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 TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment 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 PetersNew push to regulate self-driving cars faces tough road Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping Hillicon Valley: Lawmakers angered over Border Patrol breach | Senate Dems press FBI over Russian hacking response | Emails reportedly show Zuckerberg knew of Facebook's privacy issues | FCC looks to improve broadband mapping MORE (D-Mich.), Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Cruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control access face major obstacles McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' MORE (R-Colo.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates 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 McSallyDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democratic challenger to Susan Collins announces Senate bid 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 ClintonCampaign dads fit fatherhood between presidential speeches Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE in 1996.

Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' 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 CruzCruz, Ocasio-Cortez efforts on birth control access face major obstacles Ocasio-Cortez and Cruz's dialogue shows common ground isn't just for moderates Ted Cruz, AOC have it right on banning former members of Congress from becoming lobbyists MORE (R) hold out hopes for a better performance in a presidential year, when Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Trump puts GOP in tough spot with remarks on foreign 'dirt' Overnight Health Care: Pelosi to change drug-pricing plan after complaints | 2020 Democrats to attend Planned Parenthood abortion forum | House holds first major 'Medicare for All' hearing 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 McConnellGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Jon Stewart slams McConnell over 9/11 victim fund 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 ShaheenDesign leaks for Harriet Tubman bill after Mnuchin announces delay Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill after Mnuchin announces delay Bipartisan senators push new bill to improve foreign lobbying disclosures 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 SmithDemocrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Democrats push election security legislation after Mueller warning 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 ClintonDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally 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.”