Senate: Early Handicapping

By Jim Ellis

Jan. 17, 2019 — The 2020 Senate election cycle features 34 races instead of 33 because of the Arizona special, and this time it is the Republicans who must defend the preponderance of seats. In 2018, Democrats held 26 of the 35 seats up for election; in this cycle, Republicans must protect 22 of the 34 Senate positions.

Republicans are first risking two open seats, those of Sen. Pat Roberts in Kansas and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. At this point, both should remain in the GOP column. They also face a slew of competitive races in as many as eight incumbent states. Democrats, on the other hand, must defend in one highly competitive campaign, that of Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama, and a potentially viable contest in Minnesota.

But the most vulnerable Republican races will attract serious political attention. Appointed Sen. Martha McSally (AZ), Sen. Cory Gardner (CO), and North Carolina first term incumbent Thom Tillis are facing difficult election or re-election campaigns, in addition to Sen. Jones.

Martha McSally lost the 2018 Arizona Senate race to new Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) by 55,900 votes of more than 2.384 million ballots cast, or a margin of 2.4 percentage points. This, however, in the same election where Republican Gov. Doug Ducey scored a strong 56-42 percent re-election victory.

Soon after the election results became final, appointed Sen. Jon Kyl (R), replacing the late Sen. John McCain in Arizona’s other seat, resigned and McSally was appointed in his place. She must now stand for election in 2020 to serve the balance of the term. The seat next comes in-cycle for a full six-year term in 2022.

At this point several Democrats are not ruling out launching a potential challenge to the appointed senator. Among them are Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Phoenix), freshman representative and former Phoenix mayor, Greg Stanton, and party switching former Attorney General Grant Woods (D).

Colorado Sen. Gardner arguably ran the best campaign in the nation back in 2014, and had the fortune of running against the Democratic incumbent, Mark Udall, who ran the worst. In this coming campaign, with his state moving much further to the left in the last couple of elections, Sen. Gardner will be strongly challenged. Though likely to face a more strategically sound campaign, his opponent will be weaker.

Currently, former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who has lost races for both the Senate and US House, appears to be the most formidable Democratic candidate. Five others have also announced, but none with significant name ID or a developed political base.

Right now, the obvious choice to oppose Sen. Gardner is now-former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has just left office after two terms. But, he is likely to join the presidential contest, so it is unclear whether he could feasibly double back into the Senate race if he is unsuccessful nationally.

North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis (R) unseated incumbent Kay Hagan (D) by just 45,608 votes of just over 2.915 million ballots cast in 2014 from a state that has a penchant for defeating its incumbent senators. From 1972 to the present, six incumbent North Carolina senators lost re-election bids while only two, Sens. Jesse Helms (R) and Richard Burr (R), have won multiple terms. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that Sen. Tillis will also be on the political hot seat come November 2020.

Last week, the first significant Democratic candidate announced his intention to run. Mecklenburg County Commissioner (at-large) Trevor Fuller confirmed that he will be a federal statewide candidate next year. State Sen. Jeff Jackson (D-Charlotte) is also expected to enter the race in the near future. The most obvious potential Democratic candidate, Gov. Roy Cooper, is also up for re-election in 2020 but shows every indication that he will seek a second term.

In Alabama, Republicans are beginning to line up to challenge Sen. Jones who won a controversial special election in 2017. Presently, State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) has declared his candidacy. Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth and US Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Mobile) are formidable Alabama politicians who are reportedly both considering running for the Senate.

Others, such as state Senate President Del Marsh and Agriculture Commissioner Rick Pate are also potential candidates. It is unlikely that former Attorney General and ex-US Senator Jeff Sessions (R) will again join the political fray, however.

Today, the aforementioned appear to be the top 2020 Senate campaigns. Others are sure to also move to the forefront, but we can count on these four contests dominating at least the early part of this Senate election cycle.

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