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.

Susan Collins Has a 2020 Problem

If Sen. Susan Collins runs for a fifth term, she ought to expect a very different race than in the past. Forget coasting to victory, no matter the opponent or even the nature of the election cycle.

Collins will start off as vulnerable — a top Democratic target in a state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Maine Republican’s great strength over the years has been her moderation and thoughtfulness. She mulls over issues extensively, almost always looking for middle ground.

She supports abortion rights and LGBT issues, and she has broken with her party on topics ranging from the environment to taxes to the Affordable Care Act.

But Collins’ vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court gives Democrats an opportunity to retire her next year — as does the fact that her contest could determine which party controls the Senate.

A remarkable politician

Collins has had an extensive career of public service. She has also proven to be a savvy campaigner and able vote-getter, and she fits the mold of moderate Maine Republicans like former Sen. William Cohen, former Gov. John McKernan, former Sen. Olympia Snowe and, of course, the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.

Collins served as a congressional staffer (for Cohen), as commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation (in McKernan’s cabinet), as regional director of the Small Business Administration, and as the deputy state treasurer of Massachusetts before making an unsuccessful run for governor in 1994. (Independent Angus King won that race, and Collins finished a somewhat distant third, behind former Democratic Rep. Joseph Brennan, who had served two terms as governor previously. Her showing did not suggest she had much of a political future.)

Two years after that gubernatorial loss, Collins ran for Cohen’s open seat. In the fall, she defeated Brennan by just over five points, 49.2 percent to 43.9 percent.

Collins’ showing was noteworthy since President Bill Clinton was carrying Maine comfortably at the same time.

Six years later, in 2002, Collins faced a serious challenger in former Maine Senate Majority Leader Chellie Pingree, now a congresswoman. But the year was a good one for incumbents, and Collins won re-election comfortably, 58 percent to 42 percent.

In 2008, Collins was challenged by 1st District Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, who on paper certainly looked like a serious threat. Elected to Congress six times, he represented half the state in the House.

With an unpopular outgoing Republican president in George W. Bush and a dynamic Democratic presidential nominee in Barack Obama, Collins clearly was swimming against a strong current.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain drew only 40 percent of the vote in Maine, winning just one of the state’s 16 counties.

Nationally, the GOP lost 21 House seats. But even in that inhospitable political environment, Collins clobbered Allen 61.3 percent to 38.6 percent – winning every county in the state.

Six years later, in Obama’s second midterm election, Collins cruised to re-election with over 68 percent of the vote against a weak Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows.

2020

In politics, as well as investing, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That is particularly true of Collins next year, since her support of Kavanaugh will likely generate a well-funded Democratic challenger.

Democrats will surely argue that Kavanaugh’s confirmation puts abortion rights and LGBT equality at risk, and they will note that re-electing Collins all but guarantees continued Republican control the Senate, which will translate into more conservative judges and more power for the GOP’s right wing.

That argument, if successful, would make the Maine Senate race less about Collins and her service to the state and more about President Donald Trump and continued Republican control of the Senate.

That narrative would not be ideal for Collins, since Democrats now control the state’s governorship and both chambers of the Maine Legislature.

But unlike 1994, 2006, 2010 or even 2018, when midterm voters sent messages of dissatisfaction about the sitting president’s performance, 2020 is a presidential year.

Voters will have separate votes to cast for president and the Senate, which means that Maine voters can send separate messages about Trump and Collins, if they prefer.

Still, with American politics becoming more partisan and ticket-splitting less common, Collins will need to convince Maine voters that she is the same independent voice that many Mainers thought she was.

And she has ammunition to make her case, including her vote to save the Affordable Care Act and her Washington Post op-ed explaining why she could not vote for Trump for president.

A handful of interesting Democratic names are being floated as possible challengers to Collins, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, 1st District Rep. Pingree, former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree (Chellie’s daughter) and current Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Rice has not stopped speculation that she may be interested, but her lack of deep roots in the state would seem to be a serious liability in Maine.

The bottom line

Collins was underestimated politically for years, some of it because of a halting public speaking style. But her Kavanaugh vote — and her explanation shortly before she cast it — undermined a political brand that she has built over the years.

The question is how damaged she is, as well as who will carry the Democratic banner against her.

So, while it is too early to know whether she can win another term, one thing is certain: Susan Collins has a problem.

Note: This column initially appeared in Roll Call on January 15, 2019.