A mere four months ago, Democrats were giddy on their 2020 prospects. The President’s approval was dragged down by the partial government shutdown, Senate Republicans were divided on ending said shutdown and Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats were riding high in the majority. Democrats turned to targeting the Senate in 2020 and their pitch was a changing South and a recalcitrant Majority Leader in Mitch McConnell put the Senate in play. Well, fast-forward to today and the party has had almost every major potential candidate decline high-profile Senate runs.
Democrats would argue it is early in the cycle and Republicans enjoyed success in 2014 by scoring recruiting successes later in the cycle. Still, the recruiting woes of the party cannot be ignored. Compared to 2014, the GOP is on defense as their majority-freshman class is stands for reelection (minus a special election in AZ). While most GOP successes from 2014 are in now safely red states a number of states are purple to lightly pink-Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Maine, North Carolina Iowa and Colorado. These are the states Democrats are targeting and have recruited heavily in.
While the field in Maine to challenge Senator Susan Collins is still developing, and the party scored a major recruiting success in former astronaut Mark Kelly, also the husband of former representative Gabby Giffords, in Arizona, the lack of any other high-profile recruitment has left the party largely accepting America will face divided government in 2021.
Unsurprisingly, the party has turned to known commodities from 2018 to try and expand the Senate field. By far, the biggest recruitment failure the party suffered was in Georgia, where 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who lost her race by a little over 50,000 votes out of over two million cast, turned down the party’s overtures to challenges freshman Senator David Perdue. Despite the state trending purple, the party’s bench in the state is pretty slim considering they do not hold any statewide offices to recruit candidates from.
In Texas, a red state which has sharply turned leftward under the Trump administration, Democrats have largely accepted 2018 Congressional candidate MJ Hegar will face Senator Jon Cornyn. Ted Cruz’s weak showing last year has the party optimistic for 2020 but they also want to build off their successes with young, urban and Hispanic voters. The party heavily courted Congressman Joaquin Castro after Beto O”Rourke declared for the Presidency, the brother of Presidential candidate Julian Castro. Castro turned down the party’s overtures and while Hegar came close to winning a heavily Republican, Austin based district last year his ability to compete statewide is dubious.
Lastly, we turn to Iowa. Unlike Texas and Georgia, Iowa has moved more Republican under Trump. While Democrats did take two Congressional districts in the state last cycle they lost seats in the state legislature and did not win the state’s open gubernatorial contest. Senator Joni Ernst was a GOP rock-star in 2014 and has been floated as the future of a majority-male, majority-white party. Defeating the GOP’s future would be quite a coup for Democrats and they turned to their own mini-rock star in Congresswomen Cindy Axne. Axne defeated a Republican incumbent in a swing seat and had name ID and money on her side. But, Axne turned the party down. Democrats are scrambling for a replacement.
Recruitment in North Carolina, Maine and Colorado is a mixed bag. Though Democrats have a number of candidates declared against Cory Gardner – the most endangered Republican in the Senate – none have captured the party faithful’s love. The most well known candidates are state senator Mike Johnston, former state house speaker and perennial loser of races Andrew Romanoff, and former Colorado District Attorney John Walsh. Former Governor John Hickenlooper’s decision to run for President deprived the party of their biggest name and the party is actively seeking a bigger name candidate. Colorado has trended blue since 2008, and the state’s Senate seats have flipped constantly since statehood, but Gardner will not be easy to beat.
In Maine and North Carolina, Democrats have a strong bench. But, in North Carolina Thom Tillis is relatively popular and while Senator Collins (ME) caused a firestorm when she voted for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court she remains popular in the state. Democrats might be able to put both states in play under the right conditions but right now neither looks endangered for the GOP.
Democrats, even if they beat Trump in 2020, will likely have to win four Senate seats to have their nominee’s VP break ties in the Senate. Short of GOP nihilism in Alabama, Senator Doug Jones is the definitive underdog in his contest. But, with 2017 GOP Senate nominee threatening to run in the primary, maybe GOP nihilism will happen.
Democrats are focused on defeating Trump and holding their new House majority based in Trump districts, but the Senate has caused particular problems for the party by helping the President reshape the Judiciary. It is also where Democratic legislation is going to die. Unless Democrats find some recruiting success in the next year, the Senate will remain the GOP’s Congressional bastion.