Will the Democrats Take Control of the Senate?

9/13/19

Depending on who is in the White House, Democrats need to flip 3 or 4 Senate seats to take control.  The Republicans are defending 22 seats in 2020 compared to the Democrats’ 12, so the numbers appear to be in the Democrats’ favor, the realities may or may not be.   

Here are three areas to watch and decide for yourself what might happen.
  1. Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina
  2. Democratic recruiting
  3. The unelectable
Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina: Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) are thought to be in trouble in states that President Trump lost by 4-ish points.  There’s a fear that Hollywood types and Act Blue will back up the Brinks truck against Sen. Collins, mostly for her support of Justice Kavanaugh.  Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)will pull out all the stops for her, for the same reason.
 
Sen. Gardner ran the political committee that held and expanded the Senate majority amid Trump-inspired headwinds, so lots of folks owe him one.  However, in late August after abandoning his presidential campaign, former Governor John Hickenlooper (D) announced he’d run against Gardner.  Former governors are usually tough draws.  They’ve won statewide, have massive name ID, and are generally well liked so he will be a serious challenge for Gardner.  
 
Trump won both North Carolina and Arizona by about 4 points, but Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Martha McSally (R-AZ) have a lot of work to do to hold those seats.  McSally lost the Senate race last year to Senator Kyrsten Sinema.  But she was appointed by the governor to fill the seat left vacant upon the death of John McCain and now must win it in her own right.  McSally was one of the Air Force’s first women fighter pilots.  The Democrats have trumped (no pun intended) McSally’s resume the only way you can—with an astronaut, Mark Kelly.
 
The North Carolina seat has flipped back and forth over the last two elections—from Elizabeth Dole (R) to Kay Hagen (D) in 2008, to Tillis (R) in 2014.  It just might flip again in 2020.
 
Democratic Recruiting: The Democrats have struck out in recruiting top tier candidates in a few cases.  It is important to note there is plenty of time for folks to change their minds.  Nevertheless, Stacey Abrams passed on challenging Senator David Perdue in Georgia.  Georgia now has two seats in play as Johnny Isakson is stepping down for health reasons.  Abrams may rethink it, or she may be holding out for vice president.  Former national security adviser and summer-time Maine resident Susan Rice said no thanks to a run at Susan Collins.  And several prominent Democrats would rather run for president than challenge a sitting senator including—former Montana Governor Steve Bullock.  Beto O’Rouke and Julian Castro are in the presidential race rather than taking on John Cornyn in Texas.  Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack isn’t doing much to indicate he might challenge Joni Ernst.
 
The Unelectable: The Republican party has a unique ability to nominate the one Republican in a state who can’t win the Senate seat against a vulnerable opponent (see Sharon Angle, Todd Akin, Roy Moore, Richard Mourdock, Christine O’Donnell—all candidates who were flawed, not suitable for the state, or made terrible missteps costing Republicans Senate seats thought to be winnable).  Pessimistic Republicans worry about that trend in open seats in Tennessee and Kansas and as they try to unseat Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama.  A nice way to say it is that “establishment” Republicans are hoping their more “electable” candidates prevail in the primaries. 
 
In the last few years, the Senate was understood to provide a backstop for controversial legislation that that passed the House including, in our wheelhouse, mandates on diversity, pay levels, or leave.  Majority Leader McConnell isn’t going to let Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and other progressive bills that emanate from the Democratic-controlled House come to a vote in the Senate.  “If I'm still the majority leader in the Senate think of me as the Grim Reaper.  None of that stuff is going to pass,” McConnell has said.  If the Senate flips, Chuck Schumer (D-NY) likely will be the majority leader and would be happy to consider House-passed legislation.
Those are just three factors that will influence control of the Senate.  The economy and the latest presidential tweets are considerations too of course.  The outcome is more important than simply horse race politics.