Early Look at the 2020 Senate Races, Part 2: The Midwest

Today, this writer looks at 2020 Senate races in the Midwest from the Rust Belt through the Farm Belt.  As previously explained, if the incumbent is running, their approval and disapproval ratings according to Morning Consult are included in parentheses.  As a reminder, incumbents start to get in dicey territory when their approval rating dips below 45%.

ILLINOIS

Richard, or the more aptly-named “Dick,” Durbin (37/35) is the Democratic incumbent.  He is also the Senate’s Minority Whip meaning he is in a position of power within the Democratic hierarchy in the Senate.  That means with an elevated profile, he also takes on his share of criticism for gridlock in the Senate.  Make no mistake- Durbin is about as liberal as they come.  Since entering the Senate, his closest race was in 2014 when he won by 9 points.  That year, Republican opponent Jim Oberweis won the overwhelming majority of Illinois counties, yet it was Chicago and its suburbs that decided the election… again.  First, he will have to defeat primary challenger Anne Stava-Murray, a state representative who spent less than $30,000 to unseat an entrenched Republican.  Although the odds are long she can defeat the well-funded Durbin, inflicting damage can be done.

For the GOP, thus far, a viable candidate has not stepped forward.  One of the four declared candidates was actually convicted of health care fraud in 2018.  There are possibilities as two sitting Congressmen- Darrin LaHood and Rodney Davis have been mentioned.  Another is Erika Harold, a former Miss America and nominee for state attorney general in 2018.  Once you get away from the population centers in Illinois, especially Cook County, Durbin’s popularity and influence wanes.  Any Republican must make a dent there if they hope to unseat this incumbent.  Prediction: Democrat hold.

IOWA

Republican Joni Ernst (40/37) is up for reelection in 2020.  Although drawing no primary opposition, three Democrats are vying to take her on.  Two of them were candidates for the US House from the Third District.  The problem for Ernst, potentially, is that there is a long list of potential Democrats who still have time to enter the race including two state senators, a former governor, and the current state auditor, Rob Sand.

Because she has that relatively low approval rating with an almost identical disapproval rating, it is that other 23% of fence sitters who will decide the election.  And Ernst has to play it safe here.  She cannot be too pro-Trump, nor can she be too anti-Trump.  The President still enjoys a 44% approval rating in the state despite the stories that his trade war with China has hurt agricultural exports and Iowa farmers.  This race is no slam dunk for the GOP and one can be certain the Democrats will come hard and fast for this seat in a Presidential election year.  Prediction: Trump will push Ernst over the line in a close race- GOP hold.

KANSAS

Republican Pat Roberts is calling it quits and retiring creating an open race.  Before we call this one in the bag for the GOP, consider that Shanice Davis won a seat in the House from Kansas in 2018.  Although one should not think the tide is turning blue in Kansas (Trump has 49% approval), a Democrat with the right message can surprise, especially in an open race.  Thus far, the only Democrat in the race is former US attorney, Barry Grissom.  However, still undecided but mentioned as possible entries are Kathleen Sebelius and the aforementioned Davis.

On the GOP side so far is state treasurer Jake LaTurner, 2018 gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach (who lost), and former Chiefs defensive end David Lindstrom.  Kobach is the big name in the mix and is a conservative lightning rod for his hardline stances on immigration.  There is a slew of potential candidates on the Republican side still deciding.  In 2018, Kobach lost the election when more mainstream Republicans in the state endorsed the Democratic opponent and eventual winner, Laura Kelly, stating Kobach was too out of the mainstream.  In Kobach’s favor is his association with the Trump administration in a state where Trump holds high approval ratings.  At the very least, Kansas is in for a hard-fought, possibly entertaining Republican slugfest.  Prediction: GOP hold.

MICHIGAN

Gary Peters (33/23) is the Democratic incumbent and very liberal.  He won by 13 points in 2014 over Terri Lynn Land.  Only former gubernatorial losing candidate Abdul El-Sayed has been mentioned as a potential primary opponent.  On the other side, it is likely that John James, a Republican African-American businessman, will get the nod for the GOP.  In 2018, he ran against a better-liked Debbie Stabenow for the Senate and lost.  But what should excite the GOP is that he lost by only 6 points in a midterm year that saw GOP losses elsewhere.

Peters is less liked and less known than Stabenow.  As the numbers above show, 44% have no opinion.  That is not necessarily good news for an incumbent, nor is a 33% approval rating.  This is a unique opportunity for the GOP to pick up a seat in the Senate.  Previous commentary here at Redstate during the 2018 election was highly positive of James.  Trump endorsed James six days before the Michigan primary and twice considered him to replace Nikki Haley at the UN.  Some have argued that if the GOP had spent more effort in the general election campaign in 2018, he may have pulled off a victory.  The help came too little, too late.  Let’s not make the same mistake.  NOTE:  Trump still enjoys a 43% approval rating in Michigan.  Prediction:  TOSS UP

MINNESOTA

Tina Smith (42/24) entered the Senate after being appointed to replace Al Franken who had resigned.  In a 2018 special election, she defeated Republican Karin Housley by 11 points.  Housley has ruled out another run in 2020.  No Republicans have entered the race yet, but there are potential candidates including Mike Lindell of My Pillow fame.  In 2016, Trump lost Minnesota by about 2 points.  Today, he enjoys a 42% approval rating in a state that is considered blue.  They have given us Amy Klobuchar, Tina Smith (a rabid pro-choicer), Mark Dayton, Al Franken and Ilhan Omar.  But, if you get away from Hennepin county (Minneapolis-St.Paul), the state has a strong conservative streak.  Hopefully, the GOP can field a strong, viable candidate in 2020 to at least make this race interesting.  Prediction:  Democrat hold.

NEBRASKA

This is Ben Sasse’s (49/27) race for the taking.  The problem is, he has not officially announced he is running for reelection, although this writer puts the odds at greater than 65%.  The problem for many here is that Sasse is great at signaling virtue on social media and short on legislative achievements.  Three unknown Democrats have declared their candidacy.  Trump enjoys a 50% approval rating in this state.  If an open race, it may prompt Congressman Jeff Fortenberry to enter on the GOP side.  Prediction:  GOP hold.

OKLAHOMA

In Oklahoma, Republican incumbent Jim Inhofe (39/38) has not decided on another run for the Senate.  As a result, there are no declared candidates on either side.  One name mentioned should Inhofe retire is former EPA director Scott Pruitt who remains fairly popular in the state.  On the Democratic side is the possibility of Kendra Horn who won a House race in 2018 and three state legislators.  This is strong Trump territory (54% approval) so any Democratic candidate has to tread carefully here, especially on the issues of energy and impeachment.  Perhaps, Inhofe sees those approval ratings and is thinking hard and long.  Regardless, one should not expect a Democratic upset here unless the eventual Republican candidate is a dumpster fire.  Prediction:  GOP hold

SOUTH DAKOTA

Although there are no declared Democrats, Republican Mike Rounds (56/28) has drawn a primary opponent in 42-year-old, female state representative Scyller Borglum (no relation to the Mt. Rushmore guy) who came out swinging at Rounds.  Self-described as a “commonsense conservative,” she derided Rounds for being part of Washington gridlock and aligning herself with Trump on many issues, although statistics shows Rounds supports Trump 90% of the time.  She claimed that because many have abandoned commonsense conservatism, people are leaving the GOP and that may be the reason for Republican Kristi Noem’s narrow gubernatorial victory in 2018.  Her campaign thus far describes her as an outsider although a spokesman for Rounds calls her candidacy “bizarre” since, on policy, she is running slightly to the left of Rounds.  Within hours of the announcement, the NRSC immediately threw their support behind Rounds.

Considering a run on the Democratic side are two female state legislators, a former US attorney, and Billie Sutton, who narrowly lost the gubernatorial race to Noem in 2018.  Prediction:  GOP hold, but a race to watch.

Tomorrow:  The South