Top-of-Ticket Mystery for Democrats Will Shape Every Senate Race

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The Senate campaign playing field is set, save for one big piece: the Democratic presidential nominee.

Saturday’s Nevada caucuses are next up in a presidential primary process that could go on for months. Who ends up at the top of the ticket is the greatest remaining variable in the Senate majority fight, with year-end fundraising reports in, candidate recruitment concluded, and congressional primary season kicking off in less than two weeks.

While a few Senate primaries could affect how expansive the competitive map becomes, the great unknown above them on the ballot is likely to become a defining story line in each race. And the lingering plot twist is intensified by the varied candidates, both in ideology and style, who were on display in Wednesday’s debate in Las Vegas.

In an election in which Democrats hope to put Republican incumbents on the defensive over President Donald Trump and his administration, they also must navigate their own ticket-topping complication.

“It will be easier for some of these Senate candidates who are more centrist if there’s someone who is more in line with their issue positions,” said Jill Normington, a Democratic pollster. “But it could also be a way for a Senate candidate to say, ‘I’m not like them.’”

The nominee’s effect on down-ballot races is two-fold. The collapse of split-ticket voting — in 2016 every state hosting a Senate race voted for the same party at the presidential and Senate levels — combined with Republicans’ plans to cast the Democratic presidential nominee as a socialist, particularly if it’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), could complicate messaging for moderate Democrats in states Trump won in 2016.

That adds strain on Democrats’ need to gain at least three seats to win the majority, especially with only two offensive targets in states Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Along with those states, Colorado and Maine, their best opportunity is in Arizona, a presidential swing state where Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D) was elected in 2018. Beyond that, the party is playing offense in North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, and Kansas, where Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in at least 12 years.

Meanwhile, Democrats’ two most vulnerable seats are in states that went red in the last presidential race, Alabama and Michigan.

“The map is shaping up to be pretty much what everyone expected at the outset of the cycle,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg
Presidential candidates stand on stage ahead of the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020.

Who can best help win the Senate majority has become a wedge issue in the presidential race. In the debate Wednesday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) emphasized the importance of “winning the Senate races in Arizona and in Colorado and beyond” and cited the importance of sending Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “packing.”

“I am the one that can lead this ticket,” Klobuchar said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has also made the case that he is best positioned to help down-ballot in swing states. “You have to ask yourself: Who is most likely to help get a senator elected in North Carolina, Georgia?” he said in the Feb. 7 debate in New Hampshire.

Distinguished by Dollars

Democratic campaigns have been proactive in defining themselves apart from the eventual nominee, regardless of who it ends up being. Democratic consultants said that as they await a result and prepare to adjust their messaging as needed, the fundraising success their party’s candidates have seen so far will make running an individualized campaign possible.

In Arizona, retired astronaut Mark Kelly raised $20.2 million in 2019, the most of any Senate campaign. Other top challengers in must-win states, including Maine state House Speaker Sara Gideon and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, also raised strong sums last year.

“These Senate candidates have significant budgets to make their own case,” said Martha McKenna, a media consultant who led independent expenditure efforts last cycle at the DSCC.

“A lot of times, down-ballot, it’s harder” for a campaign to create its own narrative apart from the presidential nominee, she added. “But when you’re Sara Gideon and you already have $8 million to make your case in Maine against Susan Collins, I’m not sure that it matters as much.”

Still, while Democrats are enjoying a green wave of fundraising, the trend away from split-ticket voting looms. The 2016 uniformity was “unprecedented, but not necessarily shocking,” said Eric Ostermeier, a political research fellow at the University of Minnesota. In addition to increasing partisanship among voters, a party’s national brand is becoming more difficult to escape in a polarized environment exacerbated by a 24/7 news cycle and social media.

“What is considered distasteful for an independent or a slight partisan on one side or another,” he said, “it becomes more and more difficult for them to split their ticket because that candidate becomes tied to the standard-bearer for their party.”

Rodd McLeod, a Democratic political consultant in Arizona who is working with Kelly, said in the past he’s seen down-ballot candidates successfully define their positions and separate from their party’s national message. But he acknowledged that Sanders, a self-identified democratic socialist , topping the ticket would make it more difficult for moderates running for seats in both chambers facing competitive races, some of whom spoke up last week after he narrowly won the New Hampshire primaries.

“Sanders would not be our best nominee, and I think he would make it harder for Democrats in tough districts,” McLeod said. “But I think the Democrats will be smart enough to lay out their case, where they stand, and show they are not a carbon copy of Bernie Sanders.”

The Defining Has Already Begun

Republicans are already tying Democrats to Sanders, who has centered his campaign on proposals such as Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and canceling student debt. That complicates candidates’ balancing act of appealing to moderates while not losing the progressive left.

“It will be really, really difficult for them to inoculate themselves from Republican attacks as they’re trying to do both, when a lot of voters don’t know who they are,” Hunt said.

Both sides already have taken to the airwaves. Better Futures Michigan, a group with Republican ties, attacked Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) in an ad featuring short clips of Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The ad initially said Peters “endorsed” Medicare for All, but the group had to change it to “supported” after Peters’ campaign challenged the assertion.

In Kentucky, Amy McGrath, who is challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, recently released an ad in which she explicitly states she is against “free college” and “Medicare for All.” Other Democrats working to unseat incumbent Republicans in Maine, Colorado and Arizona have all distanced themselves from Medicare for All, emphasizing they support allowing those who like their private health care plans to keep them.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss said Senate candidates are “squarely focused on making sure they are positioned to win in November no matter who is at the top of the ticket.”

(Michael Bloomberg is also seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Bloomberg is the majority owner of Bloomberg Government’s parent company.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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