The magic number for Mitch McConnell heading into the midterms was always two. By picking up a couple of Senate seats (pending the recount in Florida and the runoff in Mississippi), Republicans are cautiously optimistic of their chances of holding the majority the next election, even if they don’t have a long-term lock on power.
But by narrowly winning critical races in Arizona, Montana, and West Virginia, Democrats will still have a fighting chance to anoint Chuck Schumer as majority leader in two years—especially if they’re able to win the presidential election and continue making inroads in the GOP-friendly Sun Belt states.
The Senate map in 2018 was historically favorable to Republicans, but Democrats will be going on offense in the coming cycle. There are just 12 Democratic-held seats that will be on the ballot, while 22 Republican senators will be on the defensive. But there’s a catch: Only two of those senators represent states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, and one of them is Maine’s perennially popular Susan Collins.
Assuming Rick Scott prevails in Florida and Republicans win the runoff in Mississippi, the GOP will start the 116th Congress with 53 Senate seats. And it’s a pretty safe bet that they’ll win back the Alabama seat that Sen. Doug Jones won in the fluky 2017 special election. So for Democrats to win back the majority, they’ll need to pick off at least four Republican seats (five, if President Trump wins a second term). That won’t be an easy task.
For Democrats to win the majority, they need to make inroads in traditionally Republican territory. There are a couple of Republican senators who look vulnerable from the outset: Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina. A seat in Arizona, currently held by appointed Sen. Jon Kyl, should be highly competitive (and could very well feature a comeback from just-defeated Senate candidate Martha McSally). After that, Democrats will need to look at Iowa (Joni Ernst), Maine (Collins), Georgia (David Perdue), and even Texas (John Cornyn) to find a pathway back to the majority.
Meanwhile, McConnell’s own seat is an intriguing wild card, but the Democratic bench is awfully thin in Kentucky. And if Collins retires, Maine suddenly would become the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity.
Outside of Alabama, the most credible Republican opportunities will be in Michigan, Minnesota, and New Hampshire. Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, perhaps the most anonymous senator in Washington, can’t get too confident about his reelection chances after surveying the political landscape; even as Democrats won the governorship and two House seats, Sen. Debbie Stabenow only tallied 52 percent against Republican businessman John James, who will likely be recruited for a 2020 comeback. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, if she runs for reelection, could face a challenge from former GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost in 2016 by a mere 1,017 votes. And Sen. Tina Smith will have to contend with the demographic realignment in Minnesota, where Democrats are gaining ground in the suburbs but losing their old blue-collar base in the Iron Range. If Republicans recruit a strong candidate next time, the race should be more competitive than it was this year (when Smith won 53 percent of the vote against a weak candidate). All three races favor Democrats, but they can’t take any for granted.
Determining odds on a Democratic Senate takeover in 2020 hinges on whether forecasters are bullish on the ability of the party in the Republican-friendly Sun Belt—a region where the party made significant strides this year. If Arizona, Georgia, and Texas are in play, the pathway to a majority opens up.
It won’t be easy. Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate race by running assiduously as a moderate Democrat, to the point where she said she wouldn’t back Schumer as Democratic leader (she did, in a voice vote) and refused to endorse the party’s gubernatorial nominee (he lost). Beto O’Rourke raised historic sums of money to put Texas in play, but a less-authentic politician will struggle to replicate the feat against a more-popular John Cornyn. Stacey Abrams ran a competitive governor’s race in Georgia, but her base-first strategy also was effective in turning out the state’s many rural, conservative voters who overwhelmingly backed Republican Brian Kemp.
The anti-Trump mood in the suburbs put these traditionally red states in play, and handed Democrats their first Senate victory in Arizona since 1988. But Trump won all three in 2016, and Democrats will need to recruit capable candidates to take advantage of the favorable demographic trends.
The expected Republican victory in Florida, one of the few big surprises on Election Night, was a godsend for McConnell. Assuming Scott hangs on, Florida will be the only true swing state that Republicans won, and it gives the GOP some breathing room heading into a tougher election year. It demonstrates that Republicans have a path to victory in the swing states, even in a tough national environment. And it will force Democrats to do even better in the Sun Belt in two years to have a realistic chance at winning back the Senate majority.