Ready or not, 2020 is here — at least politically.
While the presidential race will consume this cycle, don’t forget about the fight for Congress, where both majorities are likely to be at stake. And control of Capitol Hill will affect the ability of the president to get things done to start the next decade..
In the Senate, Republicans picked up a couple of seats in November. But Democrats held their losses to a minimum in the face of a challenging map, keeping a majority within reach in 2020.
It’s important to be precise about how we talk about the fight for the Senate because the number of seats Democrats need depends on the outcome of the presidential race. Democrats need to gain four seats for a majority, but a gain of three seats would be enough for control if there is a new Democratic vice president to break a 50-50 tie.
One of the first things that stand out about the 2020 Senate map is the stark contrast to 2018. Last cycle, Democrats were defending 26 Senate seats compared to just nine for the Republicans. In 2020, the GOP will be defending 22 seats to the Democrats’ 12.
More takeover targets should be good for the party trying to recapture the majority, but the individual states on the Senate map also matter.
In 2018, there were 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states President Donald Trump won two years earlier. In 2020, there are just two: Doug Jones of Alabama and Gary Peters of Michigan. There was just one Republican senator running for re-election in 2018 in a state Hillary Clinton carried, and there are just two in 2020: Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine.
Presidential results are especially important ahead of 2020 because 2016 was the first time in history (at least since the 17th Amendment and the direct election of senators) that Senate results matched the presidential outcomes in every state.
For 2020, a similar dynamic — and presidential result to 2016 — would produce no net gain for the Democrats because they would lose Alabama and Michigan while winning Colorado and Maine. Using the 2012 presidential results as a guide for the 2020 map, however, Democrats would gain two Senate seats, losing Alabama while picking up Colorado, Maine, and Iowa. If the 2008 presidential results applied, Democrats would gain three seats by losing Alabama and taking over Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina.
The actual presidential campaign will also influence the map of competitive Senate races.
Eight races will take place in competitive presidential states: Maine, Iowa, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Michigan, and Minnesota. That means Republican Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and Joni Ernst of Iowa (as well as David Perdue of Georgia) are likely to have competitive races. Democrats Tina Smith of Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire could also face competitive challenges.
Jones, who won a 2017 special election against an exceptionally flawed GOP candidate, is the most vulnerable senator in the country and his race starts as Leans Republican. Gardner and McSally’s races start as Toss-ups; Collins and Tillis’ as Tilt Republican; Perdue’s as Leans Republican; and Joni Ernst’s as Likely Republican. Peters, Smith and Shaheen’s races start as Likely Democratic.
There are at least two races with incumbent Democratic senators (Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jeff Merkley of Oregon) who are going to run for president before focusing on re-election bids. (Booker can run for president and Senate simultaneously, while Merkley would have to decide before the March 2020 Senate filing deadline.) And two states have a potential Senate candidate considering a presidential run first — Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana and former Gov. John Hickenlooper in Colorado.
Of course, it’s too early to tell what the presidential race will look like, how voters will feel about the economy and direction of the country, and whether they’ll believe more Democrats are needed in Washington.
And it’s too early to determine the final scope and size of the Senate playing field, which will be partially determined by retirements, recruitment, primaries, and how the presidential race plays out.
No matter where the races take place, you can be sure Democrats will be talking about health care. They believe it was critical in helping them in the midterms, and they have no reason to believe it won’t be an effective message in 2020. And Republicans are going to try to cultivate a broader takeover list to include competitive presidential states, unlike last cycle when there was little or no money spent in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Based on the initial map, Republicans should be viewed as slight favorites to maintain control, in part because Jones is already an underdog in Alabama and his loss would push Democrats’ target gain up a seat to four or five, depending on the presidential outcome. But there are enough seats in play for Democrats, there is a long way to go in the cycle, and the Senate margin is close enough that the majority should be regarded as in play.