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Kyrsten Sinema

Democrats’ first Senate victory in Arizona in three decades thanks to Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema helped give the party a road map to competing for the majority again in 2020. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Congress

The path to the majority runs through states Trump won, in a year when he’ll be on the ballot.

Senate Democrats face a narrow path back to the majority in the 2020 elections, running through Trump country in a year when the president will be on the ballot galvanizing his supporters.

Republicans cemented a 53-47 Senate majority with victory in Mississippi on Tuesday, and they must defend nearly twice as many seats in 2020 as they did in 2018. But only two of those Republicans are up for reelection in states President Donald Trump lost in 2016 — meaning that Democrats can’t win back the Senate without winning new seats in Trump states in the next election.

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That includes some Trump-state targets where it’s been a decade or more since voters picked a Democratic senator. Democrats will need to find candidates who can outrun their presidential nominee, as Trump drives his supporters to the polls in 2020. What’s more, those Democrats will likely need to overcome incumbent Republican senators, which has proven a tough hurdle in recent years.

“It’s tough to beat an incumbent, period,” said Josh Holmes, a top political adviser to the current Senate leader, Mitch McConnell. “But it is very tough to beat an incumbent when the president of their party is running for reelection.”

But Democrats note that their own senators won 2018 races in six states Trump carried two years earlier: Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Those victories, plus the party’s first Senate victory in Arizona in three decades thanks to Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, gave the party a road map to competing for the majority again in 2020.

“2020 is a tremendous opportunity for Democrats to gain seats in the Senate,” said J.B. Poersch, the president of Senate Majority PAC, which spent more than $100 million as the top Democratic Senate super PAC in this year’s election. “Democrats proved this year that we can win Senate races not only in presidential battleground states, but also in states Trump won by over 20 percent.”

But Democrats are already scouring the 2020 states for candidates who can repeat the feat, especially four key Trump states that are in the middle of the path to the majority: Arizona, Georgia, Iowa and North Carolina.

Senate Democrats have largely avoided bruising primaries in recent years, but there could be one in Arizona, where there will be a special election to fill the final two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s term. Grant Woods, a former Republican state attorney general and McCain aide, has signaled interest in running as a Democrat, as has Rep. Ruben Gallego, a three-term congressman and former Marine. Mark Kelly, the ex-astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, has also continued to garner mention as a potential candidate.

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) swung to the right to fend off a primary challenge in 2018, which ultimately contributed to her loss to Sinema earlier this month. Some Democrats worry their party could face a similar prospect in 2020.

“If you’re shooting for statewide office, you can’t swing to the extreme,” said Jim Pederson, the Democratic nominee for Senate in 2006. “You’ve got to really appeal to that vast middle.”

Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018, said earlier this month on CNN that she would likely run for office again, but did not say when or for what office. Democrats consider Abrams to be a top potential candidate against GOP Sen. David Perdue, who has been one of Trump’s strongest supporters in the Senate during his first term.

In Iowa, the Senate race will play second fiddle to the presidential caucuses for over a year. But Democrats hope the early attention on the state, which has tilted toward Republicans in recent years, will help lift a challenger against Sen. Joni Ernst, who cruised in 2014 over gaffe-plagued Democrat Bruce Braley.

“When the candidates leave, what they leave behind is a legacy of really great, engaged volunteers that can help the rest of the ticket,” said Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party. “That’s going to be a huge benefit for a Senate candidate to pick up when these candidates leave.”

Democrats will also run hard against Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) in states Trump lost. But Republicans are counting on Alabama to make Democrats’ path to the majority tougher.

Democratic Sen. Doug Jones will enter 2020 as the most endangered incumbent senator, needing another near-miracle on par with his shocking special-election victory last year in order to win a full term and prevent Republicans from raising the bar for the majority even higher.

“We have a high probability of success in Alabama, and that’s definitely going to be a priority of mine,” said Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), the incoming NRSC chairman.

Several of the GOP seats up in 2020 are in deep-red states the party captured in 2014 and which are unlikely to be competitive, including Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota and West Virginia.

But there could be additional competitive seats scattered throughout the map. Alaska tends to lean strongly Republican, but it can be volatile, and GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan told POLITICO he is “sure they’ll come after me.” Texas, where Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz by just 3 points this year, could become another 2020 target with Republican Sen. John Cornyn up for reelection.

Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-Mont.) 2018 reelection in Montana suggests Democrats could compete against GOP Sen. Steve Daines in 2020, and Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock — who is considering a presidential bid — could be a formidable foe. But it would require serious arm-twisting from Democrats to get him to jump in.

“I’ve said earlier that really doesn’t interest me,” Bullock said in an interview. “But — well, no. I won’t even say ‘but.’”

On both sides of the aisle, researchers are already digging into the top 2020 races. American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC focused on opposition research, already has trackers in place in Iowa, Colorado and Montana and plans to put staff on the ground in North Carolina and Kentucky — where McConnell is up for his seventh term — in the next six to eight weeks. The group has begun research on Gardner and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

On the Republican side, America Rising is gearing up to identify potential Democratic challengers to senators in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Maine and North Carolina, and the group will soon begin developing research files on any emerging candidates. They’re also busily compiling research on Jones in Alabama.

David McIntosh, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative group that spent heavily on Senate races in 2018, said he thought the GOP majority is “relatively secure” in 2020. McIntosh said Trump at the top of the ticket is a boost given where the majority will be won or lost.

“I do think in states with large rural populations, [Republicans] will be helped,” McIntosh said. “Most of [Trump’s] base will stay intact from ’16 to 2020.”

But Democrats insist they have set the table to run for the majority.

“We reelected 22 incumbents — six in states Trump carried — and flipped three Republican-held seats in Alabama, Arizona and Nevada” in the 2018 election cycle, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee executive director Mindy Myers said in a statement. “These results set the stage for a successful 2020 cycle.”

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