At this particular moment, the best bet in 2020 is a Democratic presidential win, with Republicans holding onto the Senate and Democrats holding onto the House. It’s early, of course, and the presidential election is hardly going to be easy for Democrats. But as my colleague Eric Levitz recently explained, a Republican-controlled Senate could dash hopes that a progressive 46th president could enact any kind of legislative agenda or reverse the conservative judicial revolution that Donald Trump is overseeing. Beyond that, a Democratic president who can’t get anything done would be a strong candidate for a disastrous 2022 midterm and early lame-duck status.
So picking up three net Senate seats is almost as urgent a task for Democrats in 2020 as getting Trump out of the White House. The conventional wisdom in some circles is that Democratic Senate hopes have been betrayed by potentially strong candidates (e.g., Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, Montana’s Steve Bullock, and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams) selfishly deciding to pursue other offices and other goals. Aside from how you feel about the proposition that these people owe the Democratic Party a year or so of tough, miserable campaign work and then six years in a job they may not even want, the candidate-driven look at 2020 Senate races may be missing something more fundamental. In the last presidential election year, split-ticket voting in Senate races basically vanished. That’s right: In 2016, all 34 races were won by the party that won the state in question in the presidential contest. That’s never happened before. As Harry Enten pointed out, there wasn’t much variation in the pattern of votes:
Republican Senate candidates generally outperformed Trump, but the average difference between the Republican Senate candidate’s margin and Trump’s margin was just 1 percentage point.
Unless 2016 was an outlier (and given a general trend toward straight-ticket voting, that’s unlikely), you can see why most observers are pessimistic about Democrat Doug Jones surviving a presidential year in Alabama (Trump won the state by 27 points), and also why Steve Bullock wasn’t interested in a Senate race in Montana (which Trump carried by 20 points) and Beto O’Rourke gave it a pass in Texas (a nine-point Trump win in 2016).
More generally, the depressing fact for Democrats is that 22 of the 34 Senate races in 2020 are happening in states won by Trump in 2016. Considering that Trump managed to lose the national popular vote, that’s mostly a reminder that the United States Senate, with its equal seats for California and Wyoming, is a fundamentally anti-democratic (and hence anti-Democratic) institution.
There is a flip side to this straight-ticket-voting reality: If Democrats win the presidential race decisively, some of those presidential red states could turn blue. In particular, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina are states with 2020 Senate races against Republican incumbents where Democrats think they have a decent chance of beating Trump this time. Add in two states Trump lost last time that have Republican senators up in 2020 (Colorado and Maine), and the odds of liberating the upper chamber from Mitch McConnell’s death grip look a lot better. That means a strong Democratic investment in purplish states with Senate races could pay off doubly.
Strange things can always happen in the interim, of course: Joe Manchin could practically hand over his Senate seat to Republicans if he resigned to run for governor of West Virginia. On the other hand, Alabama Republicans could make an equally generous gesture by again nominating Roy Moore to run against Jones. But instead of obsessing about recruitment of ideal candidates for potentially winnable Senate races, Democrats would be wise to focus on winning those states against Trump, with all the good things that could mean down-ballot.