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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

Senate control likely will be less of an issue if Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist 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 ClintonTrump thanks 'vicious young Socialist Congresswomen' for his poll numbers Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? Democrats fret over Trump cash machine 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 BullockThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Fundraising numbers highlight growing divide in 2020 race Inslee raises over million in second quarter MORE and Colorado's John HickenlooperJohn Wright HickenlooperThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Fundraising numbers highlight growing divide in 2020 race 2020 Democrats call Trump's tweets about female Democrats racist MORE or others who ran dazzling races last year, almost pulling off big upsets, such as Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet Poll: Biden, Sanders and Warren lead 2020 Democrats in New Hampshire Poll: Biden leads 2020 Democrats by 13 points, followed by Sanders, Warren and Harris 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 angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report The Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 McSallyTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout On The Money: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency | Tech giants on defensive at antitrust hearing | Democrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses 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 CollinsTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet MORE of Maine and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstTrump angry more Republicans haven't defended his tweets: report Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout House Dems, Senate GOP build money edge to protect majorities 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 TillisRepublicans scramble to contain Trump fallout McConnell says Trump is not a racist, but calls for better rhetoric GOP senator: 'Outrageous' to say Trump's tweets about Democratic congresswomen are racist 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 BidenHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Sanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll 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.