Democrats winding up to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020 have long approached the electoral map with two goals in mind: Reestablish the party’s dominance in the upper Midwest, and expand the competitive terrain to include several new, traditionally conservative states.
Tuesday served as a reminder of how difficult that will be.
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Despite drawing closer to Republicans in marquee races in Georgia, Arizona and Texas — all hopeful signs — Democrats nevertheless ran into traditional ceilings in those states. They also failed to pick off Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds — despite near-optimal conditions of a freshman incumbent, massive turnout and tariffs weighing heavily on rural voters — and lost the Ohio gubernatorial race, winning just nine of 88 counties after Trump carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016.
Yet those statewide defeats Tuesday were balanced with promising signs such as the election of new Democratic governors in Michigan and Wisconsin, and Gov. Tom Wolf‘s easy reelection in Pennsylvania.
Rather than broadening the electoral map, the midterm elections suggested a return in 2020 to the same, narrow form of trench warfare that has marked recent presidential campaigns.
“Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Nevada: That’s the presidency right there,” said Paul Maslin, a top Democratic pollster. “In a really good Democratic year, could Georgia or Arizona come into play? Yeah, sure. But I’m talking about winning … We’re talking about winning here, we’re not talking about some fanciful notions.”
No red state has appeared riper for a takeover than Georgia, where the non-white population’s explosive growth has buoyed Democrats and where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016 by less than 6 percentage points. Democrats performed far better in Georgia this week than they have in recent years, with a still-uncalled gubernatorial race and runoffs for secretary of state and a seat on the state’s public service commission.
But even in Georgia, Republicans had prevailed in the statewide races that had been called. And the Democratic candidate for governor, Stacey Abrams, was running just less than 2 percentage points behind her Republican rival, despite her national profile and aggressive campaigning in the state by prominent Democrats, including several potential 2020 contenders.
The result was similarly positive for Democrats — and equally unconvincing — in Arizona. Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema took a narrow lead Thursday over Republican Rep. Martha McSally in a Senate race that remains too close to call. But Sinema, a moderate who broke with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and often votes with Trump, has a more conservative voting record than any likely Democratic presidential nominee. And Republicans swept their other statewide races.
In Texas — a bastion of conservativism and perennial fixture of the Democratic imagination — the outcome was even starker. Not only did Democrats’ top midterm sensation, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, fall short in his effort to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, but the incumbent Republican governor, Greg Abbott, won reelection by more than 13 percentage points.
“Texas has been four years away from being competitive for 40 years,” said Peter Ernaut, a veteran Republican strategist who has advised Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval and former Sen. John Ensign. “I hear a lot of people talking about Arizona becoming competitive. I don’t know about that either. I kind of believe it when I see it.”
For Democrats focused primarily on the party’s 2020 primary, if nothing else the midterm elections confirmed Trump’s apparent vulnerability, with Democrats seizing control of the House and making inroads in the nation’s governorships. Senate candidates backed by the president fell short in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
The gubernatorial and Senate victories were critical to Democrats reeling from Trump’s victories in those three states in 2016, following decades of Democratic dominance in presidential elections.
While Trump is likely to compete again in all of those places, Democrats this week may have put other states out of his reach. Republicans flat-lined in Minnesota and Nevada, the two Democratic-leaning states that once appeared to represent Trump’s best opportunity to plow new ground.
Trump lost Minnesota by only 1.5 percentage points in 2016, and he said at a midterm rally in the state that it would be “really, really easy,” for him to win Minnesota in 2020.
But Democrats there all but ran the table this week, winning the governorship and two Senate races, picking up two House seats and flipping the state House.
Rick Kahn, a friend and former campaign treasurer to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, described the election as a “political reordering.” Kahn, who helped Rep. Tim Walz in his successful gubernatorial campaign, said, “I don’t see how Trump can possibly … I’d be shocked if they even bothered to try to compete.”
Then there are the two Western states where Trump, despite losing in 2016, had been expected to compete: Colorado and Nevada. Both states elected full slates of Democrats on Tuesday, and in Nevada — despite Trump’s campaigning for the incumbent — Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen unseated Republican Sen. Dean Heller.
Surveying the landscape for Republicans and Democrats alike, Jon Seaton, a Washington-based strategist and former adviser to Sen. John McCain, said, “At the end of the day, for all the talk of realignment, we’re going to be talking about the same five, six, seven states.”
Forty of 50 states voted for the same party from 2000 to 2012. For anyone expecting 2020 to be different, he said, “2018, as I’m looking at it, is certainly a reality check.”
Ernaut, who is based in Nevada, said the results are especially significant to Trump’s prospects of expanding his field in 2020 because “the election in Nevada on Tuesday was more a referendum on the president than anything else.”
He said, “They have a daunting challenge to turn that around.”
Doug Rubin, a political strategist who has advised former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — both potential 2020 candidates — said that regardless of the result, Democrats’ performance in Georgia and Texas compared favorably to Republicans’ faltering in Democratic-leaning states such as Minnesota and Nevada, a positive sign for 2020.
“There’s no state where Trump is gaining ground in a place where he shouldn’t be gaining ground,” Rubin said.
For Democrats, Rubin said, “This is not like a one election thing — these things take time.”
And even if Democrats fall short in 2020 in a traditionally red state, the threat of a competitive election will force Republicans to spend money and time there, as Trump did in the midterms.
Following this week’s elections, Rubin said, “Republicans are going to have to spend money in those states now to make sure they stay red in presidential years. It takes money away from other sates.”
It is also possible, Democrats say, that Trump will fall out of favor in a red state, or that a Democrat with ties to a red state could galvanize support there.
“It depends who’s on the top of the ticket,” said Ben LaBolt, a former White House aide and press secretary for President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “A lot of the candidates at the top of the ticket will have different paths … I think some candidates would have to win by expanding the map. Some candidates would have a better chance on traditional maps, like we’ve seen over the last few cycles.”
He said, “A smart campaign will take a look at an expanded map at the beginning, and then start to concentrate resources over time. And I think that expanded map would include Georgia, Texas and Arizona, depending on the candidate.”
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