There are only 11 Democrats holding the 33 seats in this particular congressional cycle. By the luck of the draw, this batch doesn’t have many swing states- Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida all get a rest this cycle. In 2014 when these “Class 2” seats was up, Democrats got decimated. Incumbents lost in Alaska, North Carolina, Colorado, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Open seats were lost in Iowa, West Virginia, and Georgia. It was a damn bloodbath. Hindsight, though, is 2020. And in 2020, we’ll have a chance to win some of those seats back, and if we are extraordinarily lucky, get back the Senate in the process.
Of the 11 Democratic seats, I project the following 6 to run for re-election without complications: Tom Udall (New Mexico); Jeff Merkley (Oregon); Gary Peters (Michigan); Mark Warner (Virginia); Al Franken (Minnesota); and Chris Coons (Delaware). Although Warner had a glass jaw in 2014, barely winning what should have been a landslide against a joke of an opponent, I ultimately think that each of them should have a fairly easy ride to re-election. Maybe Peters is in the most danger, but if Michigan only barely went Republican under extraordinary circumstances in 2016, a good, careful, constituent-oriented campaign should win the day.
But only 6 Democratic seats with surefire incumbents running? That’s…um…not a lot. See, one issue is that lots of Democrats in this cycle are nearing a plausible retiring age. Of those whom I don’t expect to run again are:
New Hampshire: Jeanne Shaheen survived- barely- against not-really-from-New-Hampshire Scott Brown in 2014. She’ll be 73 on Election Day 2020, and could very well decide to step down. Amazingly, New Hampshire had two Democratic senators for the first time since the late 1970s. Who will succeed her? As loath as I am to break up New Hampshire’s all-female congressional delegation, I pick Chris Pappas. He’ll be a mere 40 years old come 2020, and has served very ably on New Hampshire’s executive council. He’d have a tough race- I’d be shocked if Kelly Ayotte doesn’t try to win New Hampshire’s other senate seat. But if he prevails, Pappas would be the first openly gay man in the U.S. Senate.
Illinois: Dick Durbin will be just shy of 76, and the Senate Minority Whip- having seen his onetime junior senator Barack Obama become president- might hang up his hat. If so, expect a massive bloodbath in the Democratic primaries. Attorney general Lisa Madigan is probably likely to run and probably likely to win. But I want to throw my endorsement to Representative Cheri Bustos instead. As one of the rare Democrats serving Illinois in congress from outside of the Chicago area, downstaters need assurances that Chicago doesn’t run the whole state- much as Kristin Gillibrand was an olive branch to upstate New York.
Massachusetts: Ed Markey has been in congress since 1976, and he’ll be in his mid-70s by the next presidential election. Retiring then and now will allow him to almost certainly hand off his Senate seat to another Democrat. While Joseph Kennedy III is waiting in the wings, I think the future of the party is in better hands with Seth Moulton. He’s done a terrific job as a congressman, and is an Iraq veteran who doesn’t like to brag about his service. Moulton is widely regarded as the future of the Democratic Party in the Bay State, and I’m not inclined to disagree.
Rhode Island: Jack Reed always seems to be in the conversation for Secretary of Defense, and has always turned down the chance. Reed will be 70 on election day, and after 24 years in the Senate may decide to call it a day- perhaps waiting for a call to higher office. Should this spot open up, I’d place my bets on Jorge Elorza. The Providence mayor has helped dig the city out of its financial hole and is an avid cyclist. If chosen, he too would make history: the first Latin-American senator to represent New England.
Special cases: 2020 is also a presidential election year. I don’t want to reveal too much about my 2020 presidential election post for this series, but let’s imagine for a moment that Kirstin Gillibrand and Cory Booker decide not to run for re-election to the Senate and to focus on their presidential race instead. There’s already articles about a Chelsea Clinton vs. Caroline Kennedy showdown, and I hope to god that doesn’t happen. I’d prefer Christine Quinn, the speaker of the New York City Council and has recently served as CEO of an organization aiding homeless women in New York City. For New Jersey, it’s Josh Gottheimer, who took out an incumbent in a Republican-leaning district that Trump carried. As a speechwriter and strong fundraiser, he’ll have plenty of advantages if this spot becomes available.
Otherwise, we’ve got 22 seats controlled by Republicans. So let’s get down to it.
Alabama: So this seat now belongs to Luther Strange, the man who sounds like a DC-Marvel villain mash-up and was appointed to fill Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat when he became attorney general. Going up against a Republican during an election year in Alabama spells almost certain defeat, but I’d like to see what Walter Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa, can do. His job is technically non-partisan, but his Democratic sympathies are an open secret. He earned a great deal of praise in the aftermath of the 2011 tornado that decimated his city.
Alaska: Dan Sullivan narrowly beat Mark Begich back in 2014, returning this seat to the Republicans. In this situation, I’m inclined to gamble- on Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins. He’ll be 30 years old- barely- when the election rolls around, but he’s already rewritten the rule book on grassroots campaigning in unfriendly Alaska. He took on a powerful incumbent- the Finance Committee chair in the Alaska House, and beat him. He went door to door in a house district the size of New Jersey- often by plane or ferry- to meet his constituents, and then took on oil companies once elected.
Arkansas: Ah, geez. Look- unless he primaries Donald Trump and forfeits his Senate seat, Tom Cotton is pretty sure to win this seat as well- his recent Town Hall debacle notwithstanding. Connor Eldridge is a good candidate on paper- moderate on a lot of social issues, an economic populist in the right ways- but if he barely made a dent against the nondescript John Boozman, I don’t see him taking out a bona fide conservative rock star like Cotton. But he has as good a chance as anyone I can name- he just needs some national support for this race.
Colorado: Mark Udall lost what should have been a winnable race here in 2014. Cory Gardner is touted as an up-and-coming Republican personality, but the right opponent can defeat him, especially in a presidential election year. I believe that right opponent is Denver mayor Michael Hancock. Under his mayoralty, Denver has continued to grow in its role as an attractive regional powerhouse. Having spent part of his childhood homeless, Hancock has worked hard to make sure that Denver’s prosperity is shared. Light rail lines have grown connecting downtown Denver to its distant airport, affordable housing units have been built, and a think tank called the Denver Peak Academy was founded to find creative, cost-saving solutions to the city’s problems. For his efforts, Governing magazine named him one of its 2016 Public Officials of the Year.
Georgia: Like Arizona, Georgia is a state that is trending blue, but at a glacial pace. Statewide office holders who could appeal to the wide public are scarce, but I think a second chance should be given to Jason Carter. In a very red year with terrible turnout, in a blue-trending red state, Carter took on an incumbent governor and still kept the loss within double digits. And he’s no mere legacy pick- he is a state senator, a prominent ethics reformer, and like his great-grandmother Miss Lillian, served in the Peace Corps. In a more favorable climate, Carter can take on not-especially-strong incumbent David Perdue.
Iowa: Joni Ernst, whose shocking pig-castrating ads nonetheless seemed palatable to Iowans, is up for re-election. I searched high and low for a possible contender before arriving at Todd Prichard. Iowa Starting Line says this about him: “On paper, Prichard, 43, fits many of the qualities Democrats say they want more of in their statewide candidates: an Iraq War veteran, younger, represents rural Iowa, and personally understands working-class issues. That certainly sounds to many like the profile of a Democrat who could win back the blue-collar and rural voters that moved away from the party in recent years.” That’s a guy with a winning resume and a constituent-friendly approach. Let’s make sure that Joni Ernst is German for “one-term senator.”
Kentucky: If we are lucky, Mitch McConnell will finally decide to hang it up in 2020. He’s been there since 1984, and is fifth in seniority. Dealing with President Trump and doing damage control will probably make the then-78-year-old retreat into retirement. Greg Fischer might be a fantastic candidate to make a play for the open seat, where Democrats have actually run fairly competitive races in 2008, 2010, and 2014. His small business roots- he invented a commonly-used beverage dispenser- and his good work as mayor of Louisville make him poised to be competitive.
Louisiana: So, Louisiana elected a Democrat to a statewide office in 2015, but it happened under an unusual set of circumstances. Can it happen again? It’s a tough order, but I’d like to see Mitch Landrieu try. His older sister Mary lost this seat in 2014- a bad year to run as a Democrat in a Deep South state. Governing magazine named the New Orleans mayor one of their Public Officials of the Year for 2015. He’s overseen the proud city’s rebuilding process, and business development in the city is now twice what it was per capita before Hurricane Katrina.
Maine: Whither Susan Collins? She might end up governor of Maine; she’d be the prohibitive favorite if she ran in 2018, and would have the luxury of appointing her successor to the Senate. On the other hand, after 24 years in the Senate, she might opt to retire as well- possibly ending the tradition of moderate Republicanism in so doing. Either way, I don’t expect her to be running for a fifth term. Ergo, I’m happy to support Hannah Pingree. She’s a genuine progressive, will be 44 years old in 2020, and was the Speaker of Maine’s House while in her early 30s. Since I started following U.S. politics in 2005, we haven’t had a progressive Democrat in the Senate, and I’d love to see Pingree take that role.
Mississippi: I’ll bet you a shiny nickel that Thad Cochran retires, after a long career that began when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. It’s an open seat, but I’m inclined to think Chris McDaniel, the Tea Partier who nearly primaried Cochran in 2014, will try again. Not too many Democrats can get elected in a statewide election, but Jim Hood has. Believe it or not, Mississippi has a Democrat attorney general- and it’s him. He’s a personable, gun-owning, Bible-reading good-ol’-boy. We’ll see if that’s enough. Governing magazine calls him “The Last Democrat in Dixie”; in some ways, he’s the end of his tradition as much as Susan Collins is her’s.
Montana: Although it inclines very much toward Republicans in presidential races, Democrats have been successful- all things considered- in this rural, but in some ways extremely populist- state. Despite some maneuvering that included sending Max Baucus to serve as Ambassador to China, Republicans gained this seat. Incumbent Steve Daines should expect to face a robust challenge. And I believe he will in the form of Steve Bullock. He was elected governor twice, each time during a presidential election year where Romney and Trump respectively won Montana by landslide margins. Bullock knows how to communicate with rural voters and would make this seat a strong choice to flip to blue.
Nebraska: Ben Sasse made a name for himself when he became one of the most vocal critics of Donald Trump in the Republican Party- so much so that some thought he would mount a third-party challenge. And yet, Sasse continues to vote for Trump’s policies; fivethrityeight actually measures his record as voting with Trump’s position 100% of the time! Although Sasse is still a prohibitive favorite, I have an unconventional suggestion- Omaha police chief Todd Schmaderer. Like many Nebraska offices, this one is non-partisan, so I’m not even sure that he is actually a Democrat. And yet, he’s excelled at bridging frayed relations between the police and the community, even evincing some empathy for Black Lives Matter.
North Carolina: I honestly thought that Kay Hagan would pull off re-election in this state in 2014. Thom Tillis ended up winning, though, and will defend this seat in 2020. We need a strong opponent to take out an incumbent in a right-leaning swing state. And I want Anthony Foxx to do that job. The former mayor of Charlotte presided over a strong economy and robust environmental measures in his city before going on to serve as Secretary of Transportation. But the South has never elected a black Democrat to the Senate. Ever. I say it’s time to break that nasty tradition.
South Carolina: I wonder how things will turn out for Lindsey Graham. Long derided as the Robin to John McCain’s Batman, he faces the daily mortification of voting ‘yea’ for nominees put forth by a man who gave out his private cell phone number on live television. If we’re going to make a play for South Carolina, I have another candidate to test the waters of black Democrats in the Deep South. He’s retired Major General Abraham Turner. His military service dates back to 1976, he once worked for U.S. Strategic Command, and even has bipartisan credentials, having served as Nikki Haley’s Executive Director of the Department of Employment and Workforce. He joined dozens of retired high-ranking military personnel in endorsing Hillary Clinton in 2016.
South Dakota: Two-term governor Mike Rounds was elected in 2014 under the shadow of a scandal involving money-funneling in the state’s green-cards-for-investment policy. Rounds’s popularity has peaks and valleys in South Dakota- it always has. But South Dakotans have a reputation for throwing a senator out if they get “too Washington,” as Tom Daschle, George McGovern, and Larry Pressler have all learned. So let’s pick somebody not Washington at all; I’d suggest someone like Alisha Vincent, head of Dakota Wesleyan’s George McGovern Center. The GMC is devoted to public service, combatting hunger, and fostering strong community involvement. That’s exactly the tone that must be struck- hearkening back to traditional, commonly accepted ideas, that can help Democrats win again in the prairie.
Texas: So, John Cornyn is up. A lot of how this race goes depends on whether Democrats can make gains in the Lone Star State as its demographic slowly move in their favor. I would argue that it’s time for Julian Castro to see if he can’t fulfill his destiny. He was the Democrats’ “next rising star” – now held by Pete Buttigieg- a position once held by Cory Booker, Barack Obama, Harold Ford, and others. The former San Antonio mayor and Secretary of HUD will be able to get lots of outside help and fundraising necessary to pull off an upset like this. But will Texas be ready for Castro by that point in time?
Tennessee: It’s difficult to see into the future for this seat. Lamar Alexander will be 80 in 2020 and may very well have retirement on his mind. Rumors abound that Peyton Manning will run for this seat, but who knows if they will materialize. Megan Barry, the mayor of Nashville, is well positioned to make a go of it. She’s earned a reputation as a bipartisan problem-solver seeking common ground- and depending on how the country’s fault lines move in the coming years, that might be enough to eek out a win in Tennessee.
West Virginia: Shelly Moore-Capito graduated from the House to the Senate in 2014, taking the seat that had long been Jay Rockefeller’s. In so doing, she became the first Republican senator to represent West Virginia since the 1940s. Although the state gave Donald Trump one of his widest margins, it has often elected Democrats to statewide offices in the recent past, although this trend is fading fast. Carte Goodwin made a fine impression during his short tenure in the Senate, when he was appointed to fill the seat of the legendary Robert Byrd upon his death. He developed a reputation as an executive problem solver, serving as chair of the school-building authority, and helping to mastermind mine rescue operations.
Wyoming: Yikes. Another tough one. Mike Enzi will be 76 and having been in the Senate since 1997, is one more guy on the retirement watch list. Liz Cheney made a play for his seat, but I think popular governor Matt Mead will run- and is the prohibitive favorite to win. In case of the unexpected, though, we should put forward a strong candidate in this most forbidding of climates. Laurie Nichols, the president of the University of Wyoming, would represent the state well in Washington. As she’s weathered large budget cuts that hurt her university, she is in a good position to challenge the conservative proclivity to gut education, the arts, and public television.
So, lots of pickup opportunities, but many of them are in very unfriendly states. But a bad enough political climate- which I think is what we are heading for- can make any seat competitive. Stay tuned as we address the presidential race in 2020 next time.