The Democratic presidential primary is about to hit full throttle, but the battle for control of the U.S. Senate is also shifting up a gear. Since we last checked in on the race for the Senate, a new senator from Georgia who will have to defend her seat has joined the chamber, while the candidate fields in some other 2020 elections are starting to crystallize. Let’s dig into some of the recent developments.
America’s newest senator may have to fight to keep her seat
On Monday, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler of Georgia took office, which means she’ll now have to run in a special election in November to keep her seat — and with a possible GOP challenger, it could be an action-packed race. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp picked Loeffler, a businesswoman and co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, to take over for GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned at the end of 2019, but Loeffler was not a consensus pick. President Trump had wanted Kemp to appoint Rep. Doug Collins, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, who was front and center during the impeachment hearings defending the president. Collins has fueled speculation that he might mount a bid against Loeffler in November, but hasn’t yet decided on whether he will.
Loeffler hasn’t held political office before, but she’s already busy working to prove her conservative credentials. She has described herself as “pro-Second Amendment, pro-military, pro-Trump and pro-wall,” in an attempt to combat claims made by some on the right that she’s not conservative enough. Loeffler has also promised to spend $20 million of her own money on the race, which could scare off opponents like Collins or other Republicans from running.
Whether Collins runs, the special election next November will be a jungle primary, which means all candidates, regardless of party, run at the same time. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, a runoff between the top two will take place on Jan. 5, 2021. At this point, the only notable Democrat running is Matt Lieberman, son of former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, although a number of better-known Georgia Democrats are running for the party’s nomination in the contest for the state’s other Senate seat, which is also up in 2020. Election handicappers favor the GOP to hold onto both seats in 2020.
To run or not to run, that is the question
For many politicians considering Senate bids, upcoming filing deadlines and the pressure to raise money mean there’s not too much time left to dilly-dally. But one prospective candidate who’s embraced his inner Hamlet over the past year or so is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has said several times that he doesn’t plan to run for Kansas’s open seat, but has acted like someone who is actually quite interested in a bid. Yet on Monday, The New York Times reported that Pompeo told Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that he “does not plan to run.” It’s tough to define that as a categorical refusal, though, so we wouldn’t pour the concrete just yet.
We say this because Pompeo has made a number of trips to Kansas during his time in the State Department — a little surprising for the president’s chief adviser on foreign affairs — and there have been reports he’d spoken to potential donors about a campaign. Although he’s said he’s not planning on a bid, Pompeo does have plenty of time to change his mind, especially as Kansas’s filing deadline is one of the latest in the country — June 1. The fact is that many Republicans want Pompeo to run because they fear controversial former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach might cost them the seat. Kobach is currently the front-runner for the GOP nomination, but he’s coming off a 5-point loss in Kansas’s 2018 gubernatorial race, and Democrats are rallying around state Sen. Barbara Bollier, an ex-Republican who might have the right profile to make hay in a state where Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat since 1932. But if Pompeo is truly out, that could free up donors and supporters to now move to other GOP contenders.
While there might be lingering doubts about Pompeo’s intentions, former Trump 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was pretty definitive when he said last week that he won’t challenge Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. Lewandowski’s decision might be a relief to some Republicans who felt he’s too controversial, but at the same time, his ties to Trump — who encouraged Lewandowski to run in the first place — could have enabled him to bring in huge fundraising hauls. (Probably more than what the current crop of three GOP candidates have raised from donors, with nobody exceeding about $235,000.)1 Instead, it looks like Shaheen might escape facing an obvious top-tier opponent.
And while Wyoming is unlikely to be in play in the general, the state’s open Senate seat might have two more challengers in the not-so-distant future. Republican Rep. Liz Cheney has said she’ll soon make a decision about whether to run, but she may not be the only major Republican nearing a decision: Megadonor Foster Friess, who finished second in Wyoming’s 2018 GOP primary for governor, has also expressed interest. So far, the one notable candidate in the race is former Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis.
Other news and polls
- GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina got some welcome news when his main primary opponent, businessman Garland Tucker, dropped out of the race on Dec. 2. Tillis had seemed vulnerable to losing renomination after initially opposing Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border last February. But Tillis eventually supported the measure and later earned Trump’s endorsement, and although personally wealthy, Tucker decided he couldn’t raise enough money to beat Tillis.
- In mid-December, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine officially launched her reelection bid. Collins will be one of the Democrats’ top targets in November because she holds the most Democratic-leaning seat of any Republican up for reelection in 2020. But her formidable electoral track record suggests that she’ll be tough to beat despite Maine’s slight Democratic tilt.
- Arizona will also host a hotly contested Senate race in 2020. An early December survey from OH Predictive Insights found Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, with a slight edge over appointed Republican Sen. Martha McSally, 47 percent to 44 percent. The result is consistent with previous polls from the past few months, which have also found a very close race.
- Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama is the most endangered senator up for reelection in 2020, and a December poll from JMC Analytics testing Jones against some of the declared Republican challengers showed just how tough the road ahead is for Jones. The Democrat trailed former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville by 7 points, former Sen. Jeff Sessions by 5 points and Rep. Bradley Byrne by 4 points. Jones did lead state Rep. Arnold Mooney by 6 points and former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore — whom Jones beat in a 2017 special election — by 14 points, but neither Mooney nor Moore are likely to win the GOP nomination.