Democrats arguably have a better shot at retaking the White House than they do the Senate precisely because of the differences underlying victory in those races. Democrats only need to win back three Rustbelt states the President took by less than a combined 50,000 while their path to the Senate majority takes them through the Sunbelt – states the President won by much larger margins (including Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona and Texas).
In an era of polarized politics when national politics are increasingly nationalized, Democratic Senate candidates likely will need their Presidential nominee to do much better than 2016. So, while much of the energy is on the Rustbelt in a bid to keep Trump a one-term President, their path to the Senate runs through Sunbelt states the party just has not been able to crack in recent years.
In North Carolina, Democrats were emboldened by their performance in a special election in a district the president won by 12 points three years ago. But, in a neighboring GOP district which also featured another special election, the GOP nominee did just as well as Trump in 2016. Further, while Democratic performance in the Charlotte portion of the district improved, so did the GOP performance in rural Blasedon and Union Counties.
Investing resources into these states is not a simple yes/no proposition for the party. Hillary Clinton invested millions in these states while assuming she had a lock on the Rustbelt, and it cost her. The only major senate contest in the Rustbelt this year is in Michigan for the party and they intend to heavily target Joni Ernst in Iowa.
Democrats in 2018 proved they could raise plenty of cash and as a result they will have plenty of dough for 2020. Plus, a number of these states primaries are early meaning excitement among voters can be built early and if managed property, sustained.
The issues might come down to the fact the Rustbelt and Sunbelt are different demographics. While the urban centers of these regions are the most diverse and Democratic, their share of the vote has different impacts depending on the state. Also, while Sunbelt rural areas lean heavily Republican, rural areas in the Sunbelt tend to swing between the parties based on the candidates involved.
Still, Democrats know they need an expanded Senate minority or majority to push their Presidential candidate’s aspirations through Congress. Last year gave credence to the belief Texas could truly be competitive with the taking of a suburban districts in Houston and Dallas and a close shave for the Senate. Speaking to Democrats in Houston, the party’s candidates echoed the theme the state is now a battleground.
In Georgia, where the party has not won a Senate race since 2000, their gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams not running dampened their enthusiasm for the contest. But the opening of a second seat a mere week ago has put the state back in the spotlight.
In a memo, Abrams argued how her mostly suburban coalition could put the state in play. But, lack of winning also means lack of infrastructure, talent and candidates. Highlighting this conundrum for the party is the fact the party does not have a single major officeholder running for he now competitive second Senate seat.
Further West, Arizona is a different story. The state has a split Congressional delegation and has been trending purple. Trump carried it by four points in 2016 and last year the state elected Kystren Sinema to the Senate. This year, Democrats got their preferred nominee in former astronaut Mark Kelly. Kelly has made gun control a center-piece of this campaign in an effort to appeal to the expanding party coalition in the state.
North Carolina, despite being strongly Republican at first glance, might represent an even better chance for the party than Georgia. Barack Obama carried it by a single point in 2008 and managed to hold Romney to a two point edge. In 2016, Trump won the state by four points giving him a cushion for next year. And, again, while NC-9 was an improvement for the party since 2016, it was worse than they performed less than a year ago and saw major slippage for the party outside its urban base.
It could be argued the President’s slippage in the state will doom freshman Senator Thom Tillis. Plus, Tillis is facing a wealthy primary challenger and a Democratic internal showed him behind a little known state senator. But the GOP apparatus in the state is strong and that is before one factors in the President’s billion dollar plus national effort.
Republicans largely scoff at Democratic internals and their jumping for joy at every positive poll. They point to national polls underestimating Trump’s strength and they also point to how so many state level polls were off in battleground states in 2016 and last year.
Republicans are also fueled with ammo which will tie the party’s more moderate Senate candidates to their more progressive Presidential nominees. While Democrats believe running on on affordable healthcare will benefit the party the GOP plans to tie their Presidential candidates “socialist” agendas and universal healthcare schemes around their necks. Polls show the public favors coverage for all but that support withers when faced with the loss of coverage, longer wait times and higher costs/taxes. Things the GOP will be sure to exploit.
The dynamic for the party gets even more awkward if Warren is the party’s nominee as she rises in the polls nationally and most notably in Iowa. Senate Democrats running in purple states continue to hammer Republicans on taking away voters healthcare but that argument goes out the window if a Medicare for All plan promises to do the same. It is also quite possible, indeed even probable, voters split their tickets for a Republican Senate if Trump is losing to be check on a Democratic administration.