Politics

Democrats Actually Have a Chance to Win the Senate This Year

Here are the key states they need to look out for.

The U.S. Capitol
The U.S. Capitol is seen on Friday. Paul Morigi/Getty Images for MoveOn

In 2020, it’s worth keeping in mind that a third of the sitting senators are up for reelection. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is on the ballot this fall, as are Republicans from Maine, Colorado, and Arizona. So Democrats are trying to figure out how to gain control in Washington. If they can hold the seats they’ve got, they need to gain three more to even up the ranks. The math is looking a bit more in Dems’ favor lately—money is rolling in for candidates, and polls are shifting. But will that be enough to overcome to the daunting structural challenges they still face? And what about the sitting Dems who are endangered in the fall?

On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Jim Newell, who covers Congress for Slate, about what this election season looks like for Democratic senators. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: The three states Democrats are really focusing on are Arizona, Colorado and Maine.

Jim Newell: I’ll admit I am surprised that Maine is as competitive as it has been. Susan Collins has always won her races with about 60 percent of the vote and had bipartisan popularity. She’s pretty shrewd—she’ll give the Dems one here and then side with Republicans there. But her favorability rating is really bad. A recent poll showed her at 37 percent approval. Watching her Brett Kavanaugh speech, I thought, This will polarize her numbers a bit more, but she’ll probably recover as time goes on. That hasn’t happened. She is really in the fight for her life here.

Her challenger is Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. What do her chances look like?

Most have the race as a toss-up right now because even though Collins is underwater, she’s going to have a lot of money behind her, and Mitch McConnell, after that Kavanaugh vote, has saving Susan Collins as a priority. If you look at the polling, it’s in a dead heat. We’ll see how that progresses going forward. But Collins is absolutely vulnerable.

Let’s talk about Arizona, where Mark Kelly is running. He’s former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ husband and was an astronaut. He’s just raised a massive amount of money.

This race is shaping up to be a little bit similar to Martha McSally’s last one, which she lost. She ran in 2018 for an Arizona Senate seat against Kyrsten Sinema. She lost by a few percentage points. Republicans had put McSally in as their future for the Senate in this state. Then she lost and they couldn’t quite figure out whom they wanted to appoint to John McCain’s seat. There wasn’t really anyone else who came to mind, so they appointed her. But she’s polling pretty poorly against Mark Kelly. He’s out-raising her. Democrats have to win this seat, and they’re in pretty good position to do it.

Now, Colorado. That’s where former Gov. John Hickenlooper is running. But he’s not the only governor who’s thrown his hat into the race—we also have Steve Bullock in Montana. A few months back, I remember that people were really worried that Chuck Schumer couldn’t attract people to run for the Senate. What does it tell you that these big players in the Democratic world are now running?

When Hickenlooper and Bullock were running for president, they swore left and right that they would never run for Senate. They’re governors—they don’t want to just be one of 100 in a legislative body. But I think they just wanted to see if their presidential campaigns could go anywhere—they did not. So then they looked at the Senate numbers and saw there was a pretty good path to victory. Hickenlooper nearly cleared the field of a lot of candidates who were running in the gubernatorial primary before he did change his mind. So he will win that. He’ll be up against Cory Gardner, who won in 2014, a really good Republican year. This is an absolute must-win for Democrats. It’s their No. 1 target. Hickenlooper is popular. Gardner is not that popular. If Dems do not win Colorado, they have significant problems.

Part of the problem for Democrats has to do with where they’re running, and whether their states went for Trump in 2016. In Montana, a state that Trump won by 20 points, Gov. Steve Bullock was hesitant to throw his hat in the ring until after Super Tuesday, when Joe Biden surged and it seemed like he was well on his way to the presidential nomination. We should talk about Bullock because he’s a Democrat leading a state that Trump won—but he’s very, very popular.

That was a pretty clear case of Biden versus Sanders being the deciding factor there. And Schumer was persistent with Bullock—he flew to Montana.

Bullock himself emphasized this in his presidential campaign to no avail: He won in 2016 with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket. There are differences between gubernatorial and federal elections. Sometimes red states might go for a Democrat for governor but then send a warm body to join the Republicans in Washington. So it’s still going to be really uphill. Fortunately, he’s running against Steve Daines, the senator who won in 2014. He’s not really the most distinguished person.

It sounds like Daines realized he was going to have to contend with Bullock: He was raising money early on to have a war chest and hunker down just in case.

He’s definitely feeling the fire right now.

There are going to be some big structural impediments there, given that Trump is probably gonna win the state by, like, 20. So that means Bullock needs a lot of ticket splitters at the polls in order to pull that off.

Let’s talk a little bit about the liabilities for Democrats, because it’s not just that they’re looking to pick up seats—they may also lose seats. And I think the seat most people are talking about is Doug Jones in Alabama.

Doug Jones is in another league. I think he’s the most likely senator of either party to lose his seat this year.

Why is that? Is it just that he ran against an especially weak candidate, Roy Moore, last time?

Yeah, a historically weak candidate in a special election environment. Doug Jones was a very good candidate, but now he’s running against either Jeff Sessions or Tommy Tuberville, who are both going to be fine for Republicans. Trump is going to win that state by 30 or so points. That’s gonna carry whatever Republican is there unless they have an especially acute liability, which I don’t think will be the case again.

Michigan is also a place where Democrats are on the ropes.

Not quite on the ropes, but they are paying attention. That’s where Gary Peters is the incumbent Democratic senator. You probably don’t know anything about him because no one knows anything about him. Republicans have been running a lot of joke ads about how people don’t even know his name. And Peters is running against John James, who ran for Senate in 2018 against Debbie Stabenow and lost by about 5 percentage points, which is pretty good in an overwhelmingly Democratic year against a pretty strong incumbent.

Are all these candidates indicating where the Democratic Party is going?

I think it’s a continuation of the 2018 playbook, with the emerging growth sector of people who are coming toward the Democrats: suburbanites in the South and Southwest, young people who may have moved to the suburbs of some of these cities, ex-Republicans who are pushed away from Trump. And so Democrats in 2018 pick candidates who would appeal to them, candidates like veterans and ex-prosecutors, ex–CIA officials. All with pretty centrist beliefs, but also more open to things like gun control. This is a lot of what the future of the Democratic Party looks like. If you want to convert all of these states, you need a lot of these middle-of-the road candidates who can appeal to the suburbs. The left does not like this, but this is the segment of the party that is growing.

How are any of these candidates talking about getting out the vote, given the unique circumstances we’re in right now?

I don’t think anyone’s quite figured out how campaigning in the fall is going to be done. We know that rallies are suspended for the foreseeable future. If that continues throughout the fall, the entire campaign is basically going to be TV ads and webcam rallies. But who’s going to actually go to those? So it’ll mostly be a war fought on the air. It remains to be seen whether we’ll get back to normal-looking elections, whether the virus will be contained well enough by the fall or it’s going to be everyone in quarantine watching the campaign through paid media for the next seven months.

It would be a good test for stuff like holding rallies and knocking on doors—whether a lot of that in-person stuff is bullshit. If we don’t have that, it’s just a campaign with candidates doing local TV interviews and paid media with lots of advertising. If the results are pretty much the same, we’ll see how much rallies actually matter.

Is it silly for us to be talking about Senate prospects at this particular moment? It’s early, and there’s so much else going on. I’m wondering what this conversation tells you about the state of politics right now.

Well, the races are still going to happen. It’s too early to make predictions about who’s going to win control of the Senate, but these races are still going on in some form or another. The coronavirus just changes the message a little bit. It becomes: “What has your senator done about the coronavirus? Did your senator vote for this relief bill? Did they push Trump hard enough when he wasn’t taking the coronavirus seriously?” So it changes the contours. But the campaigns aren’t pausing. There’s no national suspension of politics during all this, so don’t think for a second that these are on the back burner right now.

Listen to the full episode using the player below, or subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.