Trump and Senate Republicans look to 2020

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 49

This week:

  • Hyde-Smith’s victory gives the lie to media narratives about her race
  • First look at 2020 Senate races
  • A much tougher map for the GOP this time

Senate 2018

Mississippi: As expected, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R, won her election by about ten points. That closes the book on the 2018 Senate races, but there is one point to emphasize here:

Republican candidates are going to be treated unfairly by the media, without exception.

Journalists created and sustained an offense-taking story about Hyde-Smith’s rather stupid but benign remarks that some chose to interpret as racially insensitive. It wasn’t exposed as a fraud until she finally won by the expected ten-point margin.

Still, that’s all the more reason not to nominate or appoint low-quality candidates who are prone to creating unnecessary media opportunities.

Senate 2020

The 2018 Senate map heavily favored Republicans because they had done so terribly in Senate races in 2000, 2006, and 2012. But the 2020 map is quite different. After Republicans picked up nine Senate seats in 2014, they have few remaining pickup opportunities in this class. In the meantime, they find themselves defending a lot of territory they picked up. To be sure, some of it is easy — Louisiana, Arkansas, Montana. But not all of the states they picked up are going to be that easy — consider Colorado, for example, and North Carolina. And they’ll also be defending states that may be harder this time than in past cycles  — Maine, Georgia, and Arizona, for example.

Here’s our first quick overview of some of the Senate races up in 2020 — with a special focus on those more likely to be competitive. The important thing to note is that, with the expected pickup of one seat in Alabama, the GOP  

Alabama: If you’re a Republican, this is the surest ticket to the Senate in 2020. Sen. Doug Jones, D, is a very poor fit for his state ideologically, having won only because Republicans nominated Roy Moore in the special election to replace Jeff Sessions. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R, is among the first to announce his interest in the race — expect many more to follow him.

Alaska: Barring a serious act of political malpractice between now and 2020, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R, should have no problem hanging on to his seat.

Arizona: With Sen. Jon Kyl, R, expected to resign from his current Senate appointment any day (he came out of retirement as a temporary replacement for the late John McCain), Republican Gov. Doug Ducey will soon face a choice over whom to appoint in his place. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has lobbied Ducey to pick Rep. Martha McSally, R, who just lost the other Senate seat. But several other names are in the mix as well. The Democrats’ chances for a takeover will depend on this choice as well as their own nominee, obviously.

Colorado: Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., was one of the Republicans’ big wins in 2014; in 2020, he will be hard to protect. Colorado is barely a swing state anymore — it’s a blue state that Republicans can occasionally win. The last significant occasion was Gardner’s victory, and in the time since he has done little better than a nearly anonymous political force. Although he remains above water with his approval rating, it’s at only 39 percent (compared to 37 percent disapproval). The bottom line is that Gardner will not have an easy go of it in 2018. Democrats ranging from the formidable to the shrug-worthy are licking their chops and looking forward to the opportunity to take him on.

Georgia: Sen. David Perdue, R, won’t have to face Sally Yates, the fired Justice Department employee fired early in the Trump administration. Whomever he faces, he will be defending a seat in a state that Republicans can no longer take for granted. Georgia is a state where President Trump’s brand of conservatism didn’t do particularly well in 2016, and Brian Kemp only barely just won the governorship. Perdue is a strong candidate, but Georgia is no gimmee.

Iowa: Iowa was quite recently a competitive but Democratic-leaning state. It was liberal former Sen. Tom Harkin’s state. That’s less the case with each election cycle. And it all began with Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s 2014 victory.

Her win over then-Rep. Bruce Braley, D, was both surprising and resoundingly large. It began a trend of Republican victories that has lasted through good years and bad.

President Trump’s shockingly easy nine-point victory in the Hawkeye State was one more step in a long-term trend toward the GOP. It also indicates that the Trump tide will be strong, and this is going to be an especially tough year to challenge Ernst, who stayed in Trump’s good graces

This year’s win by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, against the national trend, showed a great deal of sticking power, as did the Republicans’ retention of their state legislative majorities.

Ernst has maintained enough personal popularity to stay above water (net positive 5 points) and above 40 percent. She has wisely stayed in her lane during her freshman term (unlike, say, Ted Cruz) and avoided anything that would build up resentments or egg on a serios challenger.

And she’ll also have a presidential-level effort boosting Republican turnout, because there are multiple scenarios in which Trump needs Iowa’s electoral votes to win the presidency narrowly.

Kansas: Like in 2014, Sen. Pat Roberts, R, remains very unpopular, thanks in large part to his neglect of basic representational duties and his failure to actually live in Kansas during his last term.

Roberts’ near miss in 2014 was fortunate for him, and should serve as the writing on the wall. Republicans, who just lost the governorship due to their having nominated the incompetent Kris Kobachwill probably be better off if he retires.

Kentucky: Allison Lundergan Grimes learned about the folly of going head-to-head against Mitch McConnell in 2014. His popularity numbers were roughly as bad then as they are now, and yet she was blown out.

Will any formidable Democrat try it again? Is there a formidable Democrat left in Kentucky?

Louisiana: This is one seat Republicans picked up in 2014 that the Democrats aren’t getting back. Sen. Bill Cassidy defeated Mary Landrieu in 2014 and he shouldn’t have any trouble keeping the seat in Republican hands.

Maine: Republican Sen. Susan Collins has not faced a single difficult election this century. Will her eventual support for Brett Kavanaugh cost her? Will it force her to retire?

Collins’ approval ratings were sky-high as of late September, just before that vote. Liberals have crowd-funded a substantial sum to take her out, but there are still ample grounds for skepticism that Collins will be a top Democratic target in 2020.

Massachusetts: Republicans have no serious chance of unseating Sen. Ed Markey, D, but there is some talk of a possible Democratic primary challenge.

Michigan: No Republican has won for Senate in Michigan since 1994. In theory, Sen. Gary Peters, D, should have an easy go of it for re-election. But you never know, especially if Trump’s campaign effort focuses heavily on the state, as is likely. It’s only an outside chance, but Republicans would love to put this race on the table, and it’s one of the few races where that might actually be possible. This will require a big recruiting success. Exiting Gov. Rick Snyder is not interested in running.

Minnesota: Minnesota’s state GOP had a miserable 2018. The biggest disappointments were the near-forfeit in the governor’s race and the failure to mount a serious challenge to appointed Sen. Tina Smith, D.

They’ll have another chance now to find a strong challenger to Smith, and they’ll also have a serious presidential effort in the state backing up their nominee. But No Republican presidential candidate has won Minnesota since 1972 — the longest such streak in America.

Montana: Given his incumbency, his personal resources, and his state’s strong pro-Trump lean, Sen. Steve Daines, R, is unlikely to draw a top-tier opponent. His personal popularity is seven points net-positive. Gov. Steve Bullock, D, has essentially ruled out challenging him. It’s Daines’ to lose.

Nebraska: This won’t be a party-competitive race, but it will be interesting to see whether a senator often critical of President Trump can or will bury the hatchet during a critical election year.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., was one of the more Trump-skeptical senators. After the Hollywood Access tape came out, he called on him to step aside, assuming (as most people did) that Trump was going to lose anyway.

Sasse has certainly moderated his tone toward Trump, but he hasn’t been shy about bucking him when he’s felt it appropriate. That could leave him a bit vulnerable, but it’s not a given that he’ll face any serious primary challenger. Sasse should be safe, but no one is primary-proof in the Trump era.

Still, Trump has enough reasons not to involve himself in this race. Nebraska is a deep red state, yes, but it’s one of unusual importance because it splits its electoral votes by congressional district. There are all kinds of scenarios where Trump needs Nebraska’s purplish-red second district in order to reach 270, and direct involvement in a primary there could prove risky.

North Carolina: North Carolina Democrats consistently field good candidates for statewide office, and freshman Sen. Thom Tillis, R, is almost certain to face a top-tier challenger in 2020. Tillis has done a good job avoiding needless controversy since going to Washington, but he hasn’t won himself the high profile of the super-popular senator, either.

North Carolina will be ground zero for a lot of campaign action in 2020, considering that Trump basically can’t win re-election without it, and Gov. Roy Cooper, D, will be facing re-election in a very tense political environment.