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2020 Senate and House outlook looks a lot like it did at the start of 2019

Dramatic news made minimal changes to political landscape

New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s party switch added one seat to the GOP’s side, but there’s still a long way to go for Republicans to win the majority, and history is not on their side. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

More than a year into the election cycle and with less than a year to go, how much has the political landscape changed? The answer: not a lot. And that’s not particularly good news for Republicans.

Thus far, we know that a year’s worth of news (including impeachment) has not fundamentally altered the president’s standing. As 2019 came to a close, Donald Trump’s job rating stood at 44.5 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove, according to the RealClearPolitics national polling average. A year ago, the president’s standing was virtually the same. On Jan. 1, 2019, Trump’s job rating was 43 percent approve and 52 percent disapprove, according to RCP.

[Trump thrives amid turmoil, and is banking that voters won’t mind]

It’s a similar story in the fights for the Senate and House. While some of the totals have changed slightly in the number of competitive races, the overall dynamic is the same. And recent history suggests the basic fundamentals of the fights will remain in place through Election Day 2020.

Senate

The overall shape of the fight for the Senate hasn’t changed much in the past 12 months. In January, 10 races were considered competitive, compared with 11 competitive Senate races as the year comes to a close.

The partisanship of the competitive races shifted slightly in favor of Democrats. At the beginning of the cycle, Republicans were defending six competitive seats while Democrats were defending four. With less than a year before Election Day, Republicans are defending eight of the competitive states, compared with just three for Democrats.

Minnesota Democrat Tina Smith was the only senator on the first list of 2020’s competitive races who was not listed as vulnerable by the end of the year. Former Rep. Jason Lewis, North Central University professor Rob Barrett and other Republicans are running, but it’s clear the race is not a priority for Republicans at his stage, even though Minnesota is likely to be a presidential battleground.

Two races were added to the list of competitive seats over the year: Texas and Georgia.

With limited state polling showing President Donald Trump is less than a slam dunk in the Lone Star State and GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s 3-point victory in 2018, there’s an increasing chance that Republicans will have to spend some time, energy and maybe even money defending GOP Sen. John Cornyn.

GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson’s resignation and special election adds a second Georgia seat to this cycle’s class of senators. It brings the total number of Senate seats on the ballot around the country this year up from 33 to 34 and the number of vulnerable Republican seats from six to eight (along with Texas). Both Peach State races, featuring Sen. David Perdue and newly appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler, are rated Likely Republican, with the latter race just getting started.

Within the races that were initially identified as competitive, there hasn’t been a lot of movement. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis’ race shifted from Tilt Republican to Toss-up and Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s from Likely Republican to Lean Republican.

How likely is the playing field to grow or contract between now and Election Day?

Considering Republicans are defending more total seats than Democrats (23 to 12), it’s hard to see a larger number of Democratic seats suddenly becoming more vulnerable. And recent history suggests the battleground is unlikely to change dramatically.

In the 2018 cycle, the total number of competitive states was virtually unchanged from the end of 2017 (13) to Election Day (12). Within those totals, two GOP-held seats became more competitive (Tennessee and Texas). Four Democratic seats (Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania) were eventually dropped from the list of competitive states, while New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez’s was added.

The Senate playing field didn’t change all that much in the 2016 cycle either. At the end of 2015, 12 races were rated as competitive (10 Republican and two Democratic seats). On Election Day, the Senate battlefield included 11 races (10 Republican and one Democratic seat). Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s race was added to the list of competitive races from Solid, but he ended up winning his race by more than 5 points.

This cycle, if the playing field changes, it will likely be with the addition of Kansas. If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo does choose not to run, it will increase the chances that Republicans nominate former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and jeopardize the party’s hold on the seat. And that would improve Democrats’ chances of winning control of the Senate.

The current playing field benefits Democrats because they have more takeover opportunities. But they also need to gain three seats for control of the Senate (coupled with a White House victory, since the vice president breaks 50-50 ties) or four seats for a majority. The Senate majority should be regarded as in play.

House

The House battleground hasn’t changed dramatically either over the first year of the cycle.

In February 2019, Inside Elections rated 68 seats as competitive, including 39 Democratic seats and 29 Republican seats. At the end of the year, the House playing field consisted of 70 seats, including 38 Democratic seats and 32 Republican seats.

Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats for a House majority, and they’re working against some history. The party hasn’t gained at least 20 seats in a presidential year in nearly three decades.

Within the batch of competitive races, the year’s developments haven’t been positive for Republicans. Three seats currently held by Republicans — North Carolina’s 2nd and 6th districts, as well as Texas’ 23rd District — are likely to fall into Democratic hands. Republicans don’t have any similar situations, although they gained a seat when New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew switched parties.

But it means Republicans likely need to gain 20 seats to compensate for losses in the Tar Heel State. And the relatively even division of the competitive seats means Republicans will be spending considerable resources on defense instead of being able to focus on offense.

While retirements and open seats garner considerable media attention, they haven’t fundamentally altered the House battleground. Of the 25 Republicans not seeking reelection, eight of their open seats are rated as competitive, but just two of those were not already rated as vulnerable (Indiana’s 5th and North Carolina’s 6th) before the member’s retirement announcement.

At this point, Democrats are favored to hold the House majority.

Based on sheer numbers, Republicans could take some solace in the fact that the House battleground ballooned from 66 to 90 competitive seats in the final year of the 2018 cycle.

But the counterargument to any Republican confidence is that midway through the 2018 cycle, the fundamental dynamic of the House playing field was already in place. In December 2017, Republicans were defending 53 seats, compared with just 13 Democratic seats. By Election Day, that discrepancy in competitive seats increased to 81 vulnerable Republican seats and just eight Democratic seats. But the trajectory of the election was already in place, and Democrats gained 40 seats.

There was a similar dynamic on a smaller scale in the 2016 cycle. In December 2015, there were just 31 competitive House seats, including 25 held by Republicans and six held by Democrats. By Election Day, the House battleground consisted of 40 seats (33 Republican and seven Democratic). There was a marginal change in the totals without a change in the overall dynamic.

Looking forward to 2020, there’s little indication that the fundamentals of the election will change. Republicans are confident that impeachment will endanger freshman Democrats. But there’s no guarantee impeachment will be a top voting issue, the GOP has struggled to recruit top-tier challengers in some of those seats, and Republicans are likely, since they are playing so much defense, to continue to struggle to net enough seats to gain the majority.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.

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