WASHINGTON — Teresa Tomlinson is a former mayor of a mid-sized city with no national profile. Yet she hopes she’ll be national Democrats’ top recruit to run for the Senate from Georgia next year — if one of the party’s rising stars, Stacey Abrams, takes a pass.
“I feel comfortable I’ll be their Plan B,” says Tomlinson, 54, the first female mayor of Columbus, a minority-majority community and one of Georgia’s largest cities.
Nineteen months from Election Day, a political eternity during which plenty can change, Democrats are looking at Plan B in Senate races around the country. Even in a campaign cycle that looks far more promising than last year’s, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who heads the party’s Senate campaign arm, have struggled to recruit candidates who are battle-tested statewide.
Yet the loss of well-known contenders merely compounds Democrats’ chief problem as they begin an uphill fight to capture a Senate majority next year: There are precious few Republican-held Senate seats that Democrats have a clear-cut chance of capturing.
In Democrats’ favour, Republicans will be defending 22 of the 34 contested Senate seats, with just one incumbent Democrat in obvious jeopardy: Sen. Doug Jones of deep-red Alabama. Democrats say their voters will be supercharged by the polarizing President Donald Trump, who’ll be seeking his second term, and their focus on pocketbook issues like health care, wages and jobs.
“It’s trending in our favour, and I think we’ve got an opportunity to take back the majority in the Senate,” said Cortez Masto.
It’s a much better Senate battlefield than last year, when Democrats had to defend a nightmarish 26 of the 35 seats. That included 10 in states Trump carried in 2016, five by landslides, and Democrats were fortunate to lose just two net seats.
Even so, the 2020 map looks tough for Democrats.
Trump carried 20 of the 22 states where GOP seats are at stake next year and narrowly lost the other two. Those were Democratic-leaning Colorado, where Sen. Cory Gardner seems to be the most endangered Republican incumbent, and Maine, where Democrats will try denting Sen. Susan Collins’s reputation for independence as she seeks a 5th term.
Since Republicans control the Senate 53-47, Democrats need to gain three seats to take over if they defeat Trump next November and four if Trump wins, thanks to the vice-president’s tie-breaking vote in the chamber. If Jones loses in Alabama, which party strategists consider likely, those numbers rise to four Democratic pickups if Trump loses and five if he wins, meaning Democrats will practically need to run the table of winnable Senate contests to take the majority.
“I think we get close,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “Everything has to break our way to make it over the top.”
Republicans beg to differ.
They say the GOP should hold the Senate because the jam-packed field of Democratic presidential candidates will spend months noisily competing for their party’s liberal base. That means plenty of talk about the Green New Deal plan for aggressively curbing climate change and “Medicare for All” proposals for expanding the federal role in health care — ideas that go too far for some moderate voters.
“Green New Deal is something we can’t wait to run against,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the Senate GOP’s campaign committee.
Arizona seems headed toward a competitive contest. Republican Sen. Martha McSally, appointed to one vacant seat shortly after losing a 2018 election for another to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, could end up facing former astronaut Mark Kelly. The gun control advocate and husband of former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, is expected to run a centrist campaign.
A close race could also loom in North Carolina. In one of this year’s most significant Senate votes, GOP Sen. Thom Tillis initially said he’d oppose Trump’s declaration of a national emergency at the southwest border, then voted for it. That turnaround has risked alienating hard-right Trump supporters and moderates alike, leaving Tillis exposed both to a potential GOP primary challenge and in the general election.
Democrats might have had a stronger chance against Tillis if state Attorney General Josh Stein, who’s seeking re-election, had succumbed to Schumer’s appeal to run for Senate. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who are running for president, also rebuffed pleas to seek the Senate.
Another who turned down Democratic leaders is former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who’s seeking the White House. That’s opened the door to potential contenders like MJ Hegar to challenge Texas GOP Sen. John Cornyn.
“It’s pretty much all I’m thinking about lately,” said Hegar, 43, an Air Force combat veteran who narrowly missed ousting a longtime GOP incumbent last year from a safely Republican House district outside Austin. She might end up in a Democratic primary against Rep. Joaquin Castro, whose twin brother, former federal housing secretary Julian Castro, is running for president.
A handful of other GOP senators could face competitive races, including Georgia’s Sen. David Perdue, especially if he’s challenged by Abrams, who narrowly lost a gubernatorial race last year but gained a national following. Other possibilities include Montana’s Steve Daines and Iowa’s Joni Ernst. Democrats would love to oust Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, but that’s a longshot.
Strong GOP challengers could also force incumbent Democrats into tough races.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., would face a real fight if Gov. Chris Sununu challenges her. Trump lost New Hampshire by a knife’s edge in 2016. Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is running again in Michigan, which Trump narrowly carried.
Democrats say Trump will help them in closely contested states because his near-exclusive appeals to core supporters make it hard for GOP candidates to win over both conservatives and party moderates.
“Trump creates a rock-and-a-hard-place scenario for Republicans running in blue-leaning and purple states,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
Republicans say battleground states could shift their way depending on whether the Democratic presidential nominee is a moderate like former Vice-President Joe Biden or a hard-left liberal like Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“There could be states that come on or off the board, depending on who the Democrats nominate for president,” said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard.