WASHINGTON—The start of the 2020 presidential campaign cycle may be dominating headlines at the moment, but another crucial political battle is shaping up down the ballot from President Donald Trump and his eventual opponent. The race for control of the U.S. Senate in 2020 will determine whether Republicans can continue to confirm conservative judges to the federal judiciary, ward off liberal policies such as the Green New Deal or universal healthcare, and defend pro-family positions.
The GOP currently has a 53-47 edge in the Senate, with 34 seats up for grabs in November 2020. Of those seats, Republicans hold 22, and Democrats control 12.
Campaigning for those races has already begun in many states. Republican Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who led Trump’s voter fraud commission after the 2016 election, kicked off his bid Monday to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. Kobach, who lost the 2018 Kansas gubernatorial race to Democrat Laura Kelly, is a polarizing figure in the state. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he would rather see U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo run for Roberts’ seat to minimize the risk of a Democratic win.
McConnell faces his own challenge in Kentucky. Democrat Amy McGrath, the former Marine pilot who gained nationwide attention during her unsuccessful run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives last year, announced Tuesday she planned to run against McConnell.
To gain control of the Senate, Democrats either will have to flip four GOP seats or win three seats from Republicans and the vice presidency for a tie-breaking vote.
All but two of the Republican seats up for grabs in 2020 are in states that Trump won in 2016. The two GOP seats in states where Hillary Clinton came out on top belong to Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado. Collins, according to polling by Morning Consult, has a 52 percent approval rating in her home state. Political scientist Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball blog and the Cook Political Report already project her as the winner. At least 12 Democrats have jumped into the Colorado race to challenge Gardner, the only Republican in statewide office. His seat is considered a toss-up.
Arizona also has a vulnerable GOP Senate seat held by Sen. Martha McSally, who was appointed in December 2018 by Gov. Doug Ducey to replace the late Sen. John McCain. McSally in November 2018 lost in a nail-biter to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for the state’s other Senate seat. In 2020, she will most likely face Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and husband to retired U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. Early polls have the race at a near dead heat.
Democrats will probably have to sweep Maine, Colorado, and Arizona to have a chance at the majority, but they must also defend a vulnerable seat. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., who defeated Republican Roy Moore in a special election in 2017 to replace GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions after he was named U.S. attorney general, will try to earn his first full term in a state Trump won by almost 28 percent. Republicans are worried Moore could win the GOP nomination again and potentially cost them the opportunity to pick up a seat.
Apart from those four tight races, Democrats are also looking at Republican Sens. Thom Tillis in North Carolina, David Perdue in Georgia, and Joni Ernst in Iowa as possible targets. Their chances rest largely on current perceptions of Trump, who won all of those states in 2016.
“The Trump numbers suggest two things to us: his vulnerability and a massive historic turnout,” Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois told Politico.
In 2016, the winner in every Senate race was the same party as the presidential candidate who won that state, a trend Pew Research found has been on the rise for decades. Turnout is almost always boosted during a presidential election year. So Republican candidates know if the presidential election goes awry, they may have to outperform Trump to hold on to the Senate.
“It’s going to be house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Politico. “My goal is to earn every vote the president gets, but to add to that.”