Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly worried that he will soon find himself in the minority as the Senate suddenly looks like it’s up for grabs in 2020.
This week, the 2020 Senate landscape grew a bit more interesting as Georgia’s Johnny Isakson announced he was resigning at the end of the year. That put another Republican-held seat on the battleground list — the second one in Georgia — and added more evidence that control for the upper chamber of Congress is very much in play.
The Senate campaign map that is coming into view is looking more and more like a “great news” situation for Democrats. The party needs to net only four seats to get to a 51-49 majority in the Senate and the list of seats that Republicans need to defend is growing — but there are not a lot of easy marks.
In essence, the Democrats’ path to recapturing the Senate seems to be growing clearer, but it’s not necessarily growing easier.
Democrats are targetting three states in the quest for four more seats and for good reason. Democrat Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in both Colorado and Maine in the 2016 presidential race. And last year, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema won the Senate race in Arizona when she beat Martha McSally.
These three seats are already rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report with Democrats gaining in the polls.
Colorado’s Sen. Cory Gardner is a one-term incumbent who won a close race in 2014 in a state that is trending Democratic. Maine’s Sen. Susan Collins is a four-term incumbent who is caught in the middle of the shifting terrain of the GOP. And in Arizona, the incumbent is the increasingly unpopular Martha McSally, who was appointed to her seat after Sen. John McCain died — but who also lost her 2018 senate race.
Those three seats have been on Democratic radar for months followed by the question, “But how do they capture number four?”
This week’s Georgia retirement added to the list of possibilities.
This set of states might be considered the top of the “most likely options for number four” list, but none are easy.
North Carolina was close in the 2016 presidential race, Trump won it by little more than 3 percentage points. And the Senate seat is currently held by one-term incumbent Thom Tillis, who won in 2014 by about a point-and-a-half. Still, he’s an incumbent Republican supporting an unpopular president.
In Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst is a one-term incumbent running in a state that has been hit hard by the president’s trade disputes with China. That said, Trump carried Iowa by 9-plus points in 2016.
In Texas, Sen. John Cornyn is up for re-election in a state where the registered voter demographics are changing and where GOP Sen. Ted Cruz had to fight hard to eke out a win over then-Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
For the two seats in Georgia, the Democrats’ biggest advantage may be the overall direction of the state. Trump won it by 5 points in 2016 and last year Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won it by about a point-and-a-half in a controversial election. The Atlanta suburbs are filling with different kinds of voters who are turning the area blue. Plus, one Senate seat (Isakson’s) will be open.
And that’s not all. Beyond those four opportunities, there are four longer shots that are arguably still vulnerable.
While the Republican seats in Kentucky, Kansas, Montana and South Carolina look pretty safe, we must remember that in the Trump era the GOP candidates who support the president are on shaky grounds, including Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.
Both McConnell and Graham will likely have to spend money and time to get comfortable. That means the races will absorb resources that could be spent elsewhere, particularly with a little pressure from the right Democratic challenger.
And remember Kansas and Montana elected Democrats to statewide office in 2018.
Even with all those potential options for the Democrats to win that crucial fourth seat, however, they have to watch their own territory as well.
It’s not an easy path. But as the list of seats the GOP is defending in the Senate grows, the Democrats aren’t complaining. Another week, another potential road to 51.