Sabatos Crystal Ball

Senate 2020: Republican exposure on paper, but not necessarily in practice

GOP defending a lot of turf, but much of it is dark red

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 13th, 2018



— Of the 34 Senate races on the ballot in 2020, Republicans already control 22 of them while Democrats hold only 12. That represents something of a role reversal from 2018, when Democrats had to defend 26 of 35 seats being contested.

— Still, Republicans start this cycle favored to hold the Senate, but there is a plausible path for Democrats, particularly if Democrats win the presidential race.

— The most vulnerable senator from either party is Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), followed by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO). A special election in Arizona also starts as a Toss-up.

Initial Senate ratings for 2020

In the 2018 cycle, the big story was that the Democrats faced a historically difficult map of Senate races. They had to defend 26 of the 35 seats being contested, including Democratic incumbents in several dark red states. Ultimately, Democrats won 24 of the 35 races, nearly 70% of those on the ballot. But Republicans netted two seats overall, boosting their majority from 51 seats to 53 seats when the new Senate convenes next month. Democrats will hold 47 seats, a total that includes independent Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Overall, the 2018 results brought the Senate map further into partisan alignment. Going into the election, only 15 senators (out of 100) represented states that their party’s presidential candidate lost in the 2016 presidential election. Of those 15, 11 were on the ballot in 2018, and the results reduced the total number of crossover senators by four, to just 11 total. Republicans captured four Democratic-held seats in states that Donald Trump won in 2016 (Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota), and Democrats won the only Republican-held seat that was contested in a state Hillary Clinton won (Nevada). Democrats also captured a Senate seat in Arizona, a Trump-won state. Meanwhile, Trump-state Democrats won reelection in Michigan, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The current party control of the Senate by state is shown in Map 1.

Map 1: State-by-state Senate control starting in 2019

Map 1 demonstrates political patterns that largely reinforce other federal voting trends. The West Coast and New England have almost entirely Democratic Senate delegations, the South and Great Plains are almost uniformly Republican, and the Midwest is mixed, reflecting the region’s long-held battleground status.

Map 2 isolates the 34 Senate seats that are being contested in 2020. There are 33 regularly-scheduled elections, along with a special election in Arizona for the remaining two years of the term that the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won in 2016. Three of these seats — Alabama, Minnesota, and Mississippi — were on the ballot as special elections during the 2018 cycle. So if Sens. Doug Jones (D-AL), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) want full, six-year terms, and it appears that they all do, they will have to run again this cycle.

All told, Republicans are defending almost double the number of Senate seats in 2020 (22) as Democrats are defending (12).

Map 2: Current party control of Senate seats on the ballot in 2020

In order to win control of the Senate, Democrats will have to net at least three seats this cycle. If they did that, the Senate would have an even 50-50 split, with whoever the vice president is in 2021 breaking ties. Without the presidency, Democrats would need to net four seats to win a bare 51-49 majority. However, the Senate races and the presidential race probably will work at least somewhat in tandem, meaning that it’s hard to imagine Republicans holding the White House while simultaneously losing four net Senate seats. So winning the White House is likely a necessary but not sufficient condition for a Democratic Senate takeover. Our initial ratings for the 2020 races are shown in Map 3.

Map 3: Initial Crystal Ball 2020 Senate ratings

While Republicans are defending a large number of total seats, many of them should be easy GOP holds. In our initial ratings, more than half of the GOP seats — 13 of 22 — start as Safe Republican. That includes five of the nine Senate seats Republicans captured from Democrats in 2014, the last time this Senate map was contested: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, and West Virginia. All five of these states are substantially Republican, which makes it difficult to imagine the Democrats clawing any of these states back in 2020. Additionally, Republicans start with a very clear edge in Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming. Collectively, this group has elected only one Democratic senator this century: Ben Nelson (D-NE), who won in 2000 and 2006 before retiring in 2012. It might be tempting to look at a state like Kansas, where Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) performed relatively weakly in both his 2014 primary and general election, as a dark horse Democratic target. The state did, after all, just elect a Democratic governor. But then one remembers that Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932.

Meanwhile, seven of the 12 currently Democratic Senate seats start as Safe Democratic: Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Rhode Island. So that means 20 of the 34 Senate seats on the ballot in 2020 begin as rated Safe for the incumbent party.

Let’s look at the remaining 14, many — but not necessarily all — of which will be competitive in 2020.

While on paper the Democrats need to capture at least three currently Republican Senate seats to take control of the Senate, realistically they probably need to win at least four. That’s not because of the presidential race; rather, it’s because Democrats are going to have a very hard time defending the Senate seat currently held by Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), who won a December 2017 special election against former Alabama state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore (R), arguably the worst candidate either party has nominated for a hotly-contested Senate seat in recent memory. Jones beat Moore 50.0% to 48.3% in the special election despite Moore’s many problems. One would assume both that the GOP presidential nominee will carry Alabama by 20 points or more and that the GOP Senate nominee won’t be as weak as Moore. The 2018 Senate results, where Democratic incumbents lost in three heavily Republican states despite good national conditions, also augur poorly for Jones, who is running in a Deep South state that may be more Republican at its core than Indiana, Missouri, or North Dakota, the three dark red states where Democrats lost in November. Starting Alabama as a Toss-up probably is being kind to Jones, and he is clearly the most vulnerable senator on the ballot of either party. A host of Republicans are considering bids, including several state-level officeholders, Rep. Bradley Byrne (R, AL-1), and perhaps even former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for two decades prior to joining the Trump administration. Alabama seems likely to lose a GOP-held House seat after the 2020 census reapportionment, which could prompt other members of the state’s congressional delegation to take a look at this Senate race. Uncertainty about the quality of Jones’ 2020 challenger is the only thing keeping Alabama a Toss-up, although we also have learned that it is sometimes dangerous to write off an incumbent at the start of a campaign cycle.

Democrats start as at least small favorites in the four other plausible GOP targets on this map. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) is a fairly low-profile senator, although he did win what was in hindsight an impressive, double-digit victory in an open-seat race against former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land (R) in 2014. That was notable because Trump very narrowly won the state two years later, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) turned in a relatively weak 6.5-point victory in her reelection last month, holding off a spirited challenge from veteran John James (R). James could run again, and he likely would need Trump or another GOP presidential nominee to once again carry Michigan to have a real chance to win. Trump reportedly considered James as the next ambassador to the United Nations, but he decided to nominate State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert instead.

New Hampshire, one of the nation’s perennially competitive states, also is a plausible GOP target as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) considers whether to seek a third term. Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) would be a natural and formidable challenger, although he said back in 2017 that he would “never” run for the Senate, for what it’s worth. Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), a hard-luck loser in 2016, is another familiar GOP name in the Granite State who would be a credible Republican Senate nominee. Longer-shot Republican targets come in Minnesota, where Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) likely will seek a first full term, and Virginia, where Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) likely will seek a third term. Trump came close to winning Minnesota in 2020; if he somehow carried it, that probably would put Smith in danger, but it’s unclear whether she will face a top challenger. Meanwhile, the Democratic presidential nominee should be decently positioned in Virginia, which should insulate Warner, who got a real scare in the poor national Democratic environment of 2014. If either Smith or Warner is in significant trouble come November 2020, something likely is going seriously wrong for Democrats overall.

All told, Republicans have one really good target in the Senate in 2020 — Jones in Alabama — and probably uphill climbs in the other currently Democratic Senate seats on the ballot. But just one good target might be sufficient, because the Democratic Senate target list is like a cheap, all-you-can-eat buffet: long on options, but short on quality.

Democrats’ best two chances to win a currently GOP Senate seat in 2020 come in Arizona and Colorado, both of which we’re starting as Toss-ups.

Let’s start in the Centennial State, where at the very least we know with reasonable certainty the identity of the GOP nominee, as Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) is gearing up to seek a second term. Gardner won by two points over then-Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) in the strong GOP environment of 2014. Gardner might have a harder slog in 2020, as Democrats appear to be gathering strength in Colorado. Clinton carried the state by about five points in 2016, and Democrats won the governorship for the fourth-straight cycle in 2018. Gardner might not need the Republican presidential nominee to carry Colorado in order to win, but remember that no state voted differently for president and Senate in 2016, the first time that has ever happened in the history of Senate popular elections. If the GOP presidential nominee can’t keep it very close in Colorado, Gardner is in real trouble. The Democratic field is unclear in the early going: Possibilities include Crisanta Duran, the outgoing, term-limited speaker of the state House of Representatives; two of the candidates who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic gubernatorial nomination last cycle, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and former state Sen. Mike Johnston; and possibly outgoing, term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper, who probably will take a shot at running for president. Remember: Gardner didn’t enter the 2014 contest until late February 2014 after initially taking a pass on the race, so there’s plenty of time for Hickenlooper to dabble in the presidential race and, if it doesn’t work out, potentially reconsider a Senate bid.

In Arizona, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) has yet to announce whether he’s going to stay in the Senate after taking over for McCain earlier this year. After retiring from the Senate in 2013, Kyl has always seemed like a short-termer, and he may not even finish out his temporary appointment, which runs through the 2020 special election. Assuming Kyl leaves soon, Gov. Doug Ducey (R-AZ) will appoint another temporary senator. The appointee could seek the office, but remember that appointed incumbency does not confer the same advantages as elected incumbency. One possible appointee is outgoing Rep. Martha McSally (R, AZ-2), who lost to Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) in November, although there’s some dispute as to whether Ducey would prefer to nominate someone else, like his now-former chief of staff, Kirk Adams (R), who might just be a caretaker if appointed. It would be ideal for national Republicans if the new appointee, if there is one and that person runs for the job, could at least deter a serious primary challenge. The late August primary can put a party nominee behind the eight-ball in Arizona, as arguably happened to McSally last cycle and some GOP House candidates over the last few cycles. It’s unclear who Democrats will nominate: Rep.-elect Greg Stanton (D, AZ-9), the former mayor of Phoenix, is a possibility. So too are former state Attorney General Grant Woods (D), a former Republican who was a McCain ally, and Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-7). Again, let’s see if there’s a primary on the Democratic side as well: Sinema benefited from a clear path to the nomination in 2018 that allowed her to build a positive statewide profile before GOP attacks started in earnest after McSally won the nomination. Arizona is still right of center, but the Democratic presidential nominee probably will make a play for the state, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will assuredly try to field the strongest possible candidate. Whoever wins this race in 2020 will have to run again for a full term in 2022.

Four additional GOP-held seats start as Leans Republican in our ratings. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is one of the two Republicans in Clinton-won states on the ballot this cycle (Gardner of Colorado is the other), and the Leans Republican rating mostly reflects some uncertainty about whether she’ll run again. If she decides to seek a fifth term, we might upgrade her to Likely Republican, as she still seems to have an enviable level of crossover appeal and Maine probably will be competitive statewide for president (Trump easily carried an electoral vote in Maine’s Second Congressional District, but Clinton carried the state overall by three points thanks to greater strength in the more liberal First District). Democrats are hopeful that Collins’ important role in the divisive Brett Kavanaugh nomination fight will make her a more partisan, and thus more vulnerable, figure, but it’s not clear as of now whether that has happened or will happen. A Collins retirement, meanwhile, would make this race a real Toss-up — and perhaps it’d become that anyway depending on whether perceptions of Collins have dramatically shifted and if a strong Democrat steps up against her. We’ll have to see whether Rep. Chellie Pingree (D, ME-1) decides to take the plunge. Sara Gideon (D), speaker of the state House of Representatives, is another possibility. Susan Rice (D), formerly the national security adviser to former President Obama, has tweeted interest in the race, although it’s unclear how serious she might be. Rice’s mother was from Maine and she’s spent a lot of time there, but she is from the Washington, D.C. area.

Assuming all the incumbents in the Leans Republican states run, the Democrats’ best target probably is Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC), a narrow 2014 winner in a competitive presidential state that seems to throw out incumbent senators with regularity. The last two occupants of this seat, former Sens. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) and Kay Hagan (D-NC), each failed in their attempts to win second terms. It’s unclear who Democrats might nominate, though: state Sen. Jeff Jackson (D) is a possibility. The presidential race probably will loom large in this contest: Democrats have hoped the state would become bluer, like its northern neighbor Virginia, because of demographic changes, but the Tar Heel State has consistently voted to the right of the nation for president over the last half century, except when southerner Jimmy Carter was the Democratic nominee in 1976 and 1980. North Carolina is more purple than it was a couple of decades ago, but it’s not a pure swing state, either, which gives Tillis a little bit of a cushion, at least to start.

In Iowa, Sen. Joni Ernst (R) was an impressive 2014 winner, and Trump would start as a favorite to carry the state again assuming he’s nominated after winning by a surprisingly large nine-point margin in 2016. That said, Iowa also elected two new Democratic House members in November, giving Democrats a three-to-one edge in the House delegation. One Senate possibility is former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-IA), who also served as secretary of agriculture in the Obama administration.

Finally, Georgia seems to be becoming more competitive, although Republicans narrowly defended the open governorship earlier this year. Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) starts as a favorite, but a strong challenger could push him. Unsuccessful gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams (D) could run against Perdue.

Rounding out the list of potentially competitive Senate races are three final GOP-held states we’re starting as Likely Republican: Kentucky, Montana, and Texas. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has weak favorability numbers but the Bluegrass State may simply be too Republican to elect a Democrat to the Senate, something it hasn’t done since 1992. The 2019 governors’ race, featuring unpopular Gov. Matt Bevin (R), may tell us something about the gubernatorial race: If Bevin wins comfortably in a state-level race despite bad numbers, McConnell likely is unbeatable in a federal election held concurrently with the presidential race no matter what his approval rating may be. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) starts well-positioned, and very well could be upgraded to Safe Republican if term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) doesn’t challenge him. Bullock has said he is not interested in the Senate race and seems likely to at least dip his toe into the presidential waters, but Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) recently suggested Bullock would run for Senate (Tester backtracked). Regardless, one would expect the DSCC will lean heavily on Bullock to consider a bid. So we’ll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) is more of a generic Republican than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), which might put him in a better position for reelection than the more polarizing Cruz, who only won in November by about 2.5 points over outgoing Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16). O’Rourke might run for president; Democrats would assuredly love for him to run against Cornyn although, as one observer recently mentioned to us, “you can’t make a soufflé rise twice” (borrowing the quote from the witty Alice Roosevelt Longworth). Meaning: At least in terms of a Texas Senate race, Beto-mania might be hard to re-run, although perhaps if O’Rourke takes his act nationally he’d get some traction in a Democratic field that may have plenty of participants but not so much charisma. Cornyn should be OK, but Texas does seem to be getting more competitive, and Republicans should be concerned about their suburban performance across the state, which could endanger several House seats that have seemed safe in the past and, eventually, the state as a whole.


Overall, in order to win the Senate, Democrats probably will need to win Arizona and Colorado as well as at least a couple of the Leans Republican states: Georgia, Iowa, Maine, or North Carolina. That these crucial states begin with Republicans as small favorites points to a larger overall assessment: the GOP starts this cycle favored to hold the Senate. However, there is a plausible path for Democrats, particularly if a Democrat wins the presidency and provides some down-ballot coattails.

Governors 2019-2020: Democrats try to hold the line in red-state battles

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 6th, 2018


Editor’s Note: Last Thursday morning, the University of Virginia Center for Politics held its 20th annual American Democracy Conference in Washington, D.C. To watch a replay of the conference, visit our website.


— Following the 2018 election, Republicans now control 27 governorships to the Democrats’ 23, but a majority of the American public will live in states governed by Democrats starting next year.

— The 14 governorships at stake over the next two years feature some intriguing contests that will be held on mostly GOP-leaning turf.

— The most endangered governorship for either side is the open seat in Montana, which Democrats are defending.

Initial ratings for 2019-2020 gubernatorial races

When newly-elected Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia switched parties from Democratic to Republican in 2017, the Democratic Party held just 15 of the 50 state governorships. But after picking up New Jersey in 2017, Democrats netted seven more governorships in 2018: Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. So Democrats now hold 23 governorships, while the GOP holds 27; a majority of the population of the 50 states (about 53%) will live in states with Democratic governors, although that would be a significantly larger share if Democrats hadn’t come up short in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio, three big states where Republicans successfully played defense in 2018.

The party control of state governorships starting early next year is shown in Map 1.

Map 1: Party control of state governorships after 2018 elections

Midterm years are when a significant majority of the governorships are decided, so there aren’t a ton on the ballot over the next few years, especially when one considers that hardly any of the most populous states elect governors in presidential years. Only one of the 10 most populous states, North Carolina, elects its governor concurrently with the presidential race. Yet there are still many interesting contests during the next two years, and Republicans may have a better chance than Democrats to expand their total number of governorships this cycle.

For starters, the states being contested over the next two years generally lean right. The three states on the ballot in 2019, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Mississippi, are all reliably Republican at the federal level. In 2020, the Republican presidential candidate should easily carry at least Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Utah, and West Virginia, while the Democratic nominee should easily win just Delaware, Vermont, and Washington. Two other states are very competitive at the presidential level, New Hampshire and North Carolina. New Hampshire and Vermont remain the only two states where governors are elected to two-year terms as opposed to four-year terms, like every other governorship.

Overall, Republicans control nine of the 14 governorships being contested over the next two years. However, the one race where we see the highest likelihood of a party switch comes in Montana, which Democrats currently hold. That’s the one state that starts as a Toss-up as shown in Map 2, our initial ratings of this cycle’s gubernatorial races.

Map 2: Initial Crystal Ball ratings for 2019-2020 gubernatorial races

Let’s start with the 2019 races, all of which seem like they will be hotly contested.

The top race comes in Louisiana, where Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA) is running for a second term. He owes his governorship in large part to his 2015 opponent, then-Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who proved to be a weak candidate thanks in part to his 2007 admission that he used an escort service in Washington. Vitter survived his problems in an easy 2010 Senate reelection bid amidst a national GOP wave in a reddening state. But his personal weaknesses re-asserted themselves in a less-nationalized gubernatorial race where he also was weighed down by the troubles of then-Gov. Bobby Jindal (R), a Vitter rival who had bad approval ratings by the end of his second term. Edwards, meanwhile, has generally enjoyed decent approval ratings, but he doesn’t appear to have the sky-high ratings that can insulate a member of a state’s minority party from a challenge from the majority party. For instance, Morning Consult pegged Edwards’ approval rating at 47% approve/34% disapprove in October, a perfectly respectable score. However, recently reelected Govs. Charlie Baker (R-MA) and Larry Hogan (R-MD) posted outstanding 70%-17% and 67%-17% splits respectively in the same polling, which is how Republicans can coast in very blue states, as both did last month. Edwards’ good-but-not great numbers combined with the nation’s increasing polarization means that his path to reelection remains perilous. Edwards caught a break earlier this week when Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) decided against a run. A survey from local pollster Bernie Pinsonat conducted prior to Kennedy passing on the race showed the senator leading Edwards 49%-45% in a hypothetical matchup, an indicator of Edwards’ vulnerability even though the same poll found that 60% of respondents said he was doing an excellent or good job. Businessman Eddie Rispone (R), a deep-pocketed, long-time GOP donor, is already running, and Rep. Ralph Abraham (R, LA-5), might. State Attorney General Jeff Landry (R) initially passed on a bid, but that was before Kennedy declined to run, so Landry could reconsider. Remember that Election Day, Oct. 12, 2019, will feature an all-party jungle primary; if no one gets over 50%, there will be a runoff between the top two finishers (likely Edwards and a Republican) on Nov. 16, 2019. So a big GOP field could benefit Edwards by leaving the eventual nominee with little time to pivot to the runoff, and Edwards could hypothetically win outright before a runoff. We’re going to start this race as Leans Democratic, owing to Edwards’ incumbency and relative lack of controversy. But this could become a Toss-up in a hurry given how red Louisiana is.

By the way, Kennedy’s decision not to run for governor is yet another instance of a sitting senator opting against a gubernatorial bid. Senators often flirt with going home to run for governor, but they don’t seem to follow through with it all that often. Vitter is a recent, rare example of one who did, and he ended up losing in embarrassing fashion.

In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY) has sported weak approval ratings — a Morning Consult survey from October pegged him at 30% approve/55% disapprove — and he seems likely to draw a credible Democratic challenger. The list of possibilities is led by state Attorney General Andy Beshear (D), son of former Gov. Steve Beshear (D). Bevin and the younger Beshear have clashed often, and a November matchup would be explosive. Other possibilities include former state Auditor Adam Edelen (D), state House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins (D), and Amy McGrath (D), a retired Marine pilot who narrowly lost a closely-watched congressional race to Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) last month who would have to deal with some state-specific residency issues if she ran for the governorship. We’ll start this one as Leans Republican with a nod both to Bevin’s incumbency and Kentucky’s increasingly Republican statewide leanings.  

The third 2019 race, in Mississippi, will be an open-seat race as Gov. Phil Bryant (R) is prohibited by term limits from seeking a third term. Democrats are excited about their likely nominee, state Attorney General Jim Hood (D), although it appears he will face at least some primary opposition. Hood has won four straight terms as attorney general by double digits each time, and he has a path to victory if he can combine a strong performance with African Americans, who form a large majority of Democratic voters in the state, with his unique appeal to otherwise conservative Republican white voters. Hood, like Edwards in Louisiana, is not pro-choice on abortion, which is a good position to have in socially conservative Southern states. Despite Hood’s impressive history, we think we’d rather be the Republican nominee to start owing to the challenges Democrats face in that state, challenges that were made manifest once again in the Senate special election held last week, where Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) won by about eight points despite running a weak race marred by controversy down the stretch. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) leads the list of GOP possibilities for the Mississippi governorship, although he might not have a free ride to the nomination. Mississippi also has a strange, antiquated provision for gubernatorial elections: The winning gubernatorial candidate must receive a majority of both the statewide vote and win a majority of the state’s House districts to win outright. If no one does that, the state House of Representatives picks between the two highest vote getters. It will be hard for the Democratic nominee to carry a majority of the state House districts — the GOP currently holds a 74-47 majority — and it’s technically possible that the GOP-controlled House could install a Republican governor even if the Republican gets fewer votes than the Democrat. A system like this — basically a state-level Electoral College, for lack of a better way of describing it — might not survive a lawsuit, but just keep this in mind when assessing this race.

Ultimately, while we don’t have any of the three 2019 races as Toss-ups, Louisiana seems like it’s the one with the greatest likelihood of flipping parties. Remember, all of these states are very Republican. If Democrats hold Louisiana, they should be happy. If they hold Louisiana and pick off Kentucky or Mississippi, they should be ecstatic. Meanwhile, the GOP goal should be a sweep, although there wouldn’t be any embarrassment in maintaining the status quo either.

On to the 2020 races, where we’ll start with our only Toss-up, and the state where a party change seems the most likely this cycle: Montana. Gov. Steve Bullock (D) is prohibited by term limits from seeking a third term (he might run for president). Democrats have won the governorship four straight times, a streak that at first blush seems unsustainable in a state where the GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump or someone else, appears very likely to win by double digits. And yet Montana is also more Democratic down the ballot than it is at the presidential level, as indicated by Sen. Jon Tester’s (D-MT) close but clear victory last month and the Democratic gubernatorial streak. Leading the list of potential contenders is state Attorney General Tim Fox (R), who flirted with a challenge to Tester. If Fox runs and is nominated, he would enter the general election as a favorite. However, he could find himself facing a more conservative challenger, like Secretary of State Corey Stapleton (R). Other possibilities include Rep. Greg Gianforte (R, MT-AL), who lost to Bullock in 2016 and remains politically damaged after his attack on a reporter right before a 2017 special election, as well as state Auditor Matt Rosendale (R), who lost to Tester last month. The identity of the potential Democratic nominee remains hazier at this very early point, although some possibilities include Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney (D), businessman Ryan Busse (D), and businesswoman Whitney Williams (D), whose father is former Rep. Pat Williams (D, MT-AL).

The marquee race in 2020 is in the Tar Heel State, where Gov. Roy Cooper (D) will seek a second term. Cooper has not had obvious problems in his first two years in office, but North Carolina is a very competitive state that leans a little bit to the right of the nation, and one would expect Republicans to push him hard. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest (R) is a very likely candidate, and former Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who Cooper narrowly unseated in 2016, could also run again, among others. Again, we’ll give an incumbent the benefit of the doubt to start. Democrats also are defending Delaware and Washington state. There’s not much reason to think Gov. John Carney (D-DE) is in much trouble in a reliably blue state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor in three decades. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) could legally seek a third term, but he may be eyeing a presidential bid. If the governorship becomes open, Democrats would remain significant favorites to hold it, and they have a deep bench of potential candidates. Republicans, meanwhile, might have a hard time nudging a first-rate contender to run: The Democratic presidential nominee is likely to win the state by double digits and Republicans haven’t won the governorship since 1980, though they have come very close on a couple of occasions. Still, the Republicans’ inability last month to defeat unpopular Gov. Kate Brown (D-OR) despite a strong challenger in neighboring Oregon, another Pacific Northwest state with a decades-long streak of electing Democrats to the governorship, illustrates Republican challenges in this part of the country.

Let’s move to the currently Republican-held states.

Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota all decided to vote out their incumbent Democratic senators last month, a sign of how all of these states have become more Republican lately. Each also has an incumbent GOP governor whose ascension to the top job in their respective states was at least a little surprising. In North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum (R) came seemingly out of nowhere to overwhelm long-serving state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem (R) in the 2016 primary and then easily win the general, demonstrating once again the appeal of outsider businessmen in GOP primary politics. In the Hoosier State, Gov. Eric Holcomb (R), a former Indiana Republican Party chairman, began the 2016 cycle trying to win the Republican Senate nomination. His campaign never got much traction and he left the race, but he ended up becoming lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Mike Pence (R) after the previous lieutenant governor resigned. Pence then dropped his bid for a second term when he became Trump’s running mate, and the state party replaced Pence with Holcomb, who then won by half a dozen points in November 2016. And in Missouri, now-former Gov. Eric Greitens (R) resigned under duress earlier this year amidst the fallout of various scandals, putting now-Gov. Mike Parson (R), the separately-elected lieutenant governor, in charge. Ultimately, all three of these governors start as significant favorites, although Parson may have the most to prove given that he was not elected to his current job in his own right.

Of the 2020 races, the Democrats’ best offensive opportunity may be in New Hampshire, a perpetually swingy state that reelected Gov. Chris Sununu (R) to a second two-year term but simultaneously flipped control of the state legislature from red to blue. Sununu won by seven points but could be vulnerable, particularly if the Democratic presidential candidate carries the Granite State (Hillary Clinton won it by less than a point in 2016). Vermont, a very Democratic state that has another popular New England GOP governor, Phil Scott (R), is a longer-shot Democratic target, although he has soft numbers with some Republicans owing to his support for some gun control legislation, and there are credible Democrats who could challenge him if they sense weakness.

On the other end of the spectrum, the open seat in Utah — Gov. Gary Herbert (R) has indicated he is not running again — is very Republican and seems like it should be a relatively comfortable Republican hold despite Trump’s soft support in the state.

We’ll end where we started: West Virginia. Presumably, Gov. Jim Justice (R) will seek a second term after switching parties, and while he could face primary opposition, support from President Donald Trump would be extremely valuable in a Mountain State GOP primary. Meanwhile, West Virginia hasn’t actually elected a Republican for governor since 1996 — Justice was elected as a Democrat and then switched parties while in office — but the state has become so red that 2020 very well could be the year when the GOP breaks that streak.

Trump to the rescue? Presidential campaigning and the 2018 U.S. Senate elections

Alan I. Abramowitz, Senior Columnist, Sabato's Crystal Ball December 6th, 2018



— There is not much evidence that President Trump’s rallies held for GOP Senate candidates had much of an effect on the results.

— At the very least, two other factors were significantly more important: The normal partisan lean of the states where those contests took place and the advantage of incumbency.

Did Trump’s campaign stops matter much in the race for the Senate?

“If I didn’t do those stops we would definitely not have control of the Senate. It would be a question, so what are we up, three? Two or three. We would be down five or six or seven. And they know that. Nobody has ever had a greater impact.”

— President Donald Trump, interview with the Daily Caller, Nov. 14, 2018

A bright spot for Republicans in an otherwise disastrous 2018 midterm election was their success in maintaining control of the U.S. Senate. In fact, Republicans ended up adding two seats to their Senate majority by picking up seats in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota even while losing seats in Arizona and Nevada.

As the quote at the top of this article indicates, President Trump was quick to claim credit for the GOP’s success in the Senate elections. And, in fact, Trump put a great deal of time and effort into campaigning for Republican Senate candidates, along with a few gubernatorial and House candidates, during the final weeks of the campaign. According to data compiled by Wikipedia, the president held 35 rallies with Republican Senate candidates during 2018, including 23 during the months of October and November. During those final weeks, the president campaigned with 15 Republican Senate candidates — he held a single rally in eight states, two rallies in six states and three rallies in Mississippi with GOP candidate Cindy Hyde-Smith, including two on Nov. 26, the day before the runoff election between Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy.

Perhaps no president in the modern era has put more effort into campaigning for his party’s candidates in the run-up to a midterm election than Donald Trump. But did Trump’s campaigning actually have the sort of positive impact on the results that he claimed?

There are reasons to be skeptical of Trump’s claims about his huge impact on the results of the 2018 Senate elections. For one thing, his statement that Republicans might have lost “five or six or seven” Senate seats without his intervention is obviously overblown. Republicans only had nine Senate seats at stake in 2018, and seven of those were in deep red states. Only two GOP-held seats were in swing states — Arizona and Nevada — and Republicans ended up losing both of those contests.

In order to measure the impact that President Trump’s campaigning had on the 2018 Senate elections, it is necessary to control for two other factors that strongly influenced the results of those contests: the normal partisan lean of the states where those contests took place and the advantage of incumbency. These two factors by themselves explain 88% of the variance in the Republican margin across the 34 contests held this year that featured two-party competition (California is not included because two Democrats faced each other in the general election).

In order to estimate the effect of Trump’s campaign rallies, I conducted a multiple regression analysis of the results of all 34 contested Senate contests. The dependent variable in this analysis was the Republican margin in the Senate race. The independent variables or predictors were the Republican margin in the 2016 presidential election in the state, the incumbency status of the race (+1 for a GOP incumbent, 0 for no incumbent, -1 for a Democratic incumbent) and the number of campaign rallies held by President Trump for the GOP Senate candidate during October and November. The results are displayed in Table 1.

Table 1. Regression analysis of 2018 Senate election results

The results in Table 1 show that after controlling for the normal partisan lean of a state and the advantage of incumbency, Trump campaign rallies had a negligible and statistically insignificant impact on the outcomes of these races. Rather, the outcomes of the 2018 Senate contests were overwhelmingly determined by the partisan lean of each state and incumbency. Moreover, an analysis using the total number of Trump rallies during 2018 instead of just rallies during October and November produced almost identical results — in this case, the estimated effect of Trump rallies was slightly negative but statistically insignificant.

In addition to the results of the regression analysis in Table 1, we can examine the outcomes of Senate races in states where President Trump held rallies during the final weeks of the 2018 campaign in relation to the outcomes that would be predicted based on each state’s partisan lean and incumbency by themselves. These comparisons are displayed in Table 2.

Table 2. Actual and predicted results of Senate contests in states with multiple Trump campaign rallies

The data in Table 2 show that Republicans did better than predicted in six states where Trump campaigned, worse than expected in six states, and exactly as expected in one. On average, the actual Republican margin in these states was only slightly better than the predicted margin. There was only one state in which the Republican candidate was clearly predicted to lose but won: Florida, where GOP challenger Rick Scott narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. But Scott’s victory was probably based more on the fact that he was a reasonably popular outgoing governor with immense financial resources running against an incumbent who was considered a lackluster campaigner than on Trump’s late visit to the state.

The model predicted that Republican challengers in Indiana and Missouri would run very close races, but both ended up winning by fairly comfortable margins. On the other hand, the model predicted that Republican candidates in Nevada and Montana would win close contests but both ended up losing, and the Republican incumbent in Texas, Ted Cruz, ended up winning by a considerably closer margin than predicted despite Trump’s late campaign visit to the Lone Star State. Finally, the president’s visit to Arizona was not enough to save that Republican-leaning state for the GOP.


The evidence examined in this article suggests that President Trump’s attempts to intervene in the 2018 Senate elections had, at best, mixed results for the GOP. On average, Trump’s campaign rallies appear to have had a minimal impact on the outcomes of Senate contests. A few Republican candidates did better than expected based on “fundamentals” but others did worse than expected. Only one Republican candidate, Rick Scott in Florida, did substantially better than expected but that may well have been due to factors other than the president’s intervention. And while the president’s visits may have marginally helped GOP candidates in red states like Indiana and Missouri, they may have marginally hurt Republicans in swing states like Nevada and Arizona.

The bigger picture here is that Republican candidates actually underperformed in the 2018 Senate elections. Given a map in which Democrats were defending 26 seats, including 10 in states carried by Donald Trump in 2016, Republicans might well have picked up six or seven seats in 2018 in a neutral political environment. But the political environment in 2018 was far from neutral, as can be seen in the results of the House and gubernatorial elections where the map did not give Republicans the same sort of advantage. And the fact that the overall political environment was toxic for Republicans in 2018 was due largely to the unpopularity of President Trump. That reality was far more important than the effects of the president’s campaigning for GOP candidates.

Alan I. Abramowitz is the Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a senior columnist with Sabato’s Crystal Ball. His new book, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise of Donald Trump, was released earlier this year by Yale University Press.