Democrats’ Plan to Win the Senate

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S1: This week, with senators returning to Washington to try to pass a fourth Corona virus relief package, Jim Newell, who covers Congress for Slate. He says it’s worth keeping in mind that a third of these senators are up for re-election.

S2: Jim, if I’d talk to you about what the 2020 Senate prospects looked like a month ago, what would you have said?

S3: I would have said it’s kind of close to a coin flip.

S4: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. He’s on the ballot this fall. Same with Republicans from Maine, Colorado, Arizona. I would have called it a target rich environment. But what do you mean by that?

S3: Well, there Republicans have more seats up this time, but it’s hard to find sort of the tipping point race that could give Democrats control of the Senate.

S4: So for Democrats, at the same time, they are figuring out the math of how to get enough relief to small businesses, how to keep unemployment checks flowing in the back of their minds. They’re also doing this other math, how to gain control in Washington if they can hold onto the seats they’ve got. They need to gain three more to even up the ranks.

S1: But as this new coronavirus spread around the country and as Joe Biden took control of the top of the 20/20 ticket, something funny started happening for Dems. Their math started to change.

S2: The whole reason we are talking about Democrats potentially having a shot at flipping the Senate, which seemed not so long ago, like a distant, almost fantastical dream, it all comes down to money, right?

S3: Yes. What kind of money are we talking about? Well, one example is Mark Kelly, who is the astronaut husband of Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman. He’s run against Martha McSally in Arizona. And he raised $11 in the first quarter and has 20 million dollars on hand. Now, that’s a lot of money and you’re seeing a lot of candidates, too. I mean, you see Sarah Gideon in Maine. She’s raised over ten million dollars, something like 40 million dollars. That’s a lot of money.

S4: So as the money rolls in for Democrats across the country, Jim’s going to explain what that actually means with the virus still looming. Nothing’s guaranteed, especially not a predictable election season.

S5: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S2: So you say the three states that Democrats are really focusing on are Arizona, Colorado and Maine. So let’s just go through those like piece by piece. Look at me. I just think about how long Democrats have been thinking about trying to flip the Senate. You know, I still remember the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were going on. And Susan Collins, the sitting Republican senator in Maine, she gave this speech when she voted him in.

S6: I believe that she is a survivor of a sexual assault and that this trauma has up ended her life.

S2: The less the four winds and during that speech, Democrats were raising money for her opponent who didn’t exist at the time. But it just shows you how thirsty the Dems are to take down some Republicans.

S3: Yeah, I mean, I’ll admit I am surprised that manias as competitive as it has been. I mean, Susan Collins has always won her races with 60 some percentage of the vote, had bipartisan popularity. She’s pretty shrewd. And, you know, she’ll give the Dems one here and she’ll side with the Republicans here. But her favourability rating is really bad. There’s a recent poll shows at 37 percent approval. And I thought watching that catadores speech, I thought, well, yeah, I mean, this will polarize her numbers a little bit more, but then, you know, she’ll probably recover a little bit as time goes on. That hasn’t happened. I mean, she is really in the fight for her life here. And I’m just surprised that she’s been unable to sort of dig out of that hole.

S2: Her challenger is a woman named Sarah Gideon. So who is she and what is this race look like right now?

S3: She was the speaker of the main house.

S2: And how is she doing? Like you say that the approval ratings for Collins are way down. But what are Gideon’s chances looking like?

S3: I mean, most of the handicappers have it as a toss up right now just because even even though Collins is underwater, she’s going to have a lot of money behind her. And Mitch McConnell, you know, after that Kavanaugh vote that Collins liveried is says that saving Susan Collins would be his number one priority. So if you look at the polling, it’s it’s pretty, you know, in a dead heat. We’ll see how that progress is going forward. But I really thought going this cycle that it was another pipe dream for Democrats hoping to take on Susan Collins. But it really isn’t. I mean, she is absolutely vulnerable.

S2: All right, let’s talk about Arizona, because that’s where Mark Kelly is running now.

S7: I never expected my journey to bring me here. Gabby was the member of Congress in the family. She’s also the woman who taught me everything I know about how to use policy to improve people’s lives.

S2: He’s, of course, Gabby Giffords husband, former astronaut. And you said he’s just raised a massive amount of money.

S3: Yeah. So he’s running against Martha McSally, who? Well, let’s just say this race issue is shaping up to be a little bit similar to Martha McSally, last one, which she largely lost. Yes. She ran in 2018 for Arizona Senate against Kirsten Cinema. She lost by a few percentage points. And then Republicans, you know, they sort of put McSally in as their future for the Senate in this state. But then she lost and they couldn’t quite figure out who they wanted to appoint to John McCain’s seat. There wasn’t really a one else who came to mind. So they appoint her to John McCain’s seat. So now she has to run in this special election for another two years. And then in 2022, they’ll there will be a full term election HUF. Yeah. No, it’s this Arizona’s there’s just Senate races every two years for as far as the eye can see. But yeah, she’s she’s really she’s polling pretty poorly against Mark Kelly. He’s outraising her. So that really seems to be. You know, see, the Democrats have to win and they’re in pretty good position to do it. Mm hmm.

S2: And then you talk about Colorado. That’s where the former governor, John Hickenlooper, is running. He’s not the only governor who’s thrown his hat into the race, because now we also have Steve Bullock in Montana. So what stood out to me about this is, you know, a few months back, I remember having a conversation where people were really worried that Chuck Schumer couldn’t attract people to run for the Senate. And the question was, why won’t people just run for the Senate? This is a powerful body. And maybe we know that now more than ever with all of this legislation rocketing through having to do with the corona virus. So what’s happening in Colorado and what does it tell you that these sort of big players in the Democratic world are now running for Senate?

S3: I mean, I think the calculation is always just you’ll hear these candidates say when when Hickenlooper and Bullock were running for president, you know, they swore left and right that they would never run for Senate. They had no interest in running for Senate. You know, they’re governors. They don’t want to just be one of 100 in a legislative body. But I think really they could just, you know, one, they wanted to see if their presidential campaigns could go anywhere. They did not. And then they would just want to see if they can win. Once they you know, they look at the numbers and they think that there’s a pretty good path to victory, then they’ll get in the race. So Hickenlooper in Colorado, he he’s nearly cleared the field of a lot of candidates who are running in the primary before he he did change his mind is and decided to enter the race. So he will win that primary. And then he’s up against Cory Gardner, who won in 2014, which is a really good Republican year. This is an absolute must win for Democrats. It’s their their number one target. They should win it. John Hickenlooper is popular. Cory Gardner is not that popular. So if they do not win Colorado, then they have significant problems.

S1: Part of the challenge 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. Governor Steve Bullock was hesitant to throw his hat in the ring. That is until after Super Tuesday. That’s when Joe Biden surged and it seemed like he was well on his way to the presidential nomination.

S3: I mean, that was a pretty clear case of of Biden’s nomination versus Sanders, you know, being the deciding factor there. I think if if Schumer wasn’t so persistent, the bulik, maybe he might not have gotten quite that far. But, you know, I think the national environment certainly helped. I do not think that Chuck Schumer flying to Montana would have gotten Seabrooke on the ballot with Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket. Did he literally fly to Montana? Yeah. No, he did fly to Montana.

S2: And we should talk about how popular Bullock is in the state, because he’s a Democrat leading a state that Trump won. But he’s very, very popular.

S3: Right. And this was something that Steve Bullock himself stressed quite a bit in his presidential campaign, to no avail that he won in 2016 with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket. And Bullock was able to hold onto that race. You know, it’s a real opportunity. And there are differences between, you know, gubernatorial elections and federal elections. Sometimes red states might go for a Democrat, for governor. But in terms of sending someone to Washington, they’ll just send a, you know, 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. Not really the most distinguished person, not someone who Montanans, you know, have posters of on their wall. What do you mean when you say that? Well, he’s just sort of a guy, you know. I mean, I say there’s a Senate reporter I’ve talked to Steve Daines. And, you know, he’s a guy.

S2: I mean, it sounded like Deane’s was kind of realizing he was gonna have to contend with Bullock potentially was raising money very early on to just kind of have a war chest and like hunker down in case he had to do this work.

S3: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure he’s definitely feeling the fire right now. I mean, I don’t know if there’s been any polling to see how this shapes up so far. There’s gonna be some big structural impediments there. Given that travel is probably good to win the state by like 20. So that means that CBL needs a lot of ticket splitters at the polls in order to pull that off.

S2: So 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 that most people are talking about is Doug Jones in Alabama. But there are others.

S3: Yeah, I think Doug Jones is. I mean, he’s in another league. I think he’s the most likely U.S. senator of either party to lose his seat this year.

S2: Why? Why is that? Is it just that, you know, he was it just happened that he ran against an especially weak candidate and Roy Moore last time?

S3: Yeah, a historically weak candidate in a special election environment. Any Emmy? Doug Jones was a very good candidate, too. But now he’s running against either Jeff Sessions or Tommy Tuberville, who’s a former football coach there, who are both going to be fine for Republicans. I mean, Trump is going to win that state by 30 some points. And it’s just that’s just going to carry whatever Republican is there unless they have an especial acute liability, like a history of, you know, preying on girls at the mall and being banned from the mall, which I don’t think the Roy Moore editorial. Yeah. The Roy Moore story, which I don’t think is would be the case again.

S2: And then you said Michigan, too, is a place where Democrats are on the ropes.

S3: Yaniv, I quite say on the ropes, but they’re paying attention. This is where Gary Peters is the incumbent Democratic senator. You probably don’t know anything about him because no one knows anything about him. I cover the Senate. I don’t know anything about him. He’s a pretty quiet guy. His name recognition is not that great. Even in Michigan, I know Republicans have been writing a lot of joke ads, you know, calling him Jerry Peters, which is an especially funny, but they’re just making a joke about how people don’t really even know the name of the senator. I mean, he’s running against John James, who ran for Senate in 2018 against Debbie Stabenow. He lost by about five percentage points, which is pretty good in an overwhelmingly Democratic year against a pretty strong incumbent. He’s running again against Gary Peters. So that’s definitely one that Democrats are watching closely.

S2: It’s weird that they’re running an ad making fun of his name when the person they’re running against him is named John James. It just doesn’t sound like a real name, right?

S3: I don’t know. They’re like the Republicans are tapping into something. They’re about just the essential blandness of Gary Peters. But it’s also not a very uproarious joke that they’re going with. So they need to workshop it a little bit more.

S2: I’m wondering how the candidates who are running like what they say about the state of the Democratic Party right now, like are. Are these candidates indicating where the party’s going at all?

S3: I think it’s a bit of a continuation of the 2018 playbook where, you know, the emerging growth sector, so-to-speak, and in those who are coming towards Democrats were suburbanites in the South, the Southwest, both young people who may have moved to the suburbs of some of these cities and ex Republicans who are pushed away from Trump. I mean, this is really where the Democratic Party has been growing. And so Democrats in 2018 pick candidates who would appeal to them. You know, veterans and ex-prosecutors, ex CIA officials with pretty centrist beliefs, but also, you know, more open to things like gun control than a lot of more centrist Democrats were in the past who represent more rural areas. This is a lot of what the future of the Democratic Party looks like. If you want to convert all of these states, a lot of these sort of middle of the road candidates who you can appeal to, the suburbs, you know, the left does not like that. This is the trend where the Democratic Party is going. But this is the the segment of the party that is growing. And so you’re going to see candidates who more and more cater to them.

S2: How are any of these candidates, Democrat or Republican, talking about getting out the vote, given the unique circumstances we’re in right now?

S3: I don’t think anyone’s quite figured out. How? Campaigning in the fall is going to be done. I don’t think we’ve really. Turn the corner on. You know how this is even possible. You know, we know that rallies and everything are suspended for the foreseeable future. Or they could be suspended throughout the fall, too. In which case then the entire campaign is basically going to be just TV ads and, you know, Web cam rallies. But who’s can actually go to those? So it mostly be a war just fought on the air, which is, you know, a reason why it’s important that Democrats have been able to raise all this money pretty early on. But it just remains to be seen, you know, whether we’ll get back to normal looking elections if the virus is contained well enough by the fall or if it’s just going to be, you know, everyone in quarantine watching the campaign through, you know, paid media for the next seven months.

S2: I hadn’t thought about it that way. But you’re right where it’s like the election’s not going anywhere.

S3: The question is or there’s another way. I mean, you could it would be a good test on whether all this stuff like holding rallies and knocking doors. You know, if we don’t have that, it’s just a campaign pretty much on, you know, candidates doing local TV interviews and doing paid media with lots of advertising. And the results are pretty much the same. It’s a good test of whether a lot of that in-person stuff is bullshit, actually, and like how much rallies actually matter.

S2: Is it silly for us to be talking about the Senate prospects at this particular moment because it’s early, because there’s so much else going on. I’m wondering what it tells you about sort of the state of politics right now, like why it’s worth having this conversation now?

S3: Well, the races are still going to happen. I mean, it’s it’ll be 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. You know, Corona virus just changes the message a little bit. It becomes, you know, what has your senator done about Corona virus to your senator vote for this relief bill? Did your senator push Trump hard enough? You know, when he wasn’t taking Corona virus seriously? So it changes the contours, but the campaigns aren’t pausing. You know, there’s no national unity, suspension of politics during all of this. So, yeah, I think it’s you know, it seems like a second order thing.

S8: But, you know, don’t be confused for a second that these are just on the back burner right now.

S4: Jim Nual, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Jim Newell is Slate’s senior politics writer. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Marra Silvers, Jason de Leon and Mary Wilson. I’m Mary Harris. You can find me doing the day on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.