This week Stacey Abrams announced that she would not be a candidate for US Senate in Georgia in 2020 perhaps gearing up for a run for the White House instead. She is not the only top-tier senate recruit who has opted not to run. In Texas both Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro are running for President instead of against Sen. John Cornyn. In Colorado former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has proven his staying power in his state by being elected and re-elected in Republican wave years, has launched a quixotic quest for the presidency instead of challenging Sen. Cory Gardner. It also appears that in Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock will decide to seek the Presidency instead of challenging Sen. Steve Daines who is potentially vulnerable. It was always going to be difficult to retake the Senate in 2020, but Democrats have made the path increasingly more narrow which has widespread consequences regardless of how the Presidential election pans out.
Democrats need to pick up three seats in order to retake the Senate which in theory sounds simple enough until you look at a map of the contested races. Democrats have an Alabama sized problem in their plan to retake the majority, and it’s very unlikely that Sen. Doug Jones is going to be able to outperform the partisan identity of his state considering President Trump will also be on the ballot and Roy Moore (probably) won’t. So Democrats will probably need four seats, which again is a heavy order.
The path of least resistance for Democrats runs through Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and it’s difficult to imagine another pick-up opportunity:
- Some Democrats have hopes for Kentucky given that according to Morning Consult, Sen. Mitch McConnell is the least popular senator in America. However, he is also of course the Majority Leader, and will have access to one of the largest fundraising networks in the United States.
- There are also hopes for North Carolina but given that in 2016, no state voted for a candidate for senate and president from opposite parties, partisanship may once again win out. Incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis hasn’t uniformly behaved as a Trump sycophant in the Senate, which may help with moderates in his home state.
- Iowa is another potential pick-up opportunity, but Iowa seems to be trending red. In 2018, they re-elected their Republican governor (as well as some statewide Democrats). Incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst is also fairly popular, and now a member of GOP senate leadership.
- Kansas seems to be an unlikely state for Democrats, it has after all been represented exclusively by Republicans since 1939. However with the election of a Democratic governor last fall and the retirement of incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, there does exist a strong bench of contenders, including Congresswoman Sharice Davids (KS-3) and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis.
So Democrats are left in a somewhat awkward position, because while winning the Presidency seems paramount, we could still effectively be locked out of power because of Republican obstruction in the Senate. If Democrats should lose the presidency, it’s likely that President Trump will replace somewhere between one and three Supreme Court justices, essentially guaranteeing a right-wing majority for decades to come. That is the biggest threat, but there are probably other unforeseen consequences of giving Republicans two more years with the Senate and the White House. If Democrats defeat Donald Trump, things still look grim. It seems likely that Republicans would block any Supreme Court nominee of a Democratic president. Republicans also would block progressive ideas like healthcare reform, the Green New Deal, and student loan forgiveness, to name a few. If history is our guide, Democrats would suffer in the 2022 midterm and further solidify Republican control of the senate, and if things go really bad the house could fall as well.
This is all to say that Democrats need the Senate. We can all still be disgusted by Donald Trump and want to get him out of the White House. However, none of the policy debates we’re currently having will ultimately matter if Mitch McConnell is majority leader in 2021. Democrats like Beto, Abrams, Hickenlooper, and Bullock need to re-evaluate their priorities. Their home states would not be cakewalk contests even if they were candidates, but we need to maximize our chances of capturing the Senate if we hope to accomplish anything.
We’re quickly approaching the Rubicon. Demographic destiny will not save us, just as it didn’t in 2016. Democrats are perfectly capable of multitasking, but the Senate is the real prize. and we need to remember that.