Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate

Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate
© Stefani Reynolds

The Democrats’ dream team of Senate candidates — popular Governors and 2018 superstars — to challenge beatable Republican incumbents isn't going to happen. Party strategists hope their plan B might be sufficient to pick up the handful of seats needed for control.

The stakes are huge.

Amid all the political chatter about the presidential contest and whether the Democrats can keep the House, there's a sobering reminder: If they win the presidency and the House but Republican Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPublic awareness campaigns will protect the public during COVID-19 Democrats: A moment in history, use it wisely 'Comrade' Trump gets 'endorsement' from Putin in new mock ad by Lincoln Project MORE is still the senate majority leader, they can forget about any new agenda. The Kentucky Republican has shown he will bend or change any rules or procedures to thwart the opposition.

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Senate control likely will be less of an issue if Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE wins reelection. It's hard to see how Republicans lose their current 53-to-47 advantage while retaining the White House.

This cycle, almost two-thirds, or 22, of the Senate seats up for election are Republican-held. Still, for Democrats to capture control, they must win in a handful of red states Trump carried last time.

In talking to party strategists in Washington and battleground states — mainly Democrats — there are two critical variables. One is the top of the ticket, or can the party's nominee run better than Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats try to turn now into November The Memo: Unhappy voters could deliver political shocks beyond Trump On The Trail: Trump, coronavirus fuel unprecedented voter enthusiasm MORE did in states such as North Carolina, Iowa, Arizona and Georgia? The other is will strong senate candidates, with sufficient money resources, emerge in several states?

Six months ago, the party anticipated top-tier challengers such as Montana's Steve BullockSteve BullockTrump nominee faces Senate hurdles to securing public lands post Lincoln Project releases new pro-Biden ad in swing states The Hill's Campaign Report: Progressives feel momentum after primary night MORE and Colorado's John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Hickenlooper beats back progressive challenge in Colorado primary MORE or others who ran dazzling races last year, almost pulling off big upsets, such as Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeColorado GOP Rep. Scott Tipton defeated in primary upset Clinton, Buttigieg among Democrats set to hold virtual events for Biden Redistricting: 'The next decade of our democracy is on the ballot' in November MORE in Texas or Stacey Abrams in Georgia. Instead, those people are running for president or have specifically ruled out a Senate race.

In several of these contests, Democrats say they have solid backups. In Colorado — which is one of the top two Senate targets, along with Arizona — a dozen candidates already are running against incumbent Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerTrump nominee faces Senate hurdles to securing public lands post The Hill's Campaign Report: Colorado, Utah primary results bring upsets, intrigue The Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks MORE, a respected lawmaker who’s facing a tough slog in a blue state where Trump is unpopular. Democrats believe they have a good chance to win if they nominate someone such as Mike Johnston, a former state senator and Obama education adviser — less so if a left-winger wins the primary.

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In Arizona, Mark Kelly, an astronaut and the spouse of Gabby Giffords, a former congresswoman and a gun violence victim, is given at least an even chance against Republican Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Political establishment takes a hit as chaos reigns supreme MORE, who lost a senate race last year and then was appointed to another seat.

Democrats, as of today, feel reasonably confident about their 12 incumbent seats, except for Trump-loving Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones defeated a rabid right-winger in a 2017 special election.

Democrats then must win all, or most of, four seats — three in states Trump carried — North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia — and in closely contested Maine. 

Two of these incumbents, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCongress eyes tighter restrictions on next round of small business help The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday MORE of Maine and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstSunday shows preview: Lawmakers to address alarming spike in coronavirus cases Republicans fear backlash over Trump's threatened veto on Confederate names Senate Republicans defend Trump's response on Russian bounties MORE of Iowa, are pretty popular. Democrats believe they have female candidates in both states who will be competitive if the top of the ticket runs well.

Likewise, the party sees improving prospects in a couple of southern states — Georgia and especially North Carolina, where they now hold the governorship. In Georgia the incumbent, David Perdue, is a knee-jerk Trumpite who won last time in a banner Republican year. North Carolina's Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisACLU calls on Congress to approve COVID-19 testing for immigrants Poll: Biden, Trump locked in neck-and-neck battle for North Carolina GOP senator: Russia should be labeled state sponsor of terrorism if intelligence is accurate MORE, a conservative, might be softened up for the general election by irrational attacks from right-wingers. In both states, a viable challenger has yet to emerge, however.

If there is a long shot, look to Kentucky.

It should be impossible to defeat McConnell, a six-term senator who is unsurpassed in doing what it takes to win. Trump carried the state by 30 points. The likely Democratic candidate, Amy McGrath, lost a congressional contest last November.

Yet McConnell, nine months older than Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hits 'radical left,' news media, China in Independence Day address Kaepernick on July Fourth: 'We reject your celebration of white supremacy' Jaime Harrison seeks to convince Democrats he can take down Lindsey Graham MORE, for all his clout in Congress, isn't well-liked in his home state, where even some conservatives see him as a greedy Washington insider. McGrath, a former Marine combat pilot, could be the ideal McConnell antidote. It'll be very uphill.

If Democrats don't pick up four or five of these seats, even if they win the White House, forget about expanding health care, bold action on climate change and immigration, or much higher taxes on the rich.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.