Senate Democrats want you to forget about Stacey Abrams, Steve Bullock and Beto O’Rourke.
Instead, they’re hoping voters can get pumped about Theresa Greenfield, Cal Cunningham and Sara Gideon.
After their highest-profile recruits passed on Senate campaigns, Democrats are relying on a collection of relatively unknown and untested candidates to retake the Senate in 2020 — a challenging task given a map tilted toward Republican territory. But what the recruits lack in name ID, party leaders say, they compensate for with their profiles: Several are women and military veterans, boasting the type of résumés that Democrats rode to the House majority last year.
“These are sort of on the 2018 House model,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview of recently announced candidates. “Most of them are not traditional, old-time politicians. They are new, fresh-faced.”
Democrats need to net three Senate seats to win control of the chamber — four if they fail to win back the White House. But they’re competing in only two states that President Donald Trump lost in 2016, while also defending a seat in deep-red Alabama that will be difficult to win back unless controversial Republican Roy Moore wins the nomination again.
“They’re struggling for direction and a message,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Todd Young (R-Ind.).
But Democrats argue that with Trump’s approval underwater in battleground states like Colorado, Arizona and Iowa, and a GOP primary brewing in North Carolina, they’re in position to take advantage of a potentially favorable environment.
Democrats are touting this as a fresh approach for 2020. For years they’ve relied on high-profile candidates with previous statewide victories and built-in fundraising networks — only to watch many of them blow winnable races.
Yet their latest recruiting strategy is as much out of necessity as by design. The party has been spurned by a number of coveted, would-be candidates, as it seeks to dislodge a Republican Senate that’s stymied House Democrats’ legislative agenda and installed a raft of Trump’s judicial picks.
“We’re at the beginning stages of these races,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We have until the end of this year to get folks into these Senate races and be formidable and take on these Republican incumbents who are unfavorable in their states. I’ve never had a concern about it.”
Republicans scoff at the Democratic optimism. They argue Democrats’ early recruiting misses forced them to back little-known candidates who will face competitive primaries that drain resources and damage their eventual nominees.
“Democrats have really struggled to find first-tier challengers in virtually all of these Senate races. The lone exception is Arizona,” said Senate Leadership Fund president Steven Law, referring to former astronaut Mark Kelly, who is challenging appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally. SLF is aligned with GOP leaders.
Democrats did miss on several high-profile recruits, including Abrams in Georgia and a trio of presidential candidates in Texas (O’Rourke), Colorado (John Hickenlooper) and Montana (Bullock). But they largely moved on from those potential candidates early in the cycle.
Democrats are most excited about Greenfield, who launched her campaign in Iowa this month and quickly earned endorsements from the DSCC and EMILY’s List, along with a host of Iowa Democrats. Greenfield ran for the House in 2018 but failed to make the ballot after her campaign manager, who hadn’t worked for Greenfield before, admitted to forging signatures. But Democrats are impressed by Greenfield’s retail political skills and say her background as a businesswoman who grew up on a family farm positions her well in the state.
In North Carolina, national Democrats also are closely watching Cunningham, an Army veteran and former state senator who recently switched to the Senate race after previously launching a bid for lieutenant governor. Party leaders haven’t backed him, but he did earn the endorsement of former Sen. Kay Hagan and the advocacy group VoteVets.
In Maine, state House Speaker Sara Gideon officially launched her campaign against Collins on Monday, several days after finishing her state legislative session. Gideon is likely to receive support from national Democrats — and in her launch video, she criticized Collins for voting for the 2017 tax reform bill and Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court.
Collins dismissed Gideon in an interview, saying she doesn’t “really know much about her” but said she assumes her opponent will be well-financed.
But in all three cases, Democrats face primaries: Three other candidates are running in North Carolina; two others are running in Iowa; and another candidate entered the race in Maine earlier this month ahead of Gideon’s official launch.
Democrats face other potential primaries in states where they’ve landed recruits. In Texas, veteran MJ Hegar is running against Sen. John Cornyn — but two other potential candidates are still weighing bids: Amanda Edwards, a Houston City Council member, and state Sen. Royce West, who has met with Schumer and the DSCC. In Colorado, a large and growing field of candidates has left the party without a clear frontrunner. They could also face a primary in Georgia, where Teresa Tomlinson, the former mayor of Columbus, is running but has not yet won over national Democrats. Sarah Riggs Amico, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, is considering a bid and has begun lining up potential strategists for a campaign.
“There are times when primaries can be destructive,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I). “But there are also times when the primary gives a candidate, particularly a less well-known candidate, a chance to really get out there and show their stuff. And it can be an accelerator."
Democrats have traditionally aimed to avoid messy Senate primaries but are taking their chances this time around. Cortez Masto said there was no template for endorsements, and in some cases they would step in and in others they would wait for candidates to emerge.
“The most important part of a good candidate is fire in the belly,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a former DSCC chairman, who said he recently spoke with Greenfield and Jaime Harrison, who is running in South Carolina. “They appear to me to be highly motivated to run hard races.”
Democrats smell blood broadly across the map, arguing that Trump’s poor poll numbers in several Senate battlegrounds gives them an opportunity to keep states in play where they’re not necessarily expected to be competitive.
“The Trump numbers suggest two things to us: his vulnerability and a massive historic turnout,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.
Iowa exemplifies that confidence. Trump won it easily in 2016, but the state split last year, with Democrats flipping two battleground House seats while Republicans narrowly retained the governorship. Democrats think Trump’s standing has eroded in the state — Morning Consult’s latest Iowa tracking poll shows Trump with a 42 percent approval rating and 54 percent disapproval.
“The atmospherics in Iowa have really shifted against the Republican Party,” state Democratic state Chairman Troy Price. “The president’s fortunes in the state are not in a good spot.”
Still, Sen. Joni Ernst consistently polls ahead of Trump in the state, and Republicans are confident she will be well-positioned, regardless of the political environment. She kicked off her campaign last weekend with her annual Roast and Ride event, with former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley helping to draw a strong turnout.
In Texas, where Democrats hope to compete at all levels after O’Rourke’s narrow loss last year, Sen. John Cornyn is running as if he’s expecting his toughest race yet. He said he expects from 10 million to 11 million votes to be cast in the state, which would represent massive increases from both 2016 and 2018.
“It’s going to be house-to-house, hand-to-hand combat,” Cornyn said. “My goal is to earn every vote the president gets, but to add to that.”