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Democrats are fighting for the presidency in 2020. But can they win the Senate?

The 2020 Democratic presidential race seems to reflect an increasingly liberal party. But with the current Republican Senate majority, it would be nearly impossible for a Democratic president to enact such progressive legislation. Can Democrats actually gain Senate seats in 2020? Judy Woodruff talks to The Washington Post’s Philip Bump about why the Senate should be a “huge concern” for Democrats.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Most of the focus of the 2020 election so far has, of course, been on the presidential race. But races for the U.S. Senate also present tough challenges for Democrats who are trying to win back the majority from Republicans.

    These concerns were highlighted at the first Democratic presidential debates last week, when almost every candidate, including sitting senators, struggled to answer how they would push through their agenda if Republicans maintained control in the Senate.

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    I want to see us get a Democratic majority in the Senate. But short of a Democratic majority in the Senate, you better understand the fight still goes on.

  • Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Col.:

    Gridlock will not magically disappear as long as Mitch McConnell is there, first. That is why it is so important for us to win not just the presidency, to have somebody that can run in all 50 states, but to win the Senate as well.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    They need to campaign in places like Iowa, because we can win a Senate seat there. This is about getting us back to having 50 votes in the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For a closer look at the 2020 Senate map and the challenges facing Democrats, we're joined by Philip Bump. He's national correspondent for The Washington Post.

    Philip Bump, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    So how much of a challenge is it for Democrats, say, they win the White House, but if they don't win control back of the Senate?

  • Philip Bump:

    It's a huge challenge.

    All of the conversations that are being had right now in the Democratic primary about policy issues that the candidates would like to advance, all of that hinges, of course, on their being able to pass things in the Senate.

    I mean, setting aside the issue of the filibuster, which demands a 60-vote majority, even getting to the 50-vote count, they're right now down by four votes in the Senate, and they need to pick those seats up if they're going to pass any legislation at all.

    So this is something that should be of huge concern to the party.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So where do you see the main obstacles for Democrats? And where do you think their best chances for a pickup are?

  • Philip Bump:

    Well, the main obstacles are twofold, I think.

    The first is that the Senate — only a third of the Senate is up in any given year. And so that makes it challenging. You can't simply just overhaul the Senate all at once. The second challenge is that a lot of these seats that they could pick up, a lot of the incumbent senators who are up on the ballot, are in pretty red states.

    And, obviously, the redder the state, the tougher it's going to be for a Democrat. So we have, if you look at what — Cook Political Report, they do general assessments of the state of the race periodically.

    If you look at what they say right now, there are three states where the Democrats could pick up seats. Those are in Colorado, in Maine and in Arizona. Now, none of those is necessarily a gimme, but two of those states at least voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

    At the same time, though, the Democrats also will need to defend the seat that they won in the special election and Alabama, Doug Jones' seat. And that's going to be a challenge. I mean, Alabama is a very, very red state. And so they have to defend that. They have to win the three states I just mentioned.

    And if they do that, they're still one seed short of getting to the 50-50 level in the Senate, which would essentially serve as a majority.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, setting Alabama aside, where we know Doug Jones is going to be fighting to hold on to that seat, how well are the Democrats doing right now at recruiting strong candidates?

    We saw the news this week that Governor Hickenlooper's staff, five of them, quit working for him because he wouldn't agree to leave the presidential race and run for the Senate in Colorado.

  • Philip Bump:

    Right.

    Yes, I mean, there's going to be some pressure, some increasing pressure on candidates from states with competitive Senate races or potentially competitive Senate races to drop out of the 2020 race, especially if they're not polling well.

    Hickenlooper is a good example of that. It's not clear how damaged those candidates might be. So, for example, if Beto O'Rourke were to drop out of the Texas — or drop out of the presidential race, and decide he wants to run for Texas Senate again, it's not clear how much his own political brand has been damaged by his so far not very good presidential bid.

    There are, however, races like in Georgia. In Georgia, the incumbent senator, David Perdue — Stacey Abrams is someone who's being talked about as a potential candidate there. She hasn't yet announced what she might be planning to do next year.

    So there are certainly glimmers of hope for the Democrats. In Maine, for example, the speaker of the state House in Maine announced her candidacy against incumbent Senator Susan Collins, who has been under fire there. There are a lot of places where the Democrats could potentially pick up seats.

    It's just a question of, to a large extent, what the environment looks like next year. Will we see an environment, as we did last year, where the Americans are so frustrated with President Trump or so celebratory of President Trump that it really shifts the national dynamic in a way that helps or dramatically hurts the Democrats?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what about Democrats trying to mount challenges against Republican senators who right now seem to be in pretty strong shape?

  • Philip Bump:

    Well, it depends on the state.

    So, for example, there are states like Kentucky where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is going to be on the ballot. Is it possible the Democrats win there? Potentially. If the national environment is so strongly Democratic, it's possible even McConnell could lose. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

    There are a lot of well-known Republicans who are up for reelection next year whose reelections are not simply slam dunks, that they may have a tougher time than you might think.

    There are, of course, some Democrats who, if the national environment goes very heavily against the Democrats, Gary Peters in Michigan, for example, he's probably going to end up running against a guy who ran for the Senate there previously and did fairly.

    These are the sorts of things that it depends a lot on where the country is going. But it is safe to say that, all things being equal at this point in time, the Democrats have an uphill climb in terms of retaking the Senate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Phil, finally, what about the messages that we know are going to be coming from the Senate candidates, Democrats running in red states, vs. the message that a Democratic presidential candidate is going to be having?

  • Philip Bump:

    Well, this is a key question and potentially a key problem for the party.

    So there are certainly indications that, had the Democrats done a better job of turning out their base in 2016 — there were some 4.4 million Obama 2012 voters who didn't cast a ballot in 2016 — if those people had been encouraged to come out and vote with some sort of strong national message from the Democratic Party, they could have won that year.

    However, this year, in 2020, you're going to have a lot of Democrats competing in potentially red states who are going to be having to battle the national political environment. Right now, so far, the Democratic primary contest has led to a relatively liberal and progressive set of messages from the Democratic Party, which, if that floods out the message of a red state Democrat, could be problematic for that Senate candidate.

    We saw in 2018 Claire McCaskill in Missouri and Joe Donnelly in Indiana, both of them complained after the election, having both lost, that their message in their red states was drowned out by what the party was saying nationally.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Crosscurrents of all — of all kinds.

    Philip Bump of The Washington Post, thank you.

  • Philip Bump:

    Thank you.

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