The 2020 elections are almost two years away but the battle for control of Congress is already shaping up to be a dog fight as parties look to make up lost ground from the 2018 midterms.
Results are still trickling in from a handful of Tuesday races that haven’t been decided yet, but with the toplines locked down — Republicans will control the the Senate, Democrats the House — both sides are turning their focus to a fierce fight for control in 2020.
Injecting uncertainty into the map is a plethora of unknowns this far out, such as President TrumpDonald John TrumpMichelle Obama: ‘I’d never forgive’ Trump for ‘birther’ conspiracy Judge blocks Keystone XL pipeline Pelosi: Acting attorney general ‘should not be there’ MORE’s popularity in battleground states and which Democrat emerges from what’s expected to be a crowded presidential field. Both developments will influence the down-ballot congressional races.
On top of that, the ever-quickening news cycle and Trump’s penchant for being unpredictable all but guarantee surprise twists and turns in the battle for Congress.
“Trying to read tea leaves into what happened last night” to predict “this is what’s going to happen in the presidential or in the Senate or House elections this far out just doesn’t make any sense,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist.
In the Senate, Republicans appear to have an early edge to keeping their majority after they flipped seats in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota on Tuesday.
Senate races in Arizona and Florida are still too close to call. GOP Gov. Rick Scott is leading in Florida, but Democrats pulled ahead with a slight lead in Arizona on Thursday night. A runoff election is scheduled for Nov. 27 for former Sen. Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranParties start gaming out 2020 battleground Election Countdown: Recount prospects grow in Florida | Abrams team to sue over absentee ballots | Dem wins pivotal Georgia House seat | A look at the uncalled races | Corporations spend big to beat ballot measures Senate GOP beats expectations with expanded majority MORE’s Senate seat in deeply red Mississippi.
Depending on how those three races turnout, Republicans will hold anywhere between 51 and 54 seats, moving Democrats’ ability to flip the the chamber further out of reach.
Republicans are feeling bullish, in particular, about Mississippi given Trump’s popularity in the state.
GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak noted that in addition to providing Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: House Dems plan early vote on pre-existing conditions | ObamaCare repeal off the table for now | Dem overtures to Trump on drug pricing worry pharma Parties start gaming out 2020 battleground Todd Young launches bid for Senate Republican campaign chief MORE (R-Ky.) with more of a cushion for nominations these next two years, the Republican gains “likely protect the Senate GOP majority” on Election Day in 2020.
“It’s a hedge against full Democratic control,” Mackowiak said. “There’s a lot of variables generally, but I think Republicans are feeling pretty good… about their chances to hold the Senate in 2020.”
Republicans will be defending 21 seats compared to 12 seats for Democrats, but the GOP will be playing defense in deeply red states where Trump remains popular, making them likely to stay in Republican hands if the party can avoid self-inflicted wounds during the primary season.
They currently hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate.
McConnell (R-Ky.) will be up for re-election and says he intends to run. He told reporters that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if Trump supports his re-election bid, an endorsement that would likely help ward off any serious challenges to the GOP leader.
Meanwhile, potential opponents are already mulling a challenge to GOP Sens. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamParties start gaming out 2020 battleground Trump’s shortlist for attorney general takes shape Trump, first lady attend special Supreme Court ceremony for Kavanaugh MORE (R-S.C.), whose emergence as a key ally to Trump could help shore up his reelection prospects. And Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseParties start gaming out 2020 battleground Ted Cruz wishes happy Halloween with Zodiac killer letter GOP senator to Trump: ‘Every American needs to be against political terrorism’ MORE’s willingness to criticize Trump has drawn speculation that the Nebraska Republican could be vulnerable to a primary challenge.
Republicans are also showing early signs of targeting two Democratic senators who will be on the ballot: Sen. Doug Jones (Ala.) and Gary PetersGary Charles PetersParties start gaming out 2020 battleground Hillicon Valley: Facebook deletes accounts for political ‘spam’ | Leaked research shows Google’s struggles with online free speech | Trump’s praise for North Korea complicates cyber deterrence | Senators want Google memo on privacy bug Lawmakers move to award posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to Aretha Franklin MORE (Mich.).
Jones is the most vulnerable Democrat running after he won the Alabama Senate seat last year, defeating GOP Senate candidate Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreParties start gaming out 2020 battleground Victimhood culture and traditional justice are on a collision course Flake says he’s rooting for Democrat running against Steve King MORE, who had been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls from when he was in his 30s.
Larry Sabato and Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said it’s “a very bad sign” for Jones that Democrats lost in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, and that there were narrow Democratic wins in West Virginia and Montana.
Peters’s seat in Michigan may be a bit more challenging to flip. While Trump won the state in 2016, Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowParties start gaming out 2020 battleground The Hill’s Morning Report — Split decision: Dems take House, GOP retains Senate majority Midterms: The winners and losers MORE (D-Mich.) won reelection on Tuesday by more than 7 percentage points, defeating GOP nominee John James.
When James thanked his supporters on Twitter, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp retweeted him adding: “2020 is not too far away John.”
Democrats might need to pick up as many as five seats to win control of the Senate outright in 2020, but party leaders and strategists are bullish about their chances to make gains. They also haven’t written off 2018 wins in Arizona and Florida, which would limit the GOP advantage.
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerPelosi: Acting attorney general ‘should not be there’ Democratic state AGs call on Whitaker to recuse himself from Mueller probe Man arrested for allegedly making death threats to CNN’s Don Lemon MORE (D-N.Y.) appeared confident in the wake of Tuesday’s election, saying Republicans wanted to contain Democratic Senate seats to the low 40s but failed.
We’ll have a very good shot in 2020,” he told reporters, saying Democrats exceeded GOP expectations earlier this week. “Originally the Republicans hoped they could hold us down to 40, 41…but they didn’t do that.”
Jones is the only vulnerable Democrat at the start of the 2020 cycle, when Democrats are expected to target GOP Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsParties start gaming out 2020 battleground White House ousts Sessions Collins: Mueller ‘must be allowed’ to continue Russia probe MORE (Maine) and Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerParties start gaming out 2020 battleground McConnell becomes Trump’s first line of defense Hawley defeats McCaskill in tight Missouri Senate race MORE (Colo.), who are both up for reelection in states that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMichelle Obama: ‘I’d never forgive’ Trump for ‘birther’ conspiracy Michelle Obama blasts Trump in new book Parties start gaming out 2020 battleground MORE won in 2016.
Meanwhile, there will be a special election in Arizona for the remainder of the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainParties start gaming out 2020 battleground Collins: Mueller ‘must be allowed’ to continue Russia probe Ann Kirkpatrick heading back to Congress as Dems pick up seat in Arizona MORE’s term, which will likely be competitive given Democratic gains on Tuesday.
Strategists in both parties predict that North Carolina, where Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisParties start gaming out 2020 battleground McConnell becomes Trump’s first line of defense Lawmakers, forecasters: Election Day up for grabs MORE (R-N.C.) is up in 2020, could also be competitive given the state’s purple hue.
A national Democratic strategist noted that 2020 will be an “offensive” map for the party. And despite setbacks on Tuesday, the midterms showed that Senate Democrats “can win a variety of diverse states, we won all across the midwest … we won in very conservative states and we won in states by not taking anything for granted,” the strategist said.
House Democrats, meanwhile, will be playing defense to keep and expand their new majority during a presidential election year. Though several 2018 races remain too close to call, Democrats already hold 225 seats to 197 seats for Republicans heading into January and are expected to to make additional gains before then.
But a narrow margin will spark a bloodbath for control of the House in 2020. Dozens of races, won by both parties, were decided by margins of less than 5 percentage points, creating swing districts and early targets for flipping seats during the next cycle.
“Based on where we are today it’s entirely possible that either party could be in control of the House two years from now,” Mackowiak said.
Still, Republicans faced backlash from suburban and female voters on Tuesday amid a nationwide reshuffling of the electorate. And, Republicans acknowledge, if they want to win back the House they’ll need to make up gains in those two voting groups.
Democrats will have to hold onto purple and red-state districts they flipped during the midterm, but with Trump likely at the top of the ballot.
Sabato and Kondik predicted the 2020 House fight would likely be “another competitive battle,” but one in which Democrats have a path to keeping the majority.
“A good thing for Democrats is that many of the suburban seats they picked up in this election … probably will be relatively easy to hold with Donald Trump on the ballot, and the Democrats did not max out their potential seat gain,” they said.