The Senate certainly is in play. Charlie Cook explains that this year “23 GOP seats up to only 12 for Democrats . . . [which] is the opposite of 2018, when Democrats had 26 seats up to just nine for Republicans.” It is true that while Democrats in 2018 had a lot of red-state seats to defend, Republicans this time, theoretically, do not have vulnerable senators in deep-blue states. However, they’ve got plenty to worry about.
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Cory Gardner of Colorado run in states Trump lost in 2016. Both are vulnerable as their party moves far to the right and they choose to march in lockstep. Both face strong challengers, Maine’s Democratic state House Speaker Sara Gideon and former Democratic governor John Hickenlooper, respectively.
A batch of other states the Democrats have a shot to flip at the presidential level also offer Democratic pickup chances. Republicans in Georgia will have to defend one vacant seat, and the other just recently filled with a rich businesswoman, Kelly Loeffler, who President Trump did not favor. North Carolina’s incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis likely will face a strong challenger in Cal Cunningham, who led Tillis by 2 points in a Public Policy Polling poll last fall. Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who lost her race in 2018 but was appointed to the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain, is trailing a strong opponent in polling (former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s husband and astronaut Mark Kelly) in an increasingly purple state.
If things really go Democrats’ way, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who has been running from impeachment questions, could be vulnerable. As could Sen. John Cornyn in Texas (where a slew of Republican House members are retiring thanks to the state’s increasing Democratic tilt), where Cornyn’s approval was well below 50 percent. Indeed, not a single incumbent in these states had an approval rating in last year’s Morning Consult poll over 44 percent.
But don’t forget about Kansas. Yes, Kansas. Democrat Laura Kelly won the governor’s race in 2018 against a Stephen Miller-type anti-immigration firebrand, Kris Kobach. Kobach will be running for the open Senate seat, and Mike Pompeo will not be (for now).
“National Republicans have outright said that the controversial Kobach can’t win a general election after losing the 2018 governor’s race by 5 points to Democrat Laura Kelly,” writes the Cook Report’s Jessica Taylor. “In private polling, Republicans have Kobach losing to likely Democratic nominee Barbara Bollier, and Kobach leading every other Republican in a head-to-head except Pompeo. Add in the fact that Democrats have a strong recruit in Bollier — a former Republican state senator who cited Trump as one of the reasons she switched parties in Dec. 2018.”
Taylor, therefore, considers this only a “Lean Republican race.”
Democrats certainly cannot bet on winning all of these, but if they win the White House, they only need a net pickup of three in the Senate (with the vice president breaking 50-50 tie votes). They have really only one vulnerable incumbent, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.). They have an expanding playing field (with real shots in Lean Republican or toss-up seats at risk for Republicans in Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Kansas and North Carolina) that will force Republicans to defend lots of seats — cutting off the ones who are in the worst shape when money gets tough.
One cannot stress enough that Democrats will need a candidate who runs strongly in places like Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Texas and Georgia — not just those overwhelmingly white upper Midwest states — if they want to have a real chance at get to 50 seats or more.