12 Senate seats Democrats can flip in 2020 — if they really try this time

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Next year, Republicans will be defending 22 seats in the United States Senate versus the Democrats’ 12 seats. Will Donald Trump’s lagging popularity and an especially enthusiastic Democratic Party looking to unseat him have enough downstream effects to help Democrats earn a Senate majority?

It’s too early to tell, of course. But one thing applies regardless: Great candidates can win, and great candidates win when they can both represent a party’s choice for the seat while earning the trust of the people of that state. Ten years ago, Democrats were better at appealing to voters in states including South Dakota, Iowa, Louisiana, Arkansas and Nebraska — all states that once were represented by at least one Democrat in the U.S. Senate. Today, all of those states are represented by two Republicans.

Democrats say they have an agenda that’s popular with the majority of the American public, but in a representative democracy, broad appeal is required for big ideas to have a chance of becoming a reality. In other words, Democrats need to run a Georgia Democrat to win in Georgia, an Iowa Democrat to win in Iowa and a Montana Democrat to win in Montana.

Democrats won’t win the Senate by running a California Democrat in North Carolina. Democrats can win in red states they once held seats by moderating their message and actually representing the people of that state — having an especially unpopular incumbent like Ted Cruz probably helps as well.

So what are the lowest hanging Senate seats for Democrats to pick off in 2020 as of right now?

Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia are all states within striking distance for Democrats.

Colorado

Incumbent Republican Cory Gardner is arguably the most vulnerable Senate Republican. He shares representation with Democrat Michael Bennett and won his first term by 2 points riding the 2014 GOP Senate wave into office just as the state showed signals of trending in a more Democratic direction: the current and past two governors have been Democrats, and the State Senate and State House are held by a majority of Democrats.

Arizona

Incumbent Republican Martha McSally was appointed to serve the remainder of the late John McCain’s term after narrowly losing the 2018 race to Democrat Krysten Sinema to fill retiring senator Jeff Flake’s seat. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and husband of former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, has announced his candidacy for the Senate. Arizona remains a relatively conservative state electing its successive Republicans to the governorship with narrow Republican majorities both in the State Senate and State House. Democrats think they have a shot due to Sinema’s victory and slowly changing demographics.

North Carolina

Incumbent Republican Thom Tillis narrowly defeated Democrat Kay Hagan in 2014 and is currently one of the least popular sitting senators. North Carolina has become a wild card in recent years. Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, but lost it in 2012, as did Hillary Clinton. It recently elected a Democrat to the governship though Republicans hold modest majorities in the State House and State Senate. Turnout in recent elections have been up in the state, but Democrats have yet to regain a U.S. Senate seat.

Georgia

Incumbent David Perdue is up for re-election. Perdue won his seat by a comfortable seven points, but faces the prospect of going up against Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor who narrowly lost the race. Donald Trump won the state in 2016 by the narrowest margin for a Republican in recent elections. Abrams has said she’s considering running for the seat. Her decision could be decisive in whether Democrats unseat Perdue.

Winning all four of these seats would earn Democrats a 51 seat majority. But why stop there? Here are states that are a longer stretch, but are certainly within Democrats’ reach if they bring forth an appealing candidate.

Texas

Incumbent John Cornyn is the more popular of the two Republicans representing Texas in the U.S. Senate, though new energy among Democrats and potential independents injected by the candidacy of Beto O’Rourke could carry over into unseating Cornyn next year. In 2020, Cornyn will have his incumbency, relative popularity, and down-ticket gains from Trump’s re-election, but Democrats may be able to overcome that if big name Texans like Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro drop their presidential bids early in 2020 and decide to challenge Cornyn. A O’Rourke or Castro Senate challenge combined with a compelling Democratic nominee for president could pose a greater threat to Cornyn than otherwise would be the case.

Iowa

Republican Joni Ernst won her seat in 2014 after long-time Democrat Tom Harkin retired. Iowa is a major Obama-Trump state having elected and re-elected Obama by 9 and 6 points, respectively, but gone for Trump by 10 points. Iowans didn’t show up for Hillary Clinton, but they might for a midwestern Obama Democrat that can flip Trump-Ernst voters back to the Democrats side. Iowa currently has a unified Republican state leadership.

Montana

Montana is a red state, but probably not as red as many would think. Incumbent Republican Steve Daines is up for re-election and shares representation with Democrat Jon Tester. The state has a Democratic governor and Republican-led legislatures. For the last century, Montana has been represented by at least one Democrat in the U.S. Senate. The incumbent governor has declined running, but popular former governor Brian Schweitzer is a potential candidate.

Louisiana

Incumbent Bill Cassidy defeated former Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu in 2014 by 11 points. Landrieu had served for three terms in the Senate. The competitiveness of Louisiana next year, similar to Georgia, largely depends on whether a well-known statewide figure jumps in. Mitch Landrieu, the state’s former leiutenant governor, former New Orleans mayor and brother of Mary Landrieu, could be a formidable opponent against Cassidy. Then again, if turnout for Donald Trump in the state is as high as it was in 2016, it may pose an insurmountable impediment to a Democratic challenger — this year.

Mississippi

Incumbent Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith won a special election against Mike Espy in 2018 by seven points, a narrower margin than is common for Republican Senate candidates. Espy has announced that he will re-challenge Hyde-Smith in 2020. In 2018, Espy had national Democratic energy along with a highly-publized off-color remark made by Hyde-Smith blowing at his back, though Donald Trump has among his highest state-by-state approval ratings in Mississippi. Espy would need to harness the energy from 2018 while overcoming Trump-level turnout in 2020 to win. It’s an uphill climb, but with a recharged campaign could be enough to win.

Maine

Maine seems like a state congruent with the rest of the northeast’s deep blue posture, but the state hasn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 30 years, instead sending center-right and independent senators (incumbent Angus King caucuses with the Democrats). Susan Collins, however, is up for re-election and Democrats are looking to unseat her, particularly after decisive vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. But that vote may fade with time and Collins’ well-established popular identity may be too much for Democrats to overcome in a state that has unexpectedly has trended more Republican in recent years. Donald Trump was the first Republican in 30 years to win one of the state’s 4 electoral votes.

South Dakota

South Dakota last elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate in 2008 and is currently represented by two Republicans for the first time in 30 years. Incumbent Mike Rounds faces re-election. The last to Democratic senators from South Dakota were Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle. Both Johnson and Daschle were House representatives for 20 and 10 years, resprectively, before getting elected to the Senate. Democrats can win in states like South Dakota — like they did in 2012 in North Dakota with Heidi Heitkamp, the state’s former attorney general — if they run well-known statewide candidates the voters of that state can trust.

Nebraska

Nebraska is currently represented by two Republicans. Incumbent Ben Sasse, who could face a primary challenge, is up for re-election. Nebraska last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 2006, Ben Nelson. For Democrats to run and win here, they’ll need to run someone more like a Joe Manchin and less like a Bernie Sanders. Sasse has gotten heat from Democrats for not doing enough to challenge Donald Trump as someone who refused to endorse him in 2016. Then again, Trump remains popular in the state. Nebraska is among the longer reaches for Democrats, but running a candidate with a good statewide reputation could get enough voters to think twice.

Democrats have not yet done what Republicans spent over a decade doing in the 2000s: Building a ground-up coalition of conservatives that can win in state legislatures, governships and judgeships in the states. Democrats have been too focused on trying to be a national party thinking that 50+1 percent of the vote in the presidential election will bring with it lasting positive down-ticket effects to Democrats. This is wrong.

Democrats can get into the habit of routinely moderating in certain states, winning and governing with a more organic majority — or they can wait for charismatic presidential candidates to come around to buy them enough progressive political capital in the Senate only to see a backlash two years later.

Of course, all of this could be irrelevant next year — or, in this era, next week.

Writing about the States and the U.S. Senate, and sometimes the media industry.

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