Democratic Senate hopes hinge on Trump tide

Democratic and Republican lawmakers believe next year’s battle for the Senate majority largely will hinge on the presidential race — and who wins the Democratic Party’s nomination.

Democrats think they have a shot at winning back the Senate and unified control of Congress, but only if their voters show up in mass to sweep Trump from office.

“It depends on who our candidate is,” said Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Schumer: Trump coronavirus response marked by 'towering and dangerous incompetence' The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders steamrolls to South Carolina primary, Super Tuesday MORE (D-Conn.). “We don’t win the Senate if we don’t win the presidency. Period. Stop. Getting that choice right is more important than anything else.”

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The party got a shot of confidence last month when Trump’s internal campaign polling leaked and showed him losing to a generic Democratic candidate in key swing states.

Democrats need a net gain of three Senate seats and the White House — or four without winning the White House — to regain the Senate majority. But their path is made more difficult because of the defense of vulnerable Sen. Doug Jones (D) in Alabama.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Democrats block two Senate abortion bills VA could lead way for nation on lower drug pricing MORE (R-Ky.) and other Republicans think Trump stacks up best against liberals such as Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Sanders most searched, most tweeted about candidate during Democratic debate MORE (D-Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThis week: House to vote on legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime Juan Williams: Black votes matter Clyburn: Biden 'suffered' from not doing 'enough' in early debates MORE (D-Calif.).

The three candidates have endorsed “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal and spoken about abolishing private health insurance and studying reparations for slavery, among other bold proposals.

McConnell has acknowledged the election will be a referendum on Trump, but he clearly thinks it will also become a test of the nation’s appetite for progressive policies depending on who the Democratic nominee is.

“It’s also going to be a referendum on what the House [Democrats] would do if they took over the government: the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, under which 180 million Americans would lose their private health insurance,” he told reporters late last month.

McConnell has said that he wants to make 2020 a “referendum on socialism,” a message Trump has also telegraphed.

Even if Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, McConnell wants to paint the eventual nominee as a candidate in his mold.

“I think Bernie Sanders is correct when he says he won the argument,” McConnell said, referring to Sanders’s claim that he has helped push the Democratic Party to the left by championing Medicare for All and free college tuition — two ideas that did not have support from the Democratic mainstream in 2016.

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“He may not win the election but he’s won the argument,” McConnell said of Sanders. “Whether you do or don’t like the president, it’s not the only thing that’s going to be on the ballot next year. The other thing that’s going to be on the ballot is do you really want to turn America in a socialist country.”

Sanders, Harris and Warren all raised their hands at last week’s debate when the candidates were asked if they would support abolishing private health insurance. Harris, however, later backtracked and said she misheard the question. 

Senate Majority Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE (R-S.D.) said while Republicans have worked hard to recruit strong candidates, they are also counting on Trump to pull some of them across the finish line.

“We’ve got quality candidates who are positioned really well in their states. Hopefully, the president will act as some coattails, some positive coattails,” he said.

There is some anxiousness regarding the president’s polling numbers.

One Republican senator called Trump’s early internal polling showing him losing several key states “a wake-up call.”

“A wake-up call is probably the best thing that can happen right now,” said the lawmaker, who requested anonymity to comment on Trump’s political popularity. “In that sense, it probably tells them you have to work this thing hard, which is what they’re trying to do.”

Another Republican senator who faces a tough reelection next year said Trump’s numbers are likely to go up once Democrats get closer to picking a nominee who the GOP can attack.

“I believe you will see any shortfalls that the president has virtually evaporate when you get down to the personality-specific campaign after the primary,” the lawmaker said.

Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocratic senator: 'The ultimate of ironies' for Trump to hit Romney for invoking his faith Committee on Veterans Affairs sends important message during tense Senate time Democrats cry foul over Schiff backlash MORE (D-Mont.), a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats are growing more confident about winning back the Senate but admitted a lot has to go right for his party.

“There’s a lot of things that have to happen for us to take the Senate but I do think things are happening to move things in place so that we can,” he said.

Tester thinks Trump’s ongoing trade battles with Canada, Mexico, China and Europe will erode support for Republicans in rural areas, where they need strong turnout to counterbalance Democratic strength in urban areas.

“It’s either bad trade deals or no trade deals at all,” he said.

In Iowa, Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstTrump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick Senate Majority PAC launches first statewide TV ad for Democrat running against Ernst Overnight Health Care: Ernst endorses bipartisan bill to lower drug prices | US partnering with drugmakers on coronavirus vaccine | UN chief says virus poses 'enormous' risks MORE (R) is seen as having a good chance to win reelection but Republican strategists acknowledge that she would be in serious trouble if Trump loses Iowa, which he carried by nearly 10 points in 2016 but former President Obama won in 2008 and 2012.

Ernst says it’s critical that Trump complete work on his trade deal with Mexico and Canada and end the trade war with China, all major markets of U.S. farm exports.

“I just think he just really needs to get out there. He’ll work it hard, he’ll rally his base, and I think they will come through for him,” she said when asked about Trump’s internal poll numbers which showed him weaker than many Republicans expected.

“He just needs to continue working on a number of these trade deals and other things that are important to them,” she added.

The parties’ performances in Senate races in 2008, 2012 and 2016 largely mirrored how they did in the presidential match ups.

Senate Democrats picked up eight seats in 2008 and two seats in 2012 when Obama won.

Senate Republicans outperformed expectations in 2016, losing only two seats when Trump won, despite an electoral map that appeared to heavily favor the Democrats.

Democrats felt confident they would win back control of the Senate in the 2016 election in large part because they believed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Hillicon Valley: Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates | Barr vows to make surveillance reforms after watchdog report | DHS cyber chief focused on 2020 The Hill's Campaign Report: High stakes at last Democratic debate before Super Tuesday MORE, their nominee, would beat Trump in key Senate battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire and possibly Iowa.       

Obama twice carried all of those states — with the exception of North Carolina, which he won only in 2008.

As it turned out, Clinton won just one of those six battlegrounds: New Hampshire.

The Senate races largely reflected what happened on the presidential level.

Republican candidates such as Sens. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonWhistleblower retaliation: Stop confusing unlawful attacks with politics Congress looks to strengthen hand in State Department following impeachment Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony MORE (R-Wis.) and Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.) won upset races in states where Trump also upset Clinton.

Johnson, however, thinks he helped Trump across the finish line instead of vice versa, noting he won more votes than the top of the ticket in 2016.

“I helped him over the finish line. I got 74,000 more votes than he got. He doesn’t really like to hear that,” he said.