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 McConnellHouse to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance Five takeaways from a bracing day of Jan. 6 testimony McCarthy, McConnell say they didn't watch Jan. 6 hearing 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 TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit 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 ClintonBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement 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 Bullock65 former governors, mayors back bipartisan infrastructure deal Arkansas, New Jersey governors to head National Governors Association Biden 'allies' painting him into a corner MORE and Colorado's John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperManchin grills Haaland over Biden oil and gas moratorium It's time for US to get serious about cleaning up space junk Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE or others who ran dazzling races last year, almost pulling off big upsets, such as Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeO'Rourke mum on run for Texas governor Beto O'Rourke, Willie Nelson financially back Texas Democrats in elections bill fight Texans split on whether Abbott deserves reelection: poll 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 GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms 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 McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal 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 CollinsOvernight Health Care: CDC advises vaccinated to wear masks in high-risk areas | Biden admin considering vaccine mandate for federal workers Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Crunch time for bipartisan plan; first Jan. 6 hearing today MORE of Maine and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden signs bill to bolster crime victims fund 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 TillisEight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division DACA court ruling puts weight of immigration reform on Democrats Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance 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 BidenRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Iowa governor suggests immigrants partially to blame for rising COVID-19 cases Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on 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.