Campaigns

States in the South with outsize roles in the 2020 elections

Florida, Georgia and North Carolina among key states to watch

Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist is one of several incumbents facing competitive races in Florida, a perennial battleground in the presidential race. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

 

 

If there’s an abiding lesson from 2016, it’s that national public opinion in the presidential race is not as important as the votes of individual states. Republican Donald Trump won by taking 304 electoral votes to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 227, even as Clinton beat him by 2.9 million votes and 2.1 percentage points nationally.

In 2020, Democrats will be looking to recapture states Trump won that went for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. And many of those states will also be prime battlegrounds in the fight for control of the Senate, where Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take a majority (three if they win the White House and the vice president can break 50-50 ties), while Republicans need a net gain of 19 seats to retake the House.

A look at the most competitive states in the South is below. These links will take you to the most competitive states in the East, the Midwest and the West.

Florida

Once again, this perennial swing state is expected to be key to the presidential race. Both parties have launched aggressive voter registration drives, seeking to win even a small percentage of the 4 million unregistered, eligible voters.

Considering the razor-thin margins that have decided recent elections in the Sunshine State, the strategy could yield huge dividends. In 2018, Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis won the Senate and gubernatorial races, respectively, by less than half a point, while in 2016, Trump carried the state by less than 2 points.

Florida, like New York, has 29 electoral votes, lagging behind California (55) and Texas (38).

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Republicans see potential wins with Latinos, who make up 1 in 6 Florida voters and lean right more than in other states, partly because the large population of Cuban Americans has historically favored Republicans. Democrats are hoping to tap the state’s sizable number of African American voters, who helped secure Barack Obama’s wins in 2008 and 2012. They also hope to win the votes of younger Cuban Americans, who identify with Democrats more than their parents’ generation.

Potential wild cards include the ballot measure passed last year that would restore the right to vote to up to 1.5 million people with felony convictions, many of them minorities.The implementation has been thrown into question by a law, passed in July by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by DeSantis, that would require felons to pay court-ordered fines and fees before voting. That law is the subject of logistical and legal challenges.

There’s also a question as to whether tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida after Hurricane Maria will cast ballots in 2020. Recent polls have shown low approval ratings for Trump among Puerto Ricans in Florida. The Miami Herald has reported that the Puerto Rican vote didn’t have a big impact on the 2018 midterms, but that Puerto Ricans tend to vote in higher numbers during presidential elections.

Democrats are targeting three House seats, in the 15th, 16th and 18th districts, and are defending several 2018 flips. In the 15th, Republican Ross Spano, who won by 6 points last fall, faces allegations of campaign finance violations and is running low on cash.

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The 16th District voted for both Mitt Romney and Trump in 2012 and 2016. Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan has had little trouble winning elections since his first, close race in 2006, and he won by 11 points in 2018. A former owner of Ford and Dodge dealerships, Buchanan has plenty of money to self-fund his campaigns. But his 2020 challenger, Margaret Good, has raised $450,000 since announcing her bid in July.

The 18th, held by GOP Rep. Brian Mast, is among the more Republican-leaning of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 39 targeted districts. But national Democrats see an opportunity there, arguing that a Democrat — Patrick Murphy — held the seat as recently as 2016, and the district’s large population of African American voters is more likely to vote in a presidential year. Republicans, though, say that Mast, a wounded combat veteran of Afghanistan, has built a strong local brand with his work protecting coastal waters.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates all three races Solid Republican.

Republicans also see several opportunities for seat pickups. In the 7th District, Stephanie Murphy, who co-chairs the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, represents a seat Hillary Clinton won by 7 points in 2016. It is unclear how much of a threat she will face in 2020 because Republicans have yet to coalesce around a major challenger. She won reelection last year by 15 points.

In the 13th District, Democrat Charlie Crist, a onetime GOP governor of Florida, faces a serious challenge from Republican Amanda Makki, who has raised an impressive $418,000 since announcing her campaign in June. Crist still has a comfortable financial advantage, with $2.6 million in the bank. Republicans are also targeting two Miami-area freshmen: Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the 26th District and Donna Shalala in the 27th.

The resignation at the end of this year of Sen. Johnny Isakson means there will be two Senate races in Georgia next year. (Bill Clark/Roll Call file photo)
The resignation at the end of this year of Sen. Johnny Isakson means there will be two Senate races in Georgia next year. (Bill Clark/Roll Call file photo)

Georgia

On the heels of a competitive gubernatorial campaign in 2018, Georgia will likely be competitive at multiple federal levels in 2020. Battles for president, Senate and House, and spending on ads and staff to identify supportive voters and get them to the polls, should amplify races up and down the ticket.

Democrats are trying to put what was once a reliably red state in play at the presidential level. Trump carried Georgia by 5 points after Mitt Romney won it by nearly 8 points in 2012. The state is changing demographically, with an influx of new residents and a rapidly expanding suburban area outside metro Atlanta, where voters tend to be affluent and well-educated. These are the kinds of voters who may have voted for Republicans before but turned away from the party in the 2018 midterm elections.

Priorities USA, the major super PAC playing in the presidential race on the Democratic side, considers Georgia a “Lean Republican” state, but it’s included as one of its five “expansion” territories that could be competitive. GOP Gov. Brian Kemp defeated Democrat Stacey Abrams by just over 1 point last fall, giving Democrats hope that they can be competitive statewide. Abrams ran up the score in Democratic areas, in part by increasing minority turnout, and was also competitive in the suburbs. That’s a playbook national Democrats would like to follow in 2020.

Abrams is not running next year, however. She passed on the chance to challenge GOP Sen. David Perdue, and a crowded field of Democrats faces a competitive primary next year. More recently, Abrams said she would not run for the open seat that will be created when Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson resigns at the end of this year. Kemp will be able to appoint a temporary successor to Isakson, with an election for the remainder of the senator’s term in November. That means there will be two Senate elections on the ballot at the same time. Both are rated Likely Republican by Inside Elections.

In the special election, all candidates, regardless of party, will run together on one November 2020 ballot. If no one receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to a January 2021 runoff. So far, most Democrats considering a run are waiting to see whom Kemp appoints.

The race against Perdue has generated much more Democratic interest, including from Jon Ossoff, who lost the most expensive House special election in history — a losing bid for the 6th District in 2017. In the three months ending Sept. 30 this year, Ossoff’s name recognition helped him raise the most among the Democratic challengers. But there are other contenders, including 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico and former Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, and the field will take time to shake out — especially if the other seat becomes a more appealing opportunity.

Freshman Democratic Rep. Lucy McBath ruled out running for the Isakson seat, and will be seeking reelection in the competitive 6th District. McBath last year did what Ossoff could not: She defeated Republican Karen Handel in a suburban Atlanta district that backed Trump by just 1 point. Handel is running again, as are a handful of Republicans who will be trying to win this seat back. But the suburban fundamentals of the district may swing in Democrats’ favor next year, especially with Trump at the top of the ticket. Inside Elections rates the race Tilts Democratic.

The neighboring 7th District saw the closest margin of any House race in the country last fall. GOP Rep. Rob Woodall only prevailed by 433 votes in a recount against Georgia State University professor Carolyn Bourdeaux. Soon after winning a fifth term, though, Woodall announced he wouldn’t run in 2020, which has opened up crowded fields on both sides of the aisle. Trump carried this district by 6 points, but it shares some of the 6th District’s affluent, suburban characteristics that have spelled trouble for Republicans. Inside Elections rates it a Toss-up race.

Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., speaks with reporters as he arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Republicans' lunch with President Donald Trump on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Democrats believe one of their best pickup opportunities is North Carolilna Republican Sen. Thom Tillis’ seat. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

North Carolina

Home to several growing metropolitan areas, North Carolina will be a presidential battleground and a key state in the fight for control of the Senate. It’s also home to several competitive House races, a gubernatorial race and ground zero for redistricting battles at both the congressional and state legislative level.

Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008, but Republicans won it back in 2012 and again in 2016. North Carolina voted for Trump by about 4 points in 2016, but at the same time, the state backed Democrat Roy Cooper for governor by less than a point. Cooper is up for reelection next year in a race Inside Elections rates Tilts Democratic.

At the Senate level, defeating GOP Sen. Thom Tillis represents one of Democrats’ best pickup opportunities. Running for his first reelection, Tillis is already facing opposition on two fronts. A self-funding primary challenger has forced him to spend $2 million to shore up support among the conservative base, which booed him at a recent Trump rally in the state. After initially expressing some independence from Trump, Tillis has been fully embracing the president lately, aware that support for him will be the litmus test in a primary.

The general election in North Carolina, however, might be a different story. A competitive special election in the 9th District earlier this year underscored the degree to which pro-Trump Republicans are slipping in the suburbs. Tillis’ best-funded Democratic opponent, Army veteran Cal Cunningham, may not be well-known, but he raised $1 million during the third quarter — nearly as much as the incumbent. Tillis’ challenge will be to turn out rural base voters who back the president without turning off moderate Republican and independent voters in suburban and exurban areas.

On the House side, given how close the 9th District race was in 2018 and again in the redo last month (after an election fraud scandal invalidated last year’s results), the race will likely be competitive again in 2020 when newly sworn-in GOP Rep. Dan Bishop faces reelection. Bishop defeated Marine veteran Dan McCready last month by about 2 points in a district Trump had carried by 11 points in 2016. It’s not yet clear who Democrats will run here though. Inside Elections rates the race a Toss-up.

Other potentially competitive House races include the 2nd District, where GOP Rep. George Holding is running for a fifth term. The district includes many of the affluent and well-educated suburban communities outside Raleigh, as well as more exurban conservative pockets.

Holding’s 2018 race looked tight that summer, when his campaign released a poll that showed him trailing in the district that Trump won by 6 points. A GOP super PAC provided some air cover, however, and Holding ended up winning by about 5 points. Inside Elections rates his reelection Leans Republican. Democrats also tried to put the 13th District in play last cycle. But GOP Rep. Ted Budd, a member of the Freedom Caucus, won by 6 points. Inside Elections rates that race Likely Republican.

Fights over redistricting in North Carolina have the potential to change the political composition of the state’s representation. Despite Trump winning just 50 percent of the vote, the state’s congressional delegation has 10 Republicans and three Democrats.

A federal court ruled that the state’s GOP-led Legislature had racially gerrymandered its congressional districts in 2016, and the Legislature responded by drawing maps that courts found to be politically gerrymandered. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that partisanship in redistricting isn’t a problem for the federal courts to address, voting rights advocates sued to challenge the maps in state court, trying to replicate the success advocates had in Pennsylvania in 2018, when that state’s Supreme Court struck down the congressional map as a partisan gerrymander. A panel of three state judges granted a preliminary injunction against using the current map for the 2020 election while the suit proceeds, which could end up delaying March 3 primaries. A North Carolina court has already ruled that the state’s legislative maps violated the state constitution.

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