Is there a more villainous character currently in Congress than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell? It may be a tough call, with people like Jim Jordan, Louie Gohmert and Tom Cotton roaming the halls, but McConnell has done much to earn that distinction, starting with blocking even a floor discussion of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland during the final year of the Obama presidency, citing non-existent precedent, then bragging nothing would hold him back if another vacancy came up during the last year of Trump's tenure.
“Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell told an appreciative Chamber of Commerce audience in his home state of Kentucky last year, as reported by The New York Times.
But that bit of disingenuous statecraft is not the only reason why Democrats, and even a few Republicans, see him as contemptible. A fellow Kentucky politician Rep. John Yarmuth described him to the Washington Post as someone who, “gets up every day since [he was] 5 years old, and the first thing he thinks about is "What can I do to enhance my political power." And following a damning profile of McConnell in the New Yorker in April, one of his Kentucky constituents wrote to magazine to say, that although the author, Jane Mayer, had tried "again and again, to find someone who likes him," she had understandably failed; even his three daughters had declined to put in a good word. "In Mayer’s withering profile," the reader wrote, "we come to see that McConnell wears a hard, closed shell, and that there is nothing inside."
So, it's hard not to see the news coming out of Kentucky this election season and not feel a frisson of joy: The five-term senator is in his toughest political fight in years, with his predicted Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, closing on on the polls and out-fundraising McConnell by $41.1 million to $32.8 million, according to the latest numbers.
Who is this potential giant-slayer? McGrath is a retired Marine Corps fighter pilot who rose to prominence in 2018 when she narrowly lost her House bid in Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, and then quickly emerged as the Democrats best hope against McConnell. And while McGrath success isn't assured -- she faces an unexpectedly tough primary challenge this month by Charles Booker, a state lawmaker who has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Cook Political Report says the general election trends "likely Republican" -- the very fact that Kentucky may be in play has given Democrats across the country that the Senate is flippable in November.
In 2020, Democrats need to win back at least three seats to reclaim the majority -- while not losing Alabama, currently represented by Doug Jones and where Donald Trump has a 28-point net approval rating. If Jones loses, that means Democrats need to win four seats along with the White House (giving the party a tie-breaking vice president), or net five seats without having to rely on a Joe Biden victory.
The big factor in November, of course, is going to be that increasingly erratic, West-Point-ramp-stumbling man at the top of the Republican ticket. And Republican senators up for reelection are in a deliciously impossible situation. They can’t alienate Trump’s ever-dwindling base but they see the writing on the wall when it comes to their own races. Robert Costa and Philip Rucker recently wrote in The Washington Post that “Most of the Republican officeholders standing for reelection are counting on Trump’s core supporters to turn out — and after weathering more than 3½ years of political storms, they see no advantage in breaking with the president now.”
Yes, the Democrats can win the Senate, but they probably won't do so by taking Kentucky, as delightful a prospect as that is. And while there are several other state races -- like Georgia and South Carolina, for example, where the charismatic but annoying Jon Ossoff is challenging David Perdue and Jamie Harrison is waging a spirited campaign against Lindsey Graham-- that may be more competitive than in recent years, they still look like wishful thinking for the Democrats.
Instead, the Democrats might be wiser to focus their fund-raising and their firepower on five states that have the best chance to deliver the Senate back to the their party in November.
Maine: Maine is the home of the "very concerned" and "troubled" supposed moderate Susan Collins, who has voted with Trump 66.9 percent of the time and did not vote to impeach the president despite pretending to toy with the idea. Though the primary hasn’t happened yet (it was postponed till July 14), she will likely run against Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, a clear favorite on the Democratic side.Sara Gideon campaigning in Maine, where she is trying to unseat Susan Collins.Getty Images
Collins's vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh was the final straw for many women around the country, not just Maine, and has resulted in huge fundraising totals for Gideon. Plus, Collins may just have worn out her welcome with Maine voters. In a searing New York profile of the Maine senator earlier this year, Rebecca Traister wrote, "Choosing between a party that now demands total fealty and a constituency she’s promised independence, Collins — a woman who has built her image around being a careful, thoughtful decision-maker — appears to have made no decision at all about the best way to keep her power. Instead, she is hoping that she can pretend to do both without anyone noticing."
People have noticed: The latest polls have Gideon leading Collins by 9 points.
Arizona: In 2018, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat in 30 years to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Arizona. This year, former astronaut, Mark Kelly may join her. Kelly, the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, is currently running 13 points ahead of the sitting senator, Martha McSally, who was appointed to this seat (held by the late John McCain) in 2019 after losing in 2018 to Sinema. Since then, she hasn't won many new fans with stunts like calling a CNN reporter a "liberal hack" when he tried to ask her a question about Trump's impeachment, and then using that moment in a cringe-making fund-raising commercial. Oh, and it didn't even seem to work. According to the latest figures, Kelly has $19.7 million in his war chest, almost double that of McSally. The last time Arizona had two Democratic senators serving simultaneously was in 1952 (Ernest McFarland and Carl Hayden). That streak looks like is about to come to an end.
Colorado: The Centennial State went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and three years of Donald Trump have not made the state any redder. A May 3rd poll showed former governor John Hickenlooper leading incumbent Cory Gardner 54% to 36%, even though Hickenlooper, briefly a presidential candidate this year, hasn't even won the Democratic primary yet. Hickenlooper, a former small-business owner who opened the first brewpub in Colorado, was heavily recruited by state Democrats to challenge Gardner, and the Cook Political Report is calling this race a toss-up.
Montana: There are Senate seats that in a normal election cycle might be a fantasy for Democrats but are now looking winnable -- and and Montana is one. Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016, but recent polls have the Democrat (and popular two-time governor) Steve Bullock beating incumbent Steve Daines by 7 points. Bullock raised about $2.4 million in the first half of the second quarter, according to his campaign’s latest filing with the Federal Election Commission. while Daines raised $1.3 million.Recent polls in Iowa have Democrat Theresa Greenfield leading the incumbent Republican, Joni ErnstGetty Images
Iowa: A few months ago, it looked like Joni Ernst, the first-time senator, would have a relatively easy road to re-election. But the recent Democratic primary win by Theresa Greenfield, a well-financed real estate executive and political neophyte, has shaken up the race. According to a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, Greenfield leads Ernst by 3 percentage points. According to the poll, 46% of likely voters say they would back Greenfield if the election were held today, and 43% say they would back Ernst. Support from women voters was even more striking: Women polled choose Greenfield by 20 percentage points, 54% to 34%. One more good sign for Greenfield: Although Trump carried the state by 9 percentage points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Democrats flipped two congressional seats in 2018.
If Democrats want to win, they should think like Republicans, and focus on seats where the numbers are on their side. A Montana senate race featuring two old white guys arguing about cattle isn’t sexy but it’s a seat. Mitch McConnell may be one of the worst people in the world, but he knows how to win elections. If Democrats could just try to channel a little of his ruthlessness when it comes to running their Senate candidates, they just might displace him.