Many, many years ago, all the way back on November 10th, 2016 ore so, Mitch McConnell was one chipper turtle, he was living high on the hog. That’s because the hog had just gotten elected President, but hadn’t actually taken the oath of office yet, so he wasn’t actively screwing things up. McConnell looked at the Senate map for 2018, liked his jowly chops, and predicted that the GOP would pick up 6-8 seats in the Senate, cementing their majority, and possibly giving them a filibuster proof majority.
And then the unthinkable happened. Trump was sworn in and started “governing.” The massive Women’s March, multiple failed attempts to ban Muslims cuz, like, Muslims, multiple failed attempts to repeal Obamacare, rationalizing a racist murder in Charlottesville, and a thriving investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. Flash forward 18 months, and McConnell is sending up warning flares that the GOP could actually lose the Senate in 2018.
In the end, McConnell ended graphically demonstrating the old adage, “When you ASSUME, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” McConnell fell far short of his boast, picking up only two seats, partially because of the embarrassment of losing two incumbent seats, and failing to dislodge two vulnerable Democratic incumbents in states that Trump went all in on, West Virginia and Montana, This in what should have been a tsunami map for the GOP in any normal year, with any normal President.
And now, here we are, looking at 2020. The cycle has come full circle, and it is the Democrats who have a Senate map that should be very favorable to their chances to at least chip into McConnell’s majority, if not flip it completely. But in looking back, i find that there were two indicators that didn’t seem to get much attention at the time, that could provide a useful tool to see how each side thinks the wind may be blowing going into the 2020 election.
The first weather cock is retirements. In 2016 retirements were the first WHOP-WHOP-WHOP that signaled that the wheels were about to come flying off of the GOP bus, especially in the House. And in the Senate, Flake’s departure from the scene helped to pave the way for Kyrsten Sinema to flip that seat, and a rousing Democratic challenge for Corker’s newly vacant seat in Tennessee meant that the GOP had to send cash propping up a less than inspiring Marsha Blackburn that could have been spent better in other attempts to flip seats, instead of retaining what should have been a “safe” GOP seat. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has already announced that he is calling it quits, and this is a problem for the GOP. The problem is that in losing Alexander, the GOP loses the incumbent edge in that seat, Alexander’s name recognition, state wide familiarity, and donor and fund raising base. A replacement candidate is going to require coddling and support that Alexander would not need, and as Blackburn proved, red state seats are not necessarily safe with sub par candidates. If there are more “moderate” Senate retirements, this could stretch the GOP again, especially if Trump becomes even more unpopular.
The second lesson from 2016 to keep an eye on is recruitment. And this will play heavily on both sides. One of the reasons for McConnell’s optimism in 2016 about being able to clean up with the 2018 map was what should have been his ability to recruit top tier candidates to run against vulnerable Democratic incumbents in red states. Instead, as the rolling Trumpster fire scorched everything in its path, McConnell found it almost impossible to recruit grade A prime candidates with an eye towards a political future to run. This led to an increase in Trumpaholic candidates, which made races closer than they needed to be, and caused resources to be spread more thinly. Rght now McConnell only has Alexander’s seat to worry about, but if there are more defections, it could spell trouble with more extreme candidates, in a year where an unpopular Trump at the top of the ticket could help to turn some of the shakier red seats pink or purple. And it doesn’t bode well for McConnell trying to make any surprise inroads in the scattered places where Democratic incumbents might otherwise be thought of as vulnerable.
The recruitment blade saws both ways. in 2016, Trump’s unpopularity made it possible for Schumer and the DSCC to recruit a much better quality of candidates for GOP held Senate seats than might have been expected in a normal year, with a President who fell into normal popularity parameters. Kyrsten Sinema left her House seat to flip flakes AZ seat, Jacky Rosen, a first term incumbent House member became an instant contender, and ended u sending Dean Heller packing in Nevada. Beto O’Rourke scared the shit out of Ted Cruz and the GOP in Texas, Tennessee and was close, and Florida went to a recount. All of those were in states that the GOP should have had a decided advantage in, even Florida, where there were signals that Nelson’s luck may have finally run out. Trump’s unpopularity slopped over onto his incumbents, and made it possible for Schumer and the DSCC to make a run in red states look like a career enhancing prospect rather than a kamikaze run.
And the fun is just starting for Chuck Schumer. It was reported yesterday that he is going to have a little fireside chat with Beto O’Rourke about strapping it on again to take on John Cornyn in teas, rather than dive into the Presidential pool. Stacey Abrams would be a very powerful opponent to go up against Perdue in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum’s close call for Governor gives him the power base and state wide name recognition to make life extremely uncomfortable for Marco Rubio in Florida. Nothing breeds success like success. The Democrats rolled in 2018, and the unpopularity of The Orange Julius, combined with kitchen table issues, and a fired up and motivated activist base, could well lead to ready for prime time Democratic candidates jumping into the fray to see if they can ride the rocket.
Because it all comes down to Donald Trump, and he ain’t going to get any better. The clock is running on the deadline for a new trade deal with China, and Trump doesn’t seem either worried or serious about the negotiations. a new round of trade sanctions against china could turn the keys in the ignition of the recession engine. Guess what? People in red states get tax refunds too, and reporting is already showing that people are pissed about their tax refunds being about 8% lower than they were last year. It turns out that people may not notice an extra $6 in their paycheck every two weeks, but when that $12 a month ends up short sheeting them about $150 in their tax return they sure as shit notice that! Doug Jones proved that a shitty enough candidate, and a fired up African American base can flip one of the reddest Senate seats in the country. well, McConnell is going to have pretty thin gruel to surp on when it comes to his candidate pot in 2020, so he better hope that no more GOP Senators decide to sail off into the sunset. Just sayin’.
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