The impeachment trial in the US Senate is clearly a constitutional and moral moment of truth. It is also an excellent opportunity to advance the nitty-gritty work that will defeat vulnerable incumbent Republican senators and allow Democrats to recapture control of that critical chamber when voters head to the polls this November. It is easy for progressives to get excited about compelling candidates—people with impressive life stories and hard-hitting ads—and then shower resources on those candidates. And, yes, charisma and well-crafted ads are nice. But as Virginia Democrats’ success last fall demonstrates, robust, statewide voter mobilization operations are better.
Republicans currently hold 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats; Democrats will need a minimum net gain of three seats and a new, Democratic vice president to flip partisan control of the body. Of the 23 Republican-controlled Senate seats up for election this year, there are currently 13 seats in 12 states that offer plausible prospects for Democrats to defeat their Republican opponent.
Factoring in four key criteria—past electoral results, demographic developments, existing civic engagement infrastructure, and incumbent favorability ratings—I have given all 12 states with a Republican incumbent (and one state, Alabama, with a vulnerable Democrat) a score that illustrates their respective winnability.
(Read a complete description of the methodology and underlying data incorporated in the ratings here.)
Most Promising: Arizona, Colorado, and Georgia
The states where Democrats are most likely to flip a Senate seat are those where they’ve fared well in recent statewide elections, and where there is a large pool of potential Democratic voters who could be brought into the electorate to improve the overall odds of victory.
Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona US Senate race in 2018—the first Democrat to win an open seat in that state since 1976. Conventional wisdom attributes Sinema’s success to popularity with “moderate” voters, generally code for white swing voters; but she actually lost the white vote to her opponent. While her white vote share was admittedly higher than many Democrats receive, it was her 70 percent of the Latino vote that propelled her to victory, by just 56,000 votes. And there could be a whole lot more where that came from: More than 600,000 eligible Latinos did not vote in 2018.
Burgeoning Latino civic engagement infrastructure is the progressive secret weapon in Arizona. Ever since the state’s government passed the 2010 anti-immigrant legislation often referred to as the “show me your papers” law, a strong, sustained and effective cohort of organizations and leaders have worked together to build political power and darken the complexion of the Arizona electorate. Republican Martha McSally is the incumbent up for reelection this fall; progressive solidarity, combined with the strong fundraising of likely Democratic nominee Mark Kelly—former astronaut, current gun control activist, and husband of former representative Gabby Giffords—makes this one of the most winnable Senate seats in the country.
After two decades of sustained investment in a strong progressive infrastructure of organizations and leaders in Colorado—a period during which the state’s population has also become increasingly diverse—Democrats have won all four statewide elections since 2016. Cory Gardner, the current incumbent Republican senator, won this seat in 2014 by the narrow margin of 40,000 votes. (He was helped along by the fact that 300,000 fewer Democratic voters turned out than had voted in 2008’s presidential election.) Two Democrats, former governor John Hickenlooper and former speaker of the state House Andrew Romanoff, will face off in Colorado’s June primary; whoever prevails should be the favorite to win the seat in a high-turnout presidential election year.
The silver lining of Georgia’s bitterly disappointing gubernatorial election in 2018? Stacey Abrams’s historic bid helped to build an electoral infrastructure that resulted in record Democratic voter turnout. That operation gives a massive head start to Democrats looking to win the state in 2020, at both the Senate and presidential levels. (A few months ago, Abrams even created a document in which she shares her prescription for victory.) Georgia has two Senate seats on the ballot in November. The field of potential Senate candidates is still unsettled: It includes Jon Ossoff, who previously ran for US Congress; Sarah Riggs Amico, a former candidate for Georgia lieutenant governor; and Teresa Tomlinson, who was the first female mayor of Columbus, Georgia. All are competing for the seat currently held by David Perdue. (There’s a special election planned for the second seat as well, but there’s been little clarity yet about that race.) Regardless of who the ultimate candidates are, Georgia should be all-hands-on-deck for progressives nationally—especially because the state is also within reach of any Democratic presidential nominee, even more so if Abrams were on the ticket to be vice president. If the Democrats can mobilize the Abrams coalition, it will lift all boats.
Texas: The Great Non-White Whale
Texas, once seen as a solidly red state, now has the greatest progressive electoral potential of any state in the country. Its enormous number of eligible, non-voting people of color absolutely dwarfs the shrinking margin of difference in statewide elections. In 2018, Beto O’Rourke lost his US Senate bid by just 215,000 votes, despite the fact that 5.5 million people of color didn’t cast ballots.
Similar to what we’ve seen in Virginia, groups such as the Texas Organizing Project have helped make the difference in mayoral elections in Houston and San Antonio in recent years, with a steady course of methodical civic engagement work. Texas’s very competitive Democratic primary is fast approaching, on March 3, or Super Tuesday; that contest is among the first of the battleground Senate races. While the Democratic senatorial Campaign Committee has sought to tip the scales in favor of M.J. Hegar—whose military background, it’s assumed, will help attract white voters—there are multiple candidates of color in the race. The person with the clearest and most logical path to defeating Republican John Cornyn is Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez. She comes from an organizing background, has deep ties to Latino communities across the state, and is the kind of inspiring and progressive candidate who can capture the imagination of the large—and still essentially untapped—electorate that holds the key to flipping Texas. (Full disclosure: I have contributed to Tzintzún Ramirez’s campaign, and she is a guest on the latest episode of my podcast, Democracy in Color.)
The Swing States: North Carolina, Maine, Iowa
There are actually just a handful of states where large numbers of voters regularly switch their partisan preferences. Such states are harder and more expensive to win; at worst, they can be bottomless money pits, where political ads may or may not be wasted. (Bringing to mind the old adage: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”) But with a president as divisive, unqualified, and destructive as the one we have now, the prospect of Democrats’ prevailing in swing states could be higher than usual.
Many people forget that Barack Obama managed to win North Carolina in 2008, if only by a tiny margin. And although Trump won the state in 2016, Democrat Roy Cooper prevailed in the gubernatorial contest that year. In a state with a meaningful number of college-educated whites, particularly around the so-called Research Triangle of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh, likely Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham may have appeal, but he’ll need to work hard to inspire the African Americans who make up 22 percent of the state’s population. Much of the burden of increasing African American voter turnout—a group that overwhelmingly votes Democratic—will fall to progressive groups and the Democratic presidential ticket (further accentuating the importance of a ticket that can inspire voters of color).
Maine Republican Susan Collins and her pseudo-moderate rhetoric have enraged progressives for years—most notably during the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, where she provided critical cover for the Republicans’ patriarchal power play. She could be vulnerable this year. Maine is more Democratic than many people realize; the state voted Democratic in the last seven presidential elections. Collins now faces a formidable Democratic opponent in Sara Gideon, the well-funded speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and daughter of an Indian immigrant. Furthermore, Collins’s favorability numbers are underwater, as 10 percent more Maine residents view her unfavorably than favorably.
Iowa, of course, is among the swingiest swing states in the country, having flipped from backing Obama by substantial margins in 2008 to a Trump blowout in 2016. (Pat Rynard, who runs the political news site Iowa Starting Line discussed this phenomenon on my podcast in October, observing that “candidates who have run on a change-type message have done well” in the state.) In that light—and taking note of incumbent Republican Joni Ernst’s unfavorable polling numbers—it is realistic to try to flip this seat. A three-way Democratic primary in June will determine the party’s nominee. Many party leaders have high hopes for Theresa Greenfield, who is backed by Emily’s List and other progressive groups.
The Keep-Hope-Alive States: Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Kentucky
There is another cohort of states where seats are up for election this year—ones that would normally be out of reach, just by virtue of their paucity of Democratic voters. But in a high-turnout year when many white voters are alarmed by the Republican standard-bearer, things could conceivably break just right for Democrats. Think of the perfect storm that swept through Alabama in 2017, when Republicans nominated accused child-molester Roy Moore for the Senate, and Democrat Doug Jones rode a robust black voter turnout operation to victory.
Jones is up for reelection this year, and he faces daunting odds in a state that Trump won by nearly 28 points. (Jones’s own 2017 win came in a contest with much lower voter turnout.) But in addition to the possibility of Jones’s being reelected, the other states where an “Alabama Miracle” could conceivably occur are Mississippi, South Carolina, and Kentucky. Mississippi and South Carolina are similar to Alabama, in that they have large African American populations; Kentucky is worth considering, too, since Democrat Andy Beshear squeaked to victory in the governor race last year, and incumbent Mitch McConnell’s steadfast support for Trump’s divisive agenda has made him one of the least popular senators in the country.
The Wild Card: Montana
Montana is a true iconoclast, where there is frequent ticket splitting of perplexing proportions. In 2016, Trump won Montana by 20 points, even while Democrat Steve Bullock prevailed in the gubernatorial contest. The popular Bullock—who briefly entered the Democratic presidential primary last year, before pulling out in December—has thus far resisted entreaties to run for Senate. But should he do so, he would be a strong favorite to flip that seat.
The Clarifying Potential of the Impeachment Trial
The Senate impeachment trial will force all incumbent senators to openly condemn or condone Trump’s behavior. This could draw a clear connection between the actions of this president and the responsibility of his congressional enablers. If Democrats can make sure that voters in the most winnable states understand the role that their incumbent GOP senators have played in this havoc, it could accelerate their efforts to take back control of the Senate and this country.
Taking control of the Senate will require success on two fronts: increasing turnout of voters of color, and cementing support among those suburban white voters who gave Trump a chance in 2016, but shifted their support to Democrats in the 2018 midterms. Most people of color understand clearly the danger and destruction presented by this administration, but the Senate trial offers an excellent opportunity to affirm the increasing alarm felt by those suburban white voters too. Once the evidence is presented, every senator will have to go on the record about whether they support Trump’s unconstitutional corruption. Come November, there are at least 12 incumbent Republicans who can, and should, pay the political price for their complicity in endangering and undermining our democracy.