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 McConnellLawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills Budowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet 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 TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report 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 ClintonQueer Marine veteran launches House bid after incumbent California Rep. Susan Davis announces retirement Poll: Trump neck and neck with top 2020 Democrats in Florida Former immigration judge fined, temporarily banned from federal service for promoting Clinton policies 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 BullockNew poll finds Biden, Warren in virtual tie in Iowa Gabbard drives coverage in push to qualify for October debate Partisan divisions sharpen as independent voters fade MORE and Colorado's John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperLeft off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa Yang says he would not run as a third-party candidate The Hill's Morning Report - Hurricane Dorian devastates the Bahamas, creeps along Florida coast MORE or others who ran dazzling races last year, almost pulling off big upsets, such as Beto O'RourkeBeto O'RourkeBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll CNN announces details for LGBTQ town hall Manchin: 'Beto O'Rourke is not taking my guns away from me' 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 Gardner The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Bolton returns to political group after exiting administration The Hill's Morning Report — Trump's hurricane forecast controversy won't go away 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 McSallyArizona Democratic Party will hold vote to censure Sinema Democrats seize Senate floor to protest gun inaction: 'Put up or shut up' The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation 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 CollinsGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Sinema touts bipartisan record as Arizona Democrats plan censure vote The Hill's Morning Report - Trump takes 2020 roadshow to New Mexico MORE of Maine and Joni ErnstJoni Kay Ernst'Mike Pounce' trends on Twitter after Trump slip at GOP retreat Overnight Energy: Trump administration to repeal waterway protections| House votes to block drilling in Arctic refuge| Administration takes key step to open Alaskan refuge to drilling by end of year Trump administration to repeal waterway protections 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 TillisTillis trails Democratic Senate challenger by 2 points: poll Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation 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 BidenBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Biden allies: Warren is taking a bite out of his electability argument Budowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat 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.