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.

Polling Still Points to Rough November for Republicans

If you trust the July 9-11 Fox News poll and the July 15-18 NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey — and I have no reason not to — the GOP still looks headed for a difficult election and the likely loss of the House.

No, President Donald Trump’s voters are not fleeing him, and his personal poll numbers have not cratered even after his behavior at the NATO summit in Belgium and his Helsinki meeting with Vladimir Putin. So, maybe he really could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. But that says something about Trump’s supporters, not the overall electorate.

Unfortunately for Republicans, the combination of national and state polling continues to show the party’s vulnerability as November approaches.

The most recent Fox News poll of registered voters found Trump’s job approval at 46 percent, while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey of registered voters put his approval at 45 percent. Both numbers are up a point or two but generally within the low- to mid-40s range where they have been for most of this year. Trump, of course, drew 46.1 percent of the popular vote in 2016.

Fox showed Democrats with an overall 8-point advantage on the congressional generic ballot, while NBC News/Wall Street Journal put their advantage at 6 points.

Both surveys are well within the midrange of recent national surveys and approaching the +10 to +12 range Democrats probably need to flip the House.

The president’s standing among independent voters is of particular concern to Republican strategists. (I wrote about why in a May 30 column.)

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed Trump’s job rating among independents at 36 percent approve/58 percent disapprove, while Fox News found it at 40 percent approve/48 percent disapprove.

In both surveys, the president’s standing among independents was worse than among all voters.

In the congressional generic ballot, Fox News found independents now preferring Democrats by 13 points, 32 percent to 19 percent, while the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey showed them backing a Democratic Congress by more than 20 points.

Two years ago

Both numbers stand in sharp contrast to the 2016 national House exit poll, which found independent voters went Republican by 6 points, 51 percent to 45 percent.

The most recent Fox News and NBC News/Wall Street Journal surveys give us some other interesting numbers to chew on, especially in light of the 2016 national House exit poll.

That poll showed whites voted Republican by 22 points (60 percent to 38 percent) in 2016. But the most recent Fox News survey showed the GOP’s generic ballot advantage among white voters this year is down to single digits, 49 percent to 41 percent.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found whites preferring the GOP by a nearly identical 9 points, 50 percent to 41 percent.

Older voters could be crucial in November, since they tend to turn out in high numbers.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed voters 65 and older giving Trump a job rating of 44 percent approve/55 percent disapprove and preferring a Democratic Congress by 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent).

In contrast, the 2016 House exit poll found voters 65 and older backed the GOP by 8 points, 53 percent to 45 percent, in that election.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found key demographic groups — younger voters (ages 18-29), independents, suburban voters and white women — all looking very likely to perform the way they did in 2006, a Democratic wave year.

Keeping the base

To be sure, Trump remains strong among his core constituencies — white men, white men without a college degree, self-identified Republicans and rural voters, for example — but none of those groups are normally considered swing voters, though a strong turnout by those groups would obviously benefit the president.

A handful of state and district polls over the last month also showed surprising Democratic strength in the Senate races in West Virginia and Tennessee, California’s 48th District, North Carolina’s 9th District and even West Virginia’s 3rd District.

Clearly, the political landscape remains dangerous for the GOP, though Democrats can’t claim victory yet. This cake is not yet baked.

So far, there is no evidence of wholesale defections from Trump among those who voted for him in 2016.

The president has generally played to his base, and most true-blue Trump loyalists are so invested in him that they would not even consider voting Democratic in the fall.

But Trump has done nothing to improve his standing with voters who supported Hillary Clinton and progressive Democrats who couldn’t make themselves vote for her.

At the same time, the president’s policies on trade, his incomprehensible delay in blaming Putin for interfering in the 2016 election, his positions on guns and immigration, and his insensitive comments about race may eventually cost him some support among those who voted for him (even if they are not yet ready to bolt Trump now).

But Democrats don’t need the votes of Trump loyalists to ride a political wave into the House. They merely need to turn out Democrats and win independents by a substantial margin.

Any additional leakage of GOP voters to the Democrats in November — or a drop in Republican turnout for the midterms — would make the wave bigger.

Events could change the election’s trajectory, of course, and the president is likely to have a few ups and a few downs between now and November.

But it’s more likely that the daily dose of chaos from the White House that surely will continue to Election Day will produce more fatigue with the White House on the right and in the center than on the left, where enthusiasm remains high.

The column appeared originally in Roll Call on July 24, 2018.