Republicans are growing increasingly worried that President Trump’s shaky political position will not just cost them the presidency, but also sweep in a Democratic Senate majority and further diminish their House minority. The latest round of polling shows the president losing to Joe Biden, as well as Democrats gaining ground in red-state Senate seats that once looked like long shots, from Georgia to Montana to Kansas. There’s a growing chance that Democrats may capture control of the Senate with a seat or two to spare.
The current political environment is reminiscent of 2008, two years after Democrats swept control of the House and Senate under President George W. Bush. It’s mostly remembered for Barack Obama’s historic election, but the Democrats’ downballot dominance was just as remarkable. Riding deep dissatisfaction with GOP leadership, Democrats expanded their Senate majority to a near filibuster-proof margin and won House seats in some of the most reliably conservative territory in the country.
Like the political environment today, the 2008 election took place in the middle of a national crisis. Back then, the Republican presidential nominee insisted that the fundamentals of the country were strong during a deepening recession. Now a Republican president is publicly insisting he has “met the moment” and prevailed, despite rising death rates and massive unemployment from the coronavirus. Then, as now, a Democratic challenger used the GOP candidate’s own words in devastating attack ads.
As The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman wrote: “The two elections were effectively a single continuous rejection of Republican rule, as some in the GOP fear 2018 and 2020 could become in a worst-case scenario.”
Having covered the 2008 congressional campaigns closely, I’m also struck by how much in common that the two elections share. That year, Democrats netted eight Senate seats, sweeping comedian Al Franken into office while winning races in conservative strongholds such as Alaska and South Dakota as part of a big blue wave. Republicans didn’t even field a candidate in Arkansas, one of the most conservative states on the map. Mitch McConnell faced the closest race of his Senate career, barely defeating a not-ready-for-prime-time Democratic challenger.
“[My race] isn’t going to be a landslide,” McConnell told me at the time. “The president is not popular. The economy is certainly slow, so it’s a much more contested environment.”
Repeat McConnell’s words 12 years later and they hold true today. Look at the wider Senate map, and you can see eerie parallels. A poll conducted by Georgia Republicans shows the state’s senior Sen. David Perdue only polling at 45 percent, just 6 points ahead of Democrat Jon Ossoff. Perdue hasn’t been considered particularly vulnerable, but it’s now plausible to see him locked in a competitive race if the bottom falls out for the president. (This is the “other” Senate election in Georgia, which hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the special Senate election involving embattled GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler.)
The possibility of other red-state surprises are apparent: The emergence of conservative hard-liner Kris Kobach as a possible Senate nominee in Kansas is giving Democrats an unusual opportunity in a state that hasn’t voted a Democrat to the Senate in nearly 90 years. Gov. Steve Bullock’s entrance into Montana's Senate race is putting Sen. Steve Daines’s seat squarely in play. McConnell even faces well-funded opposition from another not-ready-for-prime-time Democratic challenger in the middle of another crisis. If Republicans lose even one of these red-state seats, the odds that Democrats win an outright majority in the Senate increases dramatically.
Another major storyline this year is the Republican Party’s inability to recruit credible House candidates, particularly in districts that Trump carried in 2016. Many freshman Democrats representing Trump districts aren’t facing tough Republican opposition. Twelve years ago, that dynamic was similarly apparent on the Senate side. Only one Democratic senator faced credible GOP competition that year—Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu—and she still coasted to victory over now-Sen. John Kennedy. Then-Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat, ran unopposed by Republicans in Arkansas, a state that John McCain comfortably carried.
In politics, nothing is ever set in stone. There’s a chance that Trump can turn his fortunes around, even though that’s looking less likely by the day. It’s possible that Biden will stumble his way through the debates and give Republicans a much-needed lifeline. And it’s likely that if the president’s numbers don’t improve by the fall, Republicans will argue that saving the Senate will become a necessary check on a potential Democratic presidency.
But right now, Trump and his Republican party are in dire shape. The history of embattled presidents facing reelection during a worsening crisis doesn’t offer much comfort. Even Trump, always averse to uncomfortable truths, recognizes this. Last week’s Monmouth poll gave Democrats a significant 9-point advantage on the generic House ballot, a rough benchmark of the political standing of the two parties. That’s awfully similar to the 10-point advantage that Democrats held in the 2008 House popular vote—an election that prompted some pundits to (mistakenly) declare the Grand Old Party nearly extinct.