More than a Presidential Race
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
In any discussion about 2020, there seem to be only two allowable topics: President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential primary. But while electing the de facto leader of the free world is important, the effectiveness of the president in 2021 hinges on the congressional elections.
The presidential race is all-consuming. I know from experience because when I’m on CNN, Trump and the Democrats are all I’m ever asked about at this point.
Every Trump tweet, comment, rally, hiring, firing, dinner order and golf outing receives exorbitant news coverage by nearly every media outlet. And with 23 Democrats running to defeat Trump, there is never any shortage of campaign activity or polling to report on, and nearly nightly town halls create more news.
But focusing on the presidential race misses more than half of the story of 2020.
If Trump or a new Democratic president faces a divided Congress, major legislation is practically dead on arrival. There aren’t enough truly moderate voters in the country or voices in Washington to motivate each party to leave their partisan bases for a compromise. Each party seems content to hold out for the opportunity to have full control of the legislative and executive branches in order to enact significant change.
That means any prospects for a Green New Deal, “Medicare for All,” an exhaustive border wall or packing the Supreme Court are dim without congressional majorities. But the Senate and House majorities are in play and within reach for the minority party next year.
Possible Paths for Party Flips
For a Senate majority, Democrats need a net gain of three or four seats, depending on the outcome of the presidential race. At this stage of the cycle, Republicans are likely to maintain a narrow majority. In the past 100 years, a party has flipped the White House and the Senate in the same cycle just three times. But there are enough competitive states to give Democrats a feasible path to victory.
For a House majority, Republicans need a net gain of 18 or 19 seats, depending on the outcome of the redo election in North Carolina’s 9th District in September. Even though it’s most likely Democrats will maintain a majority, there is a path to victory for Republicans through the 31 districts Trump carried in 2016 that are currently represented by a Democrat. But in the past 50 years, Republicans have gained more than 18 House seats in just one presidential election, and the GOP entered that race in such poor standing that the net gain didn’t even secure a majority.
Looking Down Ballot
Further down the ballot, races for state legislatures are particularly consequential in 2020. This cycle marks the last set of elections before the next census, reapportionment and redistricting. That means that, in many states, the next batch of elected state officials will draw the new congressional lines that will be in place for a decade.
Democrats learned that if you’re going to lose big in an election cycle, don’t do it in one that ends in zero, because you could be frozen out of the redistricting process in key states. That puts even more pressure on Republicans and Democrats to perform next year.
While the presidential race and news coverage will be suffocating over the next year and a half, don’t ignore the other races on the ballot, because those results will determine how much gets done in Washington and potentially shape Congress for years to come.
Nathan Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs
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