The Democratic path to winning the Senate runs through a quartet of 2016 red states that the party’s presidential nominee is expected to compete for next year.
Beyond the top targets of Colorado and Maine, which have both gone blue in the past three presidential elections, national Democrats are recruiting in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina.
The party has just a single Senate seat across those four states but will have to win at least one more for any hope of grabbing total control of Capitol Hill.
“We feel really confident that we’ll be able to attract strong candidates,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said of the map as a whole.
To take the Senate, Democrats must net at least three GOP-held seats—four if the party loses the race for the White House. That won’t be easy, and it’s probably the tallest climb compared to holding the House and winning the presidency.
While more advantageous than 2018, when Democrats defended 10 incumbents in Trump states, the 2020 map isn’t nearly as favorable for Democrats as the one that Republicans enjoyed last year. Only two Republican senators are up in states that Hillary Clinton won, and Democrats are defending a seat in Alabama that they won against a highly flawed Republican in 2017.
Trump won Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina by 5 points or less, while carrying Iowa by 9 points after two victories there by President Obama.
Democrats hope to field a stronger presidential nominee and build on the energized atmosphere of the midterms to compete in those states, up and down the ballot. Meanwhile, GOP strategists argue that even if the president fails to carry one of those states, Trump’s mere presence on the ballot stands to benefit Republicans running under him—as, unlike in the midterms, voters can voice their disapproval of the president while still supporting a Republican for Congress.
“In November, voters split to send D.C. a message,” said one Arizona-based Republican consultant. “Now, they’ll be able to send that message directly.”
Perhaps nowhere will that be more helpful to a Republican than in Arizona, where Sen. Martha McSally embraced the president and narrowly lost to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema before being appointed to the seat of the late John McCain. An exit memo written by McSally’s strategists highlighted anger toward Trump among moderates in the party as one reason that she lost.
Although Republicans worked hard to publicize Sinema’s past left-wing activism, she established herself as an independent voice—someone who could work with the president but stand up to him as needed.
There’s no other Democrat in the state quite like Sinema, said Arizona-based GOP strategist Stan Barnes. In a presidential year, when Democrats will have to balance the state’s centrism with their own presidential nominee’s liberal message, Barnes said, unhappy voters can choose to reprimand Trump while still voting for a senator more in line with their values.
“That phenomenon will help Martha McSally because Martha McSally will be riding shotgun in the Trump bandwagon,” he said. “But she will do so with a more sophisticated, even independent spirit, learned by the scars of the 2018 election.”
Former astronaut Mark Kelly, Rep. Ruben Gallego, and former state Attorney General Grant Woods are all seriously considering bids for the Democratic nomination. All have met with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Sinema has reportedly been introducing Woods around Washington.
In Georgia, which has been on the Democratic wish list for years, Stacey Abrams lost the governor race last year to Republican Brian Kemp, as both campaigned largely to already settled constituencies while fighting over suburban moderates—a group that repudiated Trump.
There is no reason to expect the state’s Senate race will be much different, said Jeremy Brand, a Republican strategist who advised Kemp’s campaign. It could even feature Abrams, who said she would make a decision about challenging Sen. David Perdue by March. A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found that Abrams and Perdue both held strong favorability numbers while Trump was underwater by double digits.
Democratic operative Seth Cansler Clark said Trump’s support is waning among his own neighbors in Macon, noting that the central Georgia city is also Perdue’s hometown. Clark said Democrats should realize that 2020 is their best shot at a statewide office in a long time, thanks in part to the infrastructure that Abrams’s campaign built. While both Clark and Brand agreed that much of the race hangs on whether Abrams decides to run, Clark said Perdue’s closeness to the president is a weakness that any challenger could use.
“While the Democrats try to make everyone Trump, not everyone is Trump,” Brand said. “I think there are a lot of things that make [Perdue] very unique and fit well for the state.”
Democrats saw little movement in North Carolina last year. The party ended the Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature, but at the federal level the map—barring one uncertified race mired in election-fraud allegations—didn’t change.
Still, the state is set to host competitive contests for president, governor, and the Senate, which complicates Sen. Thom Tillis’s reelection plans. State GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse touted the incumbent’s résumé, including his time as state House speaker, and noted that Tillis is expected to be a prominent presence at the Republican National Convention in Charlotte.
“Tillis is a well-polished professional,” Woodhouse said. “He doesn’t make mistakes.”
However, a recent Public Policy Polling survey found the senator’s approval numbers underwater. And, perhaps offering a road map, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper eked out a victory in 2016 by winning just 28 of the state’s 100 counties.
Iowans, meanwhile, who host the earliest stop in the nominating process, are no strangers to presidential politics, and operatives in both parties readily acknowledge the state’s purple character. Trump won there in 2016, but two years later, Democrats picked up two House seats and ran a competitive gubernatorial race.
Rather than talk Trump, both Democrats and Republicans emphasized that Iowa voters are highly informed and place great value on forming strong relationships with the candidates.
Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price said last year’s victories showed that the party is back on its feet. With the crowded presidential caucuses just more than a year away creating a lot of excitement, a successful candidate will be one who can show Iowans the Democratic Party has their backs, he said.
Sen. Joni Ernst, who was on Trump’s short list for vice president, has struck a careful balance between support for the president and polite criticism on issues such as tariffs and ethanol.
“I work hard each and every day to put Iowa first, make ‘em squeal in Washington, and deliver effective solutions that benefit our great state,” Ernst said in a statement to National Journal. “I look forward to discussing these victories to come as I kick off my yearly 99-county tour this week.”