Published January 31, 2019
The furor over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court appointment showed how important Senate control is to our ongoing culture war. In January, candidates were already announcing their bids for U.S. Senate seats up for election in 2020. While it’s too early to make any strong predictions, an early glance at the 2020 Senate map suggests continued Republican control is the likeliest outcome.
Barring an unexpected resignation or death in office, the GOP will start the election holding 53 seats. The party is widely expected to gain the Alabama seat that Democrat Doug Jones won narrowly in 2017 against controversial Republican nominee Roy Moore. Jones surely would have lost the race against anyone else, and his vote against Kavanaugh’s confirmation put him on the wrong side of that battle in his very Republican and socially conservative state. So long as Republicans nominate someone without scandal, Jones’ seat should be an easy gain for the GOP.
Gaining this seat would force the Democrats to win a net four seats to obtain control if they defeat President Trump, or five if they do not. Although Republicans are defending 22 of the 34 seats that are scheduled to be up for reelection in 2020, most observers do not think it will be easy for Democrats to gain that many.
Colorado’s Sen. Cory Gardner and Arizona’s Sen. Martha McSally are widely predicted to be the most endangered Republican incumbents. Gardner won narrowly in the Republican wave of 2014 and represents a state that has been trending Democratic for the past decade. McSally, who was appointed in December to fill the remainder of the late Sen. John McCain’s term, just lost a tight Senate election in November. Although Arizona traditionally leans Republican, it swung sharply to the left in 2016 and 2018 on anti-Trump sentiment. Both McSally and Gardner will likely face well-funded challengers, as Democrats have little hope of regaining control unless they win both contests.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine is probably the next most prominent Republican target. Although she is a moderate’s moderate, she still represents a state that has voted for Democratic presidential nominees since 1988. Collins’ vote in favor of Kavanaugh enraged Democratic activists, who will try to unseat her in retribution. She has beaten back strong challengers before, but in the current environment with low levels of split-ticket voting she will have to summon all of her personal appeal if a well-funded challenger does emerge.
After this, though, potential targets for Democrats get tougher to find. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, represents a state that twice supported Barack Obama, but the Hawkeye State seems to have shifted well to the right since then. Republican Kim Reynolds won her race for governor last year, and Democrats won a narrow majority of the total House votes cast in the state only because of controversial Republican Rep. Steve King’s weakness. Ernst is widely touted as a strong favorite heading into the year.
North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis and Georgia’s Sen. David Perdue are other potential targets, but both states retain a Republican lean despite some recent suburban anti-Trump sentiment. While a strong Democratic contender like Stacey Abrams (in Georgia) or Roy Cooper (in North Carolina) could make either race a toss-up, both Republicans start the cycle as clear favorites to win a second term.
Attaining Senate control will be increasingly difficult for Democrats as long as they remain largely unattractive to America’s rural and small-town voters. The constitutional design of the Senate combines with the demographic reality that Democratic-leaning constituencies tend to live in larger metropolitan areas, tilting the map in a Republican direction. Unless that changes, Democrats could be shut out of Senate control for most of the next decade until the continued growth of the liberal-leaning nonwhite population in places like Florida, Arizona, and Texas finally alters the partisan lean in those key states.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.