Short of a big new shooting war, an economic collapse, or Armageddon itself, there’s no event that will displace the presidential election as the political focus of 2020. The prospect of another four years of President Donald Trump, feeling frisky and entirely vindicated in his unlimited view of his own power and glory, is just impossible to subordinate to anything else. Having said that, the fight for control of the Senate has enormous implications no matter who wins the presidency, if only because of the grip on judicial confirmations the majority party in the upper chamber will hold.
The general feeling going into this election cycle has been that flipping the Senate will be difficult for Democrats, even if they depose Trump. They have a three-seat majority, and in Alabama’s incongruous Democrat Doug Jones, a pretty easy mark. Only two Republican incumbents (Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine) up for reelection represent states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and aside from Jones, Michigan Democrat Gary Peters is in a Trump ’16 state.
But as the Cook Political Report’s veteran Senate guru Jennifer Duffy notes, Democrats are off to a very good start, particularly on the fundraising front, in their effort to place as many GOP Senate seats into play as possible:
If there is anything that sticks out in Senate races this cycle, it’s the early spending on television advertising in the most competitive races. As of December 19, just over $32.5 million has been spent in eight key races. Democrats have outspent Republicans, $21.9 million to $10.6 million, according to data provided by Advertising Analytics. The Senate race in Maine has seen the highest level of spending at $8.2 million. To put this in some perspective, Collins spent $5.6 million on her 2014 reelection bid, and independent expenditures amounted to less than $2 million. Advertising Analytics estimates that $55 million will be spent on television advertising in Maine this cycle, an astonishing amount for a state with three relatively inexpensive media markets. Democrats have outspent Republicans almost two to one and nearly all that money has been on ads criticizing Collins.
Democrats have also outspent Republicans in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, and Kentucky. Republicans have spent considerably more than Democrats in Alabama and North Carolina, but most of the money is being spent in GOP primaries.
Duffy notes that a Senate impeachment trial could create some general-election problems for GOP incumbents Collins, Gardner, and Martha McSally — who dare not offend the Trumpian base with a vote to remove him from office. But there are signs Democrats also have a shot against North Carolina’s Thom Tillis and Iowa’s Joni Ernst — and perhaps the occupants (David Perdue and the top Republican in the 2020 special “jungle primary”) of the two Georgia Senate seats at risk. Even Kansas is a possible pickup so long as Kris Kobach is in the race.
It appears that there will be at least five GOP-held seats in play, with a chance that Democrats could add one or two more. This puts Democrats in a position to win the majority, even if they lose Alabama and/or Michigan. This is not to suggest that Democrats will win the majority, only that their prospects are considerably better today than they were five months ago.
If Mike Pence is reelected as vice president, of course, Democrats would need to post a net gain of four Senate seats to be in a position to block — Joe Manchin willing — Trump executive- and judicial-branch nominees, not to mention whatever nasty legislative treats he has in mind. Given the strong likelihood that we’ll see remarkable levels of straight-ticket voting in 2020, prospects for a Democratic Congress confronting a raging, reelected Trump are limited. More likely, Senate Democrats will be focused on giving a president of their own, if they get one, a fighting chance for success.