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 McConnellOn The Money: Trump asks Supreme Court to block Dem subpoena for financial records | Kudlow 'very optimistic' for new NAFTA deal | House passes Ex-Im Bank bill opposed by Trump, McConnell Top House Democrats ask for review of DHS appointments Warren promises gradual move toward 'Medicare for All' in first 100 days 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 TrumpTrump opens new line of impeachment attack for Democrats Bloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes 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 ClintonWhat are Democrats going to do once Donald Trump leaves office? Trump to hold campaign rally in Florida later this month Krystal Ball accuses Democrats of having 'zero moral authority' amid impeachment inquiry 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 BullockBiden, Buttigieg condemn rocket attacks on Israel Press: Another billionaire need not apply Obama's former chief economist advising Buttigieg MORE and Colorado's John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperKrystal Ball dismisses Rahm Emanuel's 'Medicare for All' criticism as a 'corporatist mantra' Trump says remark about Colorado border wall was made 'kiddingly' Colorado governor mocks Trump for saying he's building wall there MORE or others who ran dazzling races last year, almost pulling off big upsets, such as Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeDeval Patrick enters 2020 race O'Rourke says he 'absolutely' plans to stay in politics Krystal Ball: Buttigieg is 'the boomer candidate' 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 GardnerTariffs threaten 1.5M jobs: Study This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' 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 McSallyThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' Advocates step up efforts for horse racing reform bill after more deaths 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 Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Senate confirms controversial circuit court nominee Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families MORE of Maine and Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOvernight Defense: Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators | Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract decision in court | Lawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families Turkish media paints White House visit as Erdoğan triumph over Trump Erdoğan gets earful from GOP senators at White House 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 TillisThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Progressive veterans group launches campaign labeling Trump as a 'national security threat' Trump rules out total rollback of Chinese tariffs 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 BidenBloomberg to spend 0M on anti-Trump ads in battleground states New witness claims first-hand account of Trump's push for Ukraine probes Obama cautions 2020 hopefuls against going too far left 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.