Even after last year’s blowout midterm results for Democrats, the conventional wisdom was that even if 2020 was a good year for the party, winning a majority in the Senate was out of reach. The party is facing a “tough map”: Republicans have 22 seats up for grabs, but almost all of them are in states that Trump handily carried in 2016.
But of late, the odds have shifted, and in the Democrats’ favor. Suddenly, it looks like the Senate may be in play after all, simply because an incumbent decided to retire.
Georgia Sen. Johnny Isaakson announced late last month that he was retiring early due to health reasons. That means there will be two Senate seats on the ballot in the state next year. Republican Sen. David Perdue was already up for re-election at the end of his six-year term. But now the GOP will also have to field a candidate for the remaining two years of Isaakson’s term.
Georgia is not the Republican stronghold it once was. Last year, Democrat Stacey Abrams came within a little more than a single percentage point of winning the gubernatorial election. The winner, Brian Kemp, positioned himself as a mini-Trump and still only mananged to squeak by, apparently with the help of some voter suppression shenanigans.
Flipping the Senate would be a big break for the Democrat’s agenda. That’s especially true of the Equality Act, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights laws.
When the bill came up earlier this year, Republicans in the House did their best to kill the measure. When it did finally come to a vote, only eight Republicans voted in favor of it. (Two of them have since announced their retirement.) The bill was DOA in the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has ensured it will never come to a vote.
But if the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress, the bill would face much better odds. But even then, the Equality Act and other legislation would not necessarily be a slam dunk. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is nominally a Democrat, but he refused to endorse the Equality Act until the last minute. Manchin was one of the last Democratic holdouts agains marriage equality, proving that party affiliation doesn’t guarantee support for LGBTQ rights.
That means the Democrats would need to win more than a simple majority if they don’t want to be held hostage to Manchin’s more conservative inclinations. They’d also have to win the White House, of course, because there wouldn’t be enough votes to override the inevitable Trump veto.
All of these reasons make the huge presidential field all the more frustrating. Candidates who are scraping along in the low single digits, like Beto O’Rourke and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, would have a much better chance of success as Senate candidates. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper finally came to that conclusion after his presidential bid tanked, but only after he damaged his reputation as a result.
Lots of stars have to align for the Democrats to take control of the White House and Congress. But for now at least that looks a lot more like a possibility than it did just a little while ago.