The 2020 elections are almost two years away but the battle for control of Congress is already shaping up to be a dog fight as parties look to make up lost ground from the 2018 midterms.
Results are still trickling in from a handful of Tuesday races that haven’t been decided yet, but with the toplines locked down — Republicans will control the the Senate, Democrats the House — both sides are turning their focus to a fierce fight for control in 2020.
Injecting uncertainty into the map is a plethora of unknowns this far out, such as President TrumpDonald TrumpTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Schumer sets Monday showdown on debt ceiling-government funding bill Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe MORE’s popularity in battleground states and which Democrat emerges from what’s expected to be a crowded presidential field. Both developments will influence the down-ballot congressional races.
On top of that, the ever-quickening news cycle and Trump’s penchant for being unpredictable all but guarantee surprise twists and turns in the battle for Congress.
“Trying to read tea leaves into what happened last night” to predict “this is what’s going to happen in the presidential or in the Senate or House elections this far out just doesn’t make any sense,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
In the Senate, Republicans appear to have an early edge to keeping their majority after they flipped seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota on Tuesday.
Senate races in Arizona and Florida are still too close to call. GOP Gov. Rick Scott is leading in Florida, but Democrats pulled ahead with a slight lead in Arizona on Thursday night. A runoff election is scheduled for Nov. 27 for former Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBottom line Bottom line Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future MORE’s Senate seat in deeply red Mississippi.
Depending on how those three races turnout, Republicans will hold anywhere between 51 and 54 seats, moving Democrats’ ability to flip the the chamber further out of reach.
Republicans are feeling bullish, in particular, about Mississippi given Trump’s popularity in the state.
GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak noted that in addition to providing Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse passes standalone bill to provide B for Israel's Iron Dome Pelosi vows to avert government shutdown McConnell calls Trump a 'fading brand' in Woodward-Costa book MORE (R-Ky.) with more of a cushion for nominations these next two years, the Republican gains “likely protect the Senate GOP majority” on Election Day in 2020.
“It’s a hedge against full Democratic control,” Mackowiak said. “There’s a lot of variables generally, but I think Republicans are feeling pretty good… about their chances to hold the Senate in 2020.”
Republicans will be defending 21 seats compared to 12 seats for Democrats, but the GOP will be playing defense in deeply red states where Trump remains popular, making them likely to stay in Republican hands if the party can avoid self-inflicted wounds during the primary season.
They currently hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate.
McConnell (R-Ky.) will be up for re-election and says he intends to run. He told reporters that he “wouldn't be surprised” if Trump supports his re-election bid, an endorsement that would likely help ward off any serious challenges to the GOP leader.
Meanwhile, potential opponents are already mulling a challenge to GOP Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden meets with lawmakers amid domestic agenda panic The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - House Democrats plagued by Biden agenda troubles MORE (R-S.C.), whose emergence as a key ally to Trump could help shore up his reelection prospects. And Sen. Ben SasseBen SassePresident of newly recognized union for adult performers boosts membership Romney blasts Biden over those left in Afghanistan: 'Bring them home' Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal MORE’s willingness to criticize Trump has drawn speculation that the Nebraska Republican could be vulnerable to a primary challenge.
Republicans are also showing early signs of targeting two Democratic senators who will be on the ballot: Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Gary PetersGary PetersHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Officials want action on cyberattacks Officials urge Congress to consider fining companies that fail to report cyber incidents Senate Democrats announce million investment in key battlegrounds ahead of 2022 MORE (Mich.).
Jones is the most vulnerable Democrat running after he won the Alabama Senate seat last year, defeating GOP Senate candidate Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore loses lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen Shelby backs ex-aide over Trump-favored candidate in Alabama Senate race Of inmates and asylums: Today's House Republicans make the John Birchers look quaint MORE, who had been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls from when he was in his 30s.
Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said it’s “a very bad sign” for Jones that Democrats lost in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, and that there were narrow Democratic wins in West Virginia and Montana.
Peters’s seat in Michigan may be a bit more challenging to flip. While Trump won the state in 2016, Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowDemocrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Congress facing shutdown, debt crisis with no plan B GOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff MORE (D-Mich.) won reelection on Tuesday by more than 7 percentage points, defeating GOP nominee John James.
When James thanked his supporters on Twitter, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp retweeted him adding: “2020 is not too far away John.”
Democrats might need to pick up as many as five seats to win control of the Senate outright in 2020, but party leaders and strategists are bullish about their chances to make gains. They also haven’t written off 2018 wins in Arizona and Florida, which would limit the GOP advantage.
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats' do-or-die moment Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Progressives push for fossil subsidy repeal in spending bill MORE (D-N.Y.) appeared confident in the wake of Tuesday’s election, saying Republicans wanted to contain Democratic Senate seats to the low 40s but failed.
We'll have a very good shot in 2020,” he told reporters, saying Democrats exceeded GOP expectations earlier this week. “Originally the Republicans hoped they could hold us down to 40, 41...but they didn't do that.”
Jones is the only vulnerable Democrat at the start of the 2020 cycle, when Democrats are expected to target GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase MORE (Maine) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerProtecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program MORE (Colo.), who are both up for reelection in states that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHeller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 MORE won in 2016.
Meanwhile, there will be a special election in Arizona for the remainder of the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE’s term, which will likely be competitive given Democratic gains on Tuesday.
Strategists in both parties predict that North Carolina, where Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime How to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) MORE (R-N.C.) is up in 2020, could also be competitive given the state’s purple hue.
A national Democratic strategist noted that 2020 will be an “offensive” map for the party. And despite setbacks on Tuesday, the midterms showed that Senate Democrats “can win a variety of diverse states, we won all across the midwest … we won in very conservative states and we won in states by not taking anything for granted,” the strategist said.
House Democrats, meanwhile, will be playing defense to keep and expand their new majority during a presidential election year. Though several 2018 races remain too close to call, Democrats already hold 225 seats to 197 seats for Republicans heading into January and are expected to to make additional gains before then.
But a narrow margin will spark a bloodbath for control of the House in 2020. Dozens of races, won by both parties, were decided by margins of less than 5 percentage points, creating swing districts and early targets for flipping seats during the next cycle.
“Based on where we are today it’s entirely possible that either party could be in control of the House two years from now,” Mackowiak said.
Still, Republicans faced backlash from suburban and female voters on Tuesday amid a nationwide reshuffling of the electorate. And, Republicans acknowledge, if they want to win back the House they’ll need to make up gains in those two voting groups.
Democrats will have to hold onto purple and red-state districts they flipped during the midterm, but with Trump likely at the top of the ballot.
Sabato and Kondik predicted the 2020 House fight would likely be “another competitive battle,” but one in which Democrats have a path to keeping the majority.
“A good thing for Democrats is that many of the suburban seats they picked up in this election … probably will be relatively easy to hold with Donald Trump on the ballot, and the Democrats did not max out their potential seat gain,” they said.