The four most important races in the 2020 election cycle boil down into four competitive seats: Alabama, Colorado, North Carolina, and Arizona. Three of those seats are held by Republican senators, while the Alabama seat is held by a Democrat. In this post, I’ll quickly run through the reasons why these seats are toss-ups so early in the cycle.
Alabama - Sen. Doug Jones
Democrat Doug Jones pulled off an upset victory by a margin of around 1.5% against scandal-plagued Republican Roy Moore in the December 2017 special election. The election was held because former Senator Jeff Sessions was appointed Attorney General of the United States, though on November 7th he resigned from the position. Jones managed to win 92% of Hillary Clinton’s votes, while Roy Moore only received 49% of Trump’s votes. Senator Jones has voted with Trump’s position 50% of the time, making him the fourth most conservative Senator in the Senate Democratic caucus.
Unfortunately for Jones, the 538 vote tracker would necessitate Jones to have voted with Trump at least 86.6% of the time. Though there are exceptions to a red state Democrat with a lower Trump voting score than would be expected to win his race, such as Joe Manchin or Jon Tester, the other four red-state Democrats who lost in 2018 all had lower Trump voting scores than would be expected. It should be no surprise, then, that a state that voted for Trump in 2016 by almost 28% of the vote will be an uphill climb for Democrats. Jones has a positive approval rating of +13%, but in a Presidential year like 2020, it will be very difficult for Jones to match Trump’s share of the vote.
One possible candidate rumored to be running is former Senator Jeff Sessions, who Doug Jones replaced in the Senate. Though the GOP primary is sure to be contentious, and Trump may opt to support another more conservative politician in the mold of Roy Moore, Jeff Sessions would be in a good position to challenge Doug Jones for his old seat.
Depending on who the candidate is, and what polling will tell us later on in the cycle, I highly expect this race to go into the “Lean Republican” column. Should a scandal-plagued candidate or very conservative candidate win the primary, it’s likely this seat will remain a toss-up.
Arizona - Sen. Martha McSally
Martha McSally, now the incumbent Junior Senator from Arizona, was appointed to her position in late December after news that Senator Jon Kyl, who replaced McCain in the Senate, would be resigning. McCain won his seat in 2016 by a margin of around 13% - a large overperformance over Trump’s 3.5% margin. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema beat Republican Martha McSally by 2.4% in the 2018 midterms - an almost 6% swing from the 2016 Presidential results, indicating this race will be very contentious and close.
I expect the likely Republican candidates in the primary to be similar to the 2018 primary: Martha McSally and Kelli Ward. Other high profile Arizonian Republicans, such as former Governor Fife Symington, may also run, but expect this primary to be a conflict between moderates and hardliners.
The Democratic primary, too, will be quite contentious since Arizona is now a much closer swing state than it once was several years ago. High profile potential candidates include astronaut Mark Kelly, former Republican Attorney General Grant Woods, or Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, who unsuccessfully ran against McCain in 2016, but won Martha McSally’s house seat in 2018.
Regardless of which candidate is chosen - barring any scandals or extreme candidates - the Arizona special election will be a tight race.
Colorado - Sen. Cory Gardner
Colorado is the bluest state in the toss-up category, and the most vulnerable seat Republicans must defend in 2020. Clinton won this state with around 5% of the vote, while Democratic Senator Michael Bennet won his seat by 5.7% of the vote in the same year. In the 2018 gubernatorial election in Colorado, Democrat Jared Polis beat his opponent by 10.6% of the vote. Incumbent Senator Cory Gardner beat Mark Udall in 2014 by 1.9%, a very strong year for Republicans overall. Gardner has a net approval of 2%, with an overall approval rating of only 39% in his state.
Any Democratic candidate will make this seat competitive, though Gardner will prove to be a formidable opponent and the reason why this seat is a toss-up at this point. Three Democrats have already announced their intention to run: Derrick Blanton, Lorena Garcia, and Dustin Leitzel. Though none of them have held elected office in the past. Possible candidates include John Hickenlooper, the former Governor of Colorado, as well as other high profile Democratic politicians.
North Carolina - Sen. Thom Tillis
Republican Thom Tillis beat Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan by a narrow 1.5% in 2014, and he’s up for reelection once again. President Trump also won the state in 2016 by a margin of 3.6%, slightly higher than Romney’s 2.2% win in 2012. In the same year Trump carried the state, Senator Richard Burr won reelection with 5.7% of the vote, while Governor Pat McCrory lost to Roy Cooper by a very narrow .2%. Though North Carolina is a definite swing state, as these results indicate, it also skews slightly towards the Republicans’ favor.
Incumbent Thom Tillis has voted with Trump 95% of the time, much higher than what would be expected based on Trump’s slim victory in the state. Though the incumbency advantage is on Tillis’s side, his re-election will be a challenge against any decent to strong Democratic candidate who wins the primary. The 2020 election, too, will be a deciding factor in this race - should Trump lose the state, I believe Tillis would as well, and vice-versa.
The Bottom Line
Democrats need to win three seats and the Presidency or four seats while losing the Presidency to retake the Senate in November 2020. Control of the Senate means control over Presidential cabinet and judicial appointments, including the Supreme Court. The stakes are high for Democrats, especially considering they are defending one toss-up in a very conservative state (Alabama), while going on the offense in Colorado, North Carolina, and Arizona. The best pick-up opportunity for the Democrats is Colorado, while the results in Arizona and North Carolina will largely ride on the coattails of the Presidential election.