A Look Ahead

Top 5 Washington Predictions for 2020

Expensive Senate races expected, Democratic primary fight will take a while, and presidential election to be close

Getty Images / Morning Consult illustration by Samantha Elbouez
December 18, 2019 at 12:01 am ET

Democrats will have the fight of their lives on their hands in 2020 as they defend their House majority, make a run for control of the Senate and attempt to dethrone President Donald Trump at the ballot box following a Senate trial that is expected to end with his acquittal.

2020 will also have implications beyond the presidential election, with legitimate questions looming about the government’s readiness for the decennial census, which serves as the basis for congressional districts that will reshape Congress for the next decade.

The presidential election will be close

Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University who notably broke from the status quo by correctly predicting Trump’s 2016 victory, said that the 2020 contest is too close to call based on the scale he’s used to successfully predict 10 presidential elections, using 13 “keys.” 

“The incumbent Republicans are down four to five keys, meaning there’s not quite enough yet to predict their defeat, but quite a few keys could still turn,” he said in an interview. “In the age of Trump, things can change dramatically in a day or week or month.”

When it comes to Trump’s electoral map, Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former top aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the Republican National Committee, said Michigan and Wisconsin will be closely watched. He also predicted a Trump victory in North Carolina, where Democrats’ hopes are high after Trump won by fewer than 4 points in 2016.

Jim Manley, who served as a top aide to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said the possibility that Trump wins the election is real but that Democrats will be armed with strong voter turnout.

“He’s betting on rallying his base, but I’m confident that his outrageous conduct is going to drive more Democrats to the polls,” he said. 

Republicans will continue to stick with Trump

While Trump has a handful of vocal critics and faces low-key Republican primary challengers next year, there are no significant cracks emerging in Trump’s support among the party’s faithful — both officials and voters.

As impeachment moves from the House to the Senate, Republican senators — often wary of criticizing Trump — are likely to stick with the president on the question of whether he should be removed from office. 

Heye said he expects very few, if any, Senate Republicans to defect, pointing only to Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as a wild card. 

Manley said it’s most likely that zero Senate Republicans vote to convict Trump. 

Among GOP voters, enthusiasm toward Trump’s performance strengthened throughout 2019 to its best point since the first few months of his presidency.

Eric Ostermeier, a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, said by email that the strength of Trump’s approval could decline if people such as John Bolton, Trump’s ex-national security adviser, were to testify or speak out against the president. (Bolton is set to publish a book in 2020.)

The Democratic presidential race won’t wrap up quickly

Democratic strategists said they do not expect the Democratic presidential field to winnow early.

“I think you’re going to see more than one person coming out of the first four states with momentum,” said Adrienne Elrod, noting the lack of clarity in Iowa and New Hampshire and former Vice President Joe Biden’s expected strength in South Carolina and Nevada.

While she doesn’t expect the initial nominating contests to be decisive, Elrod, who served as director of strategic communications for Hillary Clinton in 2016, was dubious about the prospect of a contested July convention in Milwaukee, instead expecting Democrats to begin coalescing behind a nominee in the spring — even if the delegate math does not add up by then.

The notion of a contested convention, which Manley views as troubling and divisive for a party that needs to be united to beat Trump, is not entirely being ruled out though.

“What had been laughed off months ago, some of the smart folks are taking it somewhat seriously. There’s not a lot of movement in the race,” said Manley.

The fight for the Senate will be expensive

Just eight Democrats are up for re-election next year, compared with 25 Republicans, including those in top Democratic targets such as Arizona, North Carolina and Colorado, where Heye said to expect heavy spending next year.

But aside from the closely contested races in those states, two nonpartisan political analysts — Nathan Gonzales of Inside Elections and Ostermeier, who is behind the website Smart Politics — said by email that they expect Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s own bid for re-election in Kentucky to be one of the most expensive in 2020 as he is likely to face the well-funded Democrat Amy McGrath. 

“The odds are strong that the Majority Leader will make decisions in the forthcoming U.S. Senate impeachment trial that will anger and fire up Democrats and liberals nationwide,” Ostermeier said. “It may not carry McGrath across the finish line, but it should generously fill her campaign coffers.” 

An analysis by OpenSecrets shows North Carolina and Colorado’s contests were the most expensive races in 2014, the last time the seats up this cycle were on the ballot. McConnell’s last re-election campaign was also one of the most expensive, with nearly $85 million spent including spending from outside groups.

Since then, according to OpenSecrets, the average spending by a Senate race winner has increased roughly $5 million per campaign, to $16 million in 2018, a figure that’s expected to increase. 

Census count will be a challenge

Along with next year’s elections, the United States will conduct the decennial census, an exercise in counting the population that will have political implications for the decade to come since it serves as the basis for congressional reapportionment.

Howard Fienberg, vice president of advocacy at the Insights Association and co-director of The Census Project, said the government has not adequately prepared for the census, particularly in rural and tribal areas, due to inadequate funding. 

“There is a reasonable concern that because they keep jerking around on funding and take so long in Congress to get around to finalizing the funding that it could have downstream effects on the data,” he said. “Nothing is certain because we didn’t do enough testing.” 

He said an accurate count is all the more important with roughly 1 in 5 states — including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania — on the bubble of losing a seat in Congress at the end of the count. 

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