Dems seeking path to Senate majority zero-in on Sun Belt

The battle for control of both the White House and the U.S. Senate will center on an overlapping handful of Sun Belt states that will test whether demographic changes and President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE’s dismal approval ratings can alter the political map.

To win back control of the Senate, Democrats acknowledge they will have to rely in part on their presidential nominee competing in states that have not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate for a generation or more.

At the same time, Republicans running for reelection find it difficult or untenable to separate themselves from President Trump, despite his dismal approval ratings, because he still enjoys the ardor of so many Republican base voters.

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That is in part because the polarization of American politics has made it more difficult for a Democrat or a Republican to craft their own identities separate from their national parties.

In 2016, for the first time since direct elections of senators began a century ago, no state elected a senator from the party that did not win that state’s electoral votes.

“We’ve seen this kind of trend of nationalization of politics up and down the ballot,” said Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the center-right North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation.

Next year, there are only four senators seeking reelection in states the other party’s presidential candidate won in 2016: Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Gary PetersGary Charles PetersFBI Agents Association calls on Congress to make 'domestic terrorism' a federal crime Senators renew request for domestic threats documents from FBI, DOJ after shootings Overnight Defense: Dems talk Afghanistan, nukes at Detroit debate | Senate panel advances Hyten nomination | Iranian foreign minister hit with sanctions | Senate confirms UN ambassador MORE (D-Mich.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerPoll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy MORE (R-Colo.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCook Political Report moves Susan Collins Senate race to 'toss up' The Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move MORE (R-Maine).

Republicans hold 53 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate, meaning Democrats have to pick up a net of three seats and the White House, or four seats without the presidency, to reclaim control.

Most Democrats believe Jones, elected in a special election against a scandal-plagued candidate, is all but certain to lose his seat, adding another hurdle to their chances.

Where the 2016 Senate map focused on Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New Hampshire, the 2020 battlegrounds will largely be focused in Sun Belt states — states that have traditionally voted Republican in presidential contests, but where changing demographics give Democrats renewed hope.

To win the seats they need to reclaim the majority, Democrats will look first to Arizona, where Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump searches for backstops amid recession worries Arizona poll shows Kelly overtaking McSally Fighter pilot vs. astronaut match-up in Arizona could determine control of Senate MORE (R) will seek a full term after being appointed to the seat last year.

McSally lost a narrow race against now-Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) in 2018, though no Democrat has carried the state’s electoral votes since Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBen Shapiro: No prominent GOP figure ever questioned Obama's legitimacy The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump tries to reassure voters on economy 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE in 1996.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Gun reform groups to pressure GOP senators with rallies in all 50 states To cash in on innovation, remove market barriers for advanced energy technologies MORE (R-N.C.) is likely to be a prime Democratic target too, in a state where Republicans have won six of the last eight U.S. Senate elections.

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And in Georgia, a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since Zell Miller won a special election in 2000, Democrats have pinned their hopes on former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D).

And Democrats emboldened by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s (D-Texas) narrow loss to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters MORE (R) hold out hopes for a better performance in a presidential year, when Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters Democrats keen to take on Cornyn despite formidable challenges The Hill's Campaign Report: Battle for Senate begins to take shape MORE (R-Texas) seeks reelection.

Texas has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since Lloyd Bentsen (D) won reelection in 1988, but the state’s rapid growth has attracted new, more liberal residents who handed Democrats several House seats in 2018.

O’Rourke and Abrams, both liberals who came close to winning in conservative states, highlight the new approach some Democrats are taking.

Rather than plotting a course for centrist voters, those candidates charted a path that emphasized expanding turnout among core base voters.

“Most Democrats are running to the left, so there isn’t as much of a need to distance themselves from the national ticket. The era of moderation for the sake of being moderate is over. All politics start with building a strong base and then winning over the middle voters with the strength of your argument,” said Ed Espinoza, a Democratic strategist and executive director of Progress Texas, a progressive policy group.

If the party pursues the same strategy in 2020, the Democratic presidential nominee’s performance will be of added concern.

“Historically, the Democrats by and large tried to separate themselves from the national party,” Kappler said of his home state. “That changed in 2008; that was a clear threshold in North Carolina where the Obama campaign came in and nationalized things.”

Neither side is willing to overlook states where their presidential contender has little hope of competing, though many privately acknowledge the perils of depending on split-ticket voters.

Democrats have hopes of competing in Kansas, a state that last sent a Democrat to the Senate in 1932 but which elected a Democratic governor in 2018.

They are also likely to field a prominent candidate in Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPelosi, Schumer press for gun screenings as Trump inches away The malware election: Returning to paper ballots only way to prevent hacking First House Republican backs bill banning assault weapons MORE (R) — a favorite villain of the left — will seek reelection. Kentucky last elected a Democratic senator in 1992.

Republicans are likely to woo New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) to challenge Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenSunday shows - Recession fears dominate Lewandowski on potential NH Senate run: If I run, 'I'm going to win' Lewandowski says he's 'happy' to testify before House panel MORE (D) in a state Trump only narrowly lost in 2016.

Peters may draw a challenger, after Trump’s win in Michigan in 2016. And Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithReid says he wishes Franken would run for Senate again Senate Democrats introduce bill to combat foreign influence campaigns Durbin says he has second thoughts about asking for Franken's resignation MORE (D), who won a special election to serve a two-year term by 11 points in 2018, will seek reelection in Minnesota, a state Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe exhaustion of Democrats' anti-Trump delusions Poll: Trump trails three Democrats by 10 points in Colorado Soft levels of support mark this year's Democratic primary MORE carried by just under 45,000 votes.

“The map’s not that small,” said J.B. Poersch, who runs the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC.

But in an era of polarization, with a hyperpolarizing figure like Trump on the ballot, there are fewer voters willing to divide their tickets between presidential candidates and Senate candidates.

“The middle is gone,” Espinoza said. “Even the middle doesn’t want to be in the middle, they want to pick a team.”