Democrats Seeing Stars for the Senate

To win the presidency, Democrats need to win back the Rust Belt. To win back the Senate, Democrats need to make history in the Sun Belt.

Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly
AP Photo/Matt York
April 23, 2019, 8 p.m.

While Democratic White House candidates have been debating the merits of impeaching President Trump, Senate Democratic leaders have been busy recruiting a trifecta of celebrity candidates better known for their compelling biographies than their specific policy positions.

In three traditionally Republican Sun Belt states, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is audaciously trying to remake the political map in the age of Trump. He’s already landed two of his top choices, in Arizona and Texas, and is still hoping to convince one of the party’s highest-profile recruits to run in Georgia.

The success of the Schumer strategy will speak volumes about Democrats’ ability to build an actual governing majority. And it will test the theory that in our polarized times, swing voters care less about the details of policy and more about the viral excitement that a candidate generates. Call it the Beto effect.

It’s not a trivial matter: To win back the Senate, Democrats will need to pick off at least one of these reliably Republican seats. And they will have to prove they can create their own brands independent from the ascendant progressives in the party, who are getting outsized attention in the presidential campaign.

The biggest star of the recruiting class is former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Kelly raised a whopping $4.1 million after entering the Arizona Senate race in February, benefiting from his wife's political connections and his work as a gun-control activist. He significantly outraised appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally, and he already has more cash on hand than the incumbent. Positioning himself as a moderate, Kelly dodged a messy primary when more-liberal Rep. Ruben Gallego opted not to run.

Most Republican operatives acknowledge that McSally is one of the two most vulnerable senators on the ballot (along with Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado) and worry about her ability to win over the state’s sizable share of moderate voters. McSally lost to Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in last year’s election, as she struggled to navigate between her party’s hard-liners and pragmatists.

On paper, Kelly provides an engaging alternative. He served with distinction in the military, won accolades for his missions to space, and has been a tireless caregiver to his injured wife. As a political novice, his biggest challenge will be to demonstrate he’s politically independent. Already Republicans have been pressing Kelly on his positions on controversial progressive priorities like the Green New Deal and attacking him for accepting corporate money for speaking fees.

The newest Senate Democratic recruit is former Air Force pilot M.J. Hegar, who on Tuesday announced her candidacy against Sen. John Cornyn of Texas with a splashy biographical video. Hegar, who won a Purple Heart for saving the lives of her passengers in Afghanistan, ran a surprisingly competitive race against Rep. John Carter last year. Hegar’s unique story allowed her to raise over $5 million for the long-shot campaign; she won 48 percent of the vote in a seemingly safe Republican seat.

The Democratic bet on Hegar is a sign of the party’s confidence that Texas is becoming genuinely competitive in the age of Trump. While the old Democratic playbook hinged on rallying record turnout from the state’s Hispanic voters, the new playbook is hoping a female trailblazer like Hegar can energize a broader coalition of women and suburbanites while cutting down the party’s losses with working-class voters.

Defeating Cornyn is still a long shot, and Hegar has never faced the scrutiny of a big-state Senate race. But even if she underwhelms on the trail, her fundraising ability will force Republicans to allocate resources to a state that was, until recently, solidly in their corner.

The third Sun Belt Senate race of consequence is in Georgia, where unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams is seriously considering a challenge to Sen. David Perdue. Abrams came within 2 points of winning the governor race by rallying nonwhite and suburban voters to her side against a Trumpian opponent, Brian Kemp. Democrats are convinced that she can recreate a similar coalition against one of Trump’s closest allies in the Senate.

Abrams, if she runs, would be following a markedly different strategy than those of her fellow red-state candidates. Since her loss, she’s repeatedly declined to concede the governor race (claiming voter suppression) and has flirted with a possible presidential campaign. In March, she wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs making the case for identity politics. These base-ginning moves aren’t the typical tactics of a candidate looking to run in a red-state Senate contest, but they’ve greatly raised her national profile.

The Sun Belt was the region where Senate Democrats made their greatest gains in 2018, picking up a hotly contested Nevada race, overcoming long historical odds to win in Arizona, and coming tantalizingly close in Texas. All those races relied on anti-Trump suburban voters shifting decisively into the Democratic column.

Next year’s election offers more uncertainty, with the political tone to be set by the Democrats’ eventual nominee. If Democrats continue to compete in these traditionally Republican states, it will reshape the model of Senate campaigns going forward: Celebrity first, experience second.

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