but it’s possible.

That’s why the president’s poor job approval numbers are a giant headache for his party but they don’t yet guarantee the House will flip. Stay tuned.