It will be hard for Democrats to claw their way back to a majority in the Senate in 2020. Not only must they flip four currently Republican-held seats,1 but they must also prevent Republicans from picking up any seats of their own. And the GOP already has good shots at making gains in Alabama (thanks to the state’s deep Republican lean) and Michigan (thanks to a strong candidate).
Republicans’ next-best pickup opportunity — at least according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric, which measures how much more Democratic- or Republican-leaning a place is than the country as a whole2 — is New Hampshire. And in recent weeks, a well-known Trump ally has signaled that he’s interested in running: Corey Lewandowski, the original manager of President Trump’s 2016 campaign. This, however, is not a welcome development to many Republicans, who think Lewandowski would torpedo their chances of flipping the seat. But I don’t think it’s quite that cut-and-dried — those inside Trump’s and Lewandowski’s inner circles also have some valid arguments for why Lewandowski may be the right candidate for the job (more on that in a moment).
First, election handicappers are split on how vulnerable New Hampshire’s Senate seat is. The Cook Political Report rates the race as “Solid Democratic”; Inside Elections thinks the race is a bit more competitive, rating it as “Likely Democratic”; and Sabato’s Crystal Ball puts it one step away from a toss-up at “Leans Democratic.” But the one thing they do agree on is that Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is currently favored. And Shaheen is a formidable incumbent: She was one of the few vulnerable Democratic senators to survive the 2014 Republican wave, defeating former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown by 3 percentage points. According to Morning Consult, she also has a +20 net approval rating3 despite residing in a slightly Republican-leaning state (according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean metric). That gives her one of the nation’s best Popularity Above Replacement Senator scores, a measure of senators’ cross-party appeal. As a result, I would expect her to run ahead of the Democratic presidential nominee in New Hampshire when both are on the ballot in 2020. In other words, I’d only expect her to be in danger if it looks like Trump will carry New Hampshire by a comfortable margin.
Three Republicans are already running against Shaheen, including retired Brigadier General Don Bolduc and former state House Speaker Bill O’Brien. But if Lewandowski runs, he could brush them aside easily in a Republican primary. Although he was fired as Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski is still close to the president. During a visit to New Hampshire this month, Trump told an interviewer, “Corey’s an outstanding guy. If he ran and won, he would be a great senator.” And if Lewandowski receives Trump’s formal endorsement, he would be a near lock for the nomination. When we analyzed Republican primaries in 2018, we found that candidates whom Trump endorsed won nearly all of their races; in fact, his endorsement was more correlated with primary victory than any other factor we examined.
But the general election might be a different story. Many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Sununu, worry that Lewandowski’s candidacy would go down like a lead balloon with the general electorate. Sununu is up for reelection in 2020 and is reportedly concerned that Lewandowski would drag down Republicans in other races. And the concern is not necessarily misplaced; Lewandowski does have plenty of flaws as a candidate. The Democratic PAC American Bridge has called him “an opposition researcher’s dream candidate.” And according to The Washington Post, New Hampshire Democrats have already prepared a 25-page report on Lewandowski’s past career as a lobbyist. In 2016, Lewandowski was also charged with battery after forcefully grabbing a reporter who was trying to ask Trump a question. The charges were dropped, but video of the encounter may continue to haunt him. Not to mention, Lewandowski remains closely associated with Trump and shares his former boss’s inflammatory style, both of which could backfire, as Trump is not particularly popular among Granite Staters. (Morning Consult gives Trump a -17 net approval rating in New Hampshire despite its light-red hue.)
On the other hand, one can make a case for Lewandowski’s electability as well. First, his national profile and connections to Trumpworld would ensure he is well-funded. Second, I’m not sure his association with Trump is a bad thing in a race where Republicans start out as underdogs. Establishment Republicans’ criticism of Lewandowski boils down to, in Politico’s words, “he would do little to help the party expand its base beyond the group of voters that Trump is already expected to attract.” But this is an odd critique in a Republican-leaning state that Trump may very well carry. In fact, all the major handicappers see the presidential race in New Hampshire as being more competitive than the Senate race, probably because Shaheen’s aforementioned popularity makes her seat a safer bet for Democrats.4 If that’s true, then Republicans should want to nationalize the race, as their best chance of winning may be for every Trump voter to vote for a Republican Senate candidate as well. Given that he is essentially a down-ballot version of Trump, Lewandowski may be the best candidate to make sure GOP-leaning Granite Staters vote a straight ticket.