Winning back the chamber is just as important as retaking the White House. But can Democrats wrest control from the GOP?
The fight to dislodge Donald Trump from the presidency has sparked unprecedented interest in the 2020 Democratic primary, drawing dozens of candidates, including no fewer than seven sitting senators. But the fight to wrest the Senate from Republican control — and oust Mitch McConnell as majority leader — is arguably just as important. Take it from Amy McGrath, the former Marine fighter pilot aiming to win McConnell’s Kentucky Senate seat, who sees curbing McConnell’s power as essential to healing our republic. “He’s the epitome of Washington dysfunction, everything we hate about politics,” she says. “You cannot drain the swamp until you get rid of Mitch McConnell.”
The stakes could hardly be higher. Unless Democrats flip the Senate, the grand plans of the presidential candidates are dead on arrival. Capturing the chamber is just as crucial if Trump is re-elected; it would give Democrats control of the legislative agenda, budget, and judicial confirmations, ending McConnell’s reign as Trump’s rubber stamp. “I’m not sure McConnell sees the Congress anymore as an independent branch of government,” says Sen. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat, “but simply to be there for the president.”
Republicans currently hold a three-seat edge in the Senate, 53 to 47. At first glance, the 2020 electoral map looks favorable to Democrats. Republicans must defend 23 seats to the Democrats’ 12. But the terrain is challenging: 20 of the GOP incumbents hail from states Trump carried in 2016.
Still, nonpartisan analysts like Democratic chances. “The Senate’s in play,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor of Inside Elections, which handicaps federal races. “Democrats have enough takeover opportunities to get there without having to win everything on the table.”
The path to a Democratic majority will be shaped by political dynamics that the candidates can’t fully control — including the tumult of Trump’s possible impeachment and the strength of the Democrats’ 2020 presidential nominee. In 2016, every Senate contest went in the direction of the presidential vote.
Concerning some political watchers is the gap between the agenda of Democratic front-runners like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — who are promising a wealth tax, free college, and a Green New Deal — and the Democratic Party’s favored Senate candidates, who are running as reformers, not revolutionaries, reflecting the pragmatic, donor-friendly ideology of the Senate’s top recruiter, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
Republicans hope to weaponize this dissonance. “Democrats are going to have a hard time navigating the top of the ticket,” says a GOP strategist close to the Senate fight. Republicans are also counting themselves lucky it isn’t worse. Democrats failed to land several recruits who could have turned their states into toss-ups — including former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana. “We’re very happy with the field,” insists Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. “The biggest challenge Chuck and I had was that we had good choices.”
A dozen races will be vital in determining control of the Senate, including two seats where Democrats must play defense, and 10 pickup opportunities, presented below in rough order of their likelihood of flipping. “We’ve got a good shot at this,” says Cortez Masto, running through the math for Senate control, with and without a Democratic vice president’s tiebreaking vote. “If we take the White House, we need three seats; if we don’t, we need four. I’m confident we have more than that.”
THE DEMOCRATIC battle plan begins with holding home turf. “We’re going to protect our incumbents,” vows Cortez Masto. That fight begins in Michigan, where Republican John James — a 38-year-old African American businessman and former Apache helicopter pilot — is gunning for Sen. Gary Peters. James out-raised Peters by nearly $500,000 in the third quarter, and a recent poll put him just three points behind the incumbent.
Touted as a GOP rising star, James came within six points of unseating Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018, and Senate watchers see Peters as vulnerable. “He’s not a terribly charismatic guy,” says Jennifer Duffy, who handicaps the Senate for the Cook Political Report. “Voters don’t dislike him — they don’t know who he is.”
Trump won Michigan by just 11,000 votes, and polls show him in danger of losing the state by double digits in 2020. James, who has Trump’s endorsement, has tried to distance himself from the president, telling voters, “A vote for me is a vote for me.”
Alabama — a state Trump won by 28 points — is the greater challenge. In a 2017 special election, Doug Jones upset Roy Moore, a twice-defrocked state Supreme Court justice who also stood accused of sexually assaulting underage girls as a younger man (which he denied). “Jones ran a terrific campaign,” Duffy says, “but he also got the weakest general-election opponent Republicans could have possibly put up.”
Jones has $5 million in the bank, out-raising a scrum of Republican contenders. Former Sen. Jeff Sessions scrambled that field earlier this month by declaring a new bid for his old seat (which he had given up to become Trump’s first attorney general). Jones’ approval rating is positive — 41 percent, versus 36 disapproving — buoyed by his relentless schedule of town halls. He pitches himself as a bulwark against the Democrats’ most ambitious policy goals, such as Medicare for All. “That’s the advantage of having a Democrat from the South,” he tells Rolling Stone, “to make sure there’s a voice from within that party to say, ‘Let’s hold off a little bit. There are other alternatives we need to look at.’ ”
Publicly, Republicans are counting Alabama in the win column. “Doug Jones is a dead man walking,” says the GOP strategist. But holding Alabama is not essential to flipping the Senate. “Democrats can lose Doug Jones,” Gonzales says, “and still have a path to victory.”
ON OFFENSE, Democrats are targeting seven races in traditional and emerging swing states. As many as four are already rated as toss-ups, while the others lean Republican but are still expected to be competitive.
Colorado is trending blue, endangering GOP incumbent Cory Gardner, 45, who won by less than two points in 2014. Hillary Clinton took the state by five points, and Democrat Jared Polis soared to a 10-point victory in 2018, becoming the country’s first openly gay governor.
Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who ditched his humbling 2020 presidential run in August, tells Rolling Stone he’s approaching this Senate race with “pure, unbridled passion.” Hickenlooper remains broadly popular for guiding Colorado to an economic boom and passing strong gun-safety laws. Gardner, a longtime favorite of the National Rifle Association, has morphed from a Never Trumper into a Trump loyalist — a questionable choice when Trump’s Colorado disapproval rating stands at 56 percent. Even so, Gardner is not pleasing the base — he scores less than 50 percent approval with Republicans — and his decision to back the president’s emergency declaration at the border even prompted the right-leaning Denver Post to revoke its 2014 endorsement: “We see now that was a mistake.”
In just the first six weeks of his Senate bid, Hickenlooper raised more than $2 million, nearly matching Gardner’s haul for the entire third quarter. An August poll showed Hickenlooper up by 13 points, but he expects a battle: “We’ll be attacked coming and going, and not just by the NRA,” he says. “We don’t, for one second, underestimate how much work is going to be involved to win this seat.”
Arizona pits another Democratic star recruit — 55-year-old former NASA commander Mark Kelly — against incumbent Sen. Martha McSally, 53, a retired Air Force colonel. In 2018, Democrat Sen. Kirsten Sinema edged out McSally by two points, but McSally ended up joining the Senate anyway after being tapped by the state’s Republican governor to fill the late Sen. John McCain’s seat.
McSally has voted with Trump 96 percent of the time. And Trump, whose disapproval is 54 percent in Arizona, offered McSally the mixed blessing of his “Complete and Total Endorsement!” Her approval rate is just 39 percent — and she’s drawn a wealthy far-right primary challenger. That contest could force her into the same straddle that doomed her 2018 bid: trying to appease the Trump base while not alienating swing voters in the Phoenix suburbs.
Kelly, who is the husband of Gabby Giffords — the former House member who was nearly assassinated in a mass shooting in 2011 — launched his campaign in February, and has out-raised McSally for three straight quarters, most recently by $2.5 million. “It’s stunning how much money he’s raising,” says Duffy. And an October poll put Kelly up by five among Arizona independents.
North Carolina leans less blue than Colorado, but Sen. Thom Tillis finds himself in the same fix as Gardner. “He pleases nobody,” says Duffy. “Conservatives aren’t happy with him. Democrats aren’t happy with him.” In February, he published a Washington Post op-ed opposing the “executive overreach” of Trump’s emergency declaration to build the Wall. But just weeks later, Tillis voted to steer military funds to the border. “He capitulated to the president,” says Cal Cunningham, front-runner for the Democratic nomination. “When it is a choice between representing our state and taking care of his own political interests, he puts his own political interests first.”
Tillis has a primary challenge on his right from millionaire businessman Garland Tucker, who touts himself as a conservative with “backbone.” So Tillis is spending large on TV ads tying himself to Trump — a political gift to Cunningham, a former state senator and decorated military lawyer. Cunningham has matched Tillis in fundraising, and a September poll had him leading the incumbent by two points.
The Supreme Court appointment of Brett Kavanaugh is front-and-center in Maine, where Sen. Susan Collins is facing a backlash for her vote to install the anti-abortion jurist on the high court, despite allegations that he sexually assaulted women during his prep-school and college days. (Kavanaugh denied wrongdoing.)
Collins, 66, is a formidable incumbent, last elected with two-thirds of the vote. But Maine is trending blue; it voted for Clinton by three points, and elected a Democratic governor in a romp in 2018. The DSCC’s favored candidate is Sara Gideon, the speaker of Maine’s House, whose record includes forging a coalition with GOP rivals to tackle the opioid crisis. Gideon is out-raising Collins — by $1.1 million in the third quarter. And Collins’ approval numbers are currently underwater, at only 43 percent.
On the surface, Iowa looks less promising as a pickup target: Trump won the state by 10 points. But the president is now polling with just 43 percent approval, and incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst is polling even worse, at 39 percent. Ernst was a Tea Party phenom in 2014 who touted her farm-girl past as a hog castrator and promised spending cuts to make Washington “squeal.” But Ernst has shown no maverick streak in D.C., instead becoming part of McConnell’s leadership team, helping to create trillion-dollar annual deficits.
Theresa Greenfield, the DSCC’s favored recruit, is out-raising Ernst, who failed to clear $1 million in her opening quarter. The daughter of a crop-duster, Greenfield lost her husband to a work accident when she was 24 and a young mother. She vows to protect the social safety net, which she calls “bedrock agreements we’ve made, as Americans, to take care of each other.” Greenfield has never run for office but doesn’t lack for confidence, telling Rolling Stone, “I’m going to win this race.”
Georgia is the toughest state to predict. Both Senate seats are up for grabs: GOP incumbent David Perdue is defending his seat, and ailing fellow Republican Johnny Isakson is stepping down at the end of the year — creating a special election. While Georgia parallels Arizona’s transition from red to purple, with the booming Atlanta suburbs driving the shift, the opportunity for Democrats is muted by the lack of an all-star recruit. The Democratic front-runner for the Perdue seat is 32-year-old Jon Ossoff, who earned a national profile while losing a $30 million special-election House battle in 2017. Perdue remains firmly in Trump’s corner and is fairly popular in the state. Ossoff’s late entry into the contest in September makes a direct fundraising comparison difficult.
For the special election, Gov. Brian Kemp will name Isakson’s interim replacement at the start of 2020, giving that candidate a leg up. Matt Lieberman — the son of longtime Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman — has declared for the contest on the Democratic side. Under strange special-election rules, candidates from both parties will compete in a “jungle primary” on the night of the presidential election in 2020. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will ensue in January 2021 — conceivably with control of the Senate on the line.
THERE ARE A LOT of X factors in an election with Trump on the ticket, but Democrats are feeling confident enough to press their luck in deep-red states. “We’re going to come out strong,” says Cortez Masto, “and be on the offense.”
In Kansas, an open Senate seat could flip if Republicans nominate Kris Kobach, an anti-immigrant zealot who lost the 2018 race for governor by five points. A DSCC source underscores that politicians like Kobach and Roy Moore have long bedeviled the GOP: “They’ve got unelectable candidates who have a proven record of winning statewide primaries.”
A September poll showed Kobach at a 10-point deficit in a general-election matchup, and Democrats have since landed a star recruit in state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former Republican who broke with the party over the disastrous austerity economics of former Gov. Sam Brownback. “If Republicans nominate Kris Kobach,” says Gonzales, “that might be a better takeover opportunity than Georgia.”
Gonzales also sees Democratic opportunity in the Lone Star State. “Republicans can’t take Texas for granted,” he says. Incumbent John Cornyn does not polarize voters as Ted Cruz did in 2018, when the Republican eked out a victory over Beto O’Rourke. But Democrat M.J. Hegar — who narrowly lost a House seat last year — believes she can compete by painting “Big John,” who served until January as the number-two Senate Republican, as McConnell’s “Lurch,” the manservant from The Addams Family. An Air Force veteran with a Purple Heart who crusaded to open military combat roles for women, Hegar is bold where Cornyn is bland, sporting shoulder tattoos and riding a Harley in slick campaign ads.
But for progressives in 2020, Mitch McConnell’s seat in Kentucky is the holy grail. Trump took the state by 30 points in 2016, but a Democrat claimed victory in the governor’s race in November. The senator’s approval rating in the state — 33 percent — is nearly as bad as defeated incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin’s. McConnell’s opponent, retired Lt. Col. Amy McGrath, a former F/A-18 fighter pilot, is fresh off a competitive 2018 House race and raising money like a presidential candidate — $10.7 million in the third quarter. McGrath is casting McConnell as a creature of Washington, bought by special interests, who has “turned his back on the people of Kentucky” and failed to deliver on bread-and-butter issues from infrastructure to the opioid crisis. “The guy’s been around 34 years,” she tells Rolling Stone. “If he cared about this stuff, something would have been done already.” McConnell runs strong campaigns and won’t lack for resources, but in a recent survey he was up by just one point, within the margin of error.
One pernicious side effect of McConnell’s tenure has been turning the Senate into a terrible place for ambitious politicians to get things done. A key reason many prospective candidates are sour on Senate service is that McConnell has deformed what was long “the world’s greatest deliberative body” into what Cortez Masto laments as “a legislative graveyard.”
McConnell has failed to take up more than 250 bills passed by House Democrats. And Jones blames the majority leader for squandering productive across-the-aisle partnerships. “There’s a lot more bipartisanship that goes on in the United States Senate than people see in the dueling press conferences, political speeches, and the Twitter wars going on,” Jones says. “If we could just get a floor vote and let the chips fall where they may, people would have a lot more confidence in the functions of Washington, D.C. But McConnell controls the floor.” Laying out the stakes of the 2020 election in simple terms, Cortez Masto adds, “It’s time to change that.”
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