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Democrats’ path to the Senate runs straight through the Sun Belt

Sen. Martha McSally. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

To take back the White House, Democrats only need to win back three key Rust Belt states. But if they want to move a president’s agenda through the Senate, they have to flip the Sun Belt.

From Arizona to North Carolina to a pair of seats in Georgia, Democrats have to clean up in that stretch of the country to have any chance of taking the chamber.

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President Donald Trump carried each of those states in 2016, and in an era of polarized politics when Senate races are increasingly nationalized, Democrats need at least strong performances by the party’s presidential nominee in the Sun Belt states — if not victories — to have a shot at flipping their Senate seats. So while some Democrats are laser-focused on winning back the Rust Belt, Democrats across the Southern half of the country are urging their party to invest heavily in their states — not just as a way to flip the Senate, but as part of the path to 270 Electoral College votes.

“The path to the White House and the Senate majority must come through the Sun Belt and certainly must come through North Carolina,” said Wayne Goodwin, that state’s Democratic Party chairman. He referenced a House special election in the state last week that Republicans narrowly won in a district Trump carried by 12 points in 2016 as evidence of the party’s prospects. “Frankly, I think Republicans who are running statewide should be quaking in their boots for 2020.”

It’s not a simple equation for Democrats: Hillary Clinton’s campaign has been pilloried for investing resources in Arizona and Georgia, while overlooking Wisconsin and, to a lesser extent, Michigan. But Democrats don’t have Senate races in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania next year — in Michigan, they are defending Sen. Gary Peters — and investment in the emerging Sun Belt states will be critical down the ballot.

The question will remain unsettled until Democrats have a nominee — though many of the Senate states have relatively early primary contests, giving presidential contenders a chance to prove their mettle in potential battlegrounds.

“I think there’s both a Rust Belt and Sun Belt strategy that are not incompatible at all,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who has worked on presidential and Senate campaigns. He pointed to the party’s gains among suburban women, in particular, as something that occurred across regions. “There are several places in both the Sun Belt and Rust Belt where they could make the difference.”

Priorities USA, a top Democratic Super PAC, lists the three Rust Belt states as among their core battlegrounds for 2020, and has Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina among possible expansion states. Guy Cecil, the group’s chairman, pointed to the overlap between expansion states and Senate races at a briefing for reporters Monday and said they would take a “serious look” at potentially investing in these states because of the Senate. He said North Carolina and Arizona should be on “everyone’s target list,” and that there would be “robust conversations” around Georgia.

“No agenda passes, nothing gets done, we have a much harder time dealing with judges if there’s a Democratic president and a Republican Senate,” Cecil said.

Democrats in those states are echoing the message. As the presidential contenders flocked to Houston for a debate last week, Texas Democrats homed in on arguments for why it could finally be a true battleground. Challenging for Georgia’s 16 electoral votes would help the party contend for two Senate seats, including a special election for the seat Sen. Johnny Isakson will vacate when he resigns at the end of this year. And Arizona is seen as a potential opening after Trump carried it by less than 4 percentage points and Democrats won their first Senate race in three decades last year.

In Georgia, where Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in two decades, Stacey Abrams not running dampened the party’s chances to turn the race against Sen. David Perdue into a marquee matchup, and there is now a crowded primary of contenders. But the emergence of a second seat put the state squarely back into focus.

In a memo last week, Abrams detailed how 2020 candidates could build on her narrow defeat last year to put the state in play, both in the Senate races and at the presidential level. She called “any less than full investment” in the state “strategic malpractice.”

“Georgia faces historic electoral opportunities, and Democrats cannot achieve success nationally without competing and winning in Georgia,” she said.

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams not running dampened the party’s chances to turn the race against Sen. David Perdue into a marquee matchup. | Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Arizona represents a must-win for both parties. Last year, Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema defeated Republican Martha McSally, who was later appointed to the state’s other Senate seat and now faces a battleground race against Democrat Mark Kelly. Felecia Rotellini, the chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said they continue to build on the infrastructure and ground game from 2018.

“This is the first time in a very, very long time — in my lifetime — Arizona has been considered a battleground state,” she said. “We have to work harder, be more disciplined and be more organized in order to turn this state blue.”

North Carolina, which Barack Obama carried in 2008 and lost four years later, may represent Democrats’ best chance in the Sun Belt. The party’s candidate lost a special election in a conservative district last week, but Democrats were buoyed by their overperformance compared with 2016.

“I think if you look in places like Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina, they’re chock full of suburban women,” said John Anzalone, a veteran Democratic pollster. He pointed out that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who is up for reelection next year, won North Carolina in 2016 even as Trump carried the state. “You have to have the right type of nominee to win the race, but it’s not all about the top of the ticket.”

Thom Tillis, the first-term North Carolina senator, also faces a wealthy GOP primary challenger. Tillis recently launched his first ad of the cycle highlighting his endorsement from Trump — and in a local radio interview this week, he emphasized the importance of his state up and down the ballot.

“North Carolina is going to be ground zero of the Senate, keeping the majority. It’s going to be ground zero for the president winning his reelection,” Tillis said, adding that the GOP’s national party convention is in Charlotte.

Republicans scoffed at the Democratic optimism following the North Carolina special election, calling it a moral victory and downplaying concerns about the state.

“The voters that are going to decide the outcome in 2020 were not voting in the special election,” said Paul Shumaker, a top adviser Tillis. He called Democrats’ optimism after the loss “more of a PR spin than a reality supported by data.”

More broadly, Republicans aren’t sweating their standing in these states, although they acknowledge that at least several of these Senate races are likely to be highly competitive. They argue Democrats’ eventual presidential nominee is likely to provide plenty of fodder in a one-on-one matchup with Trump in states he carried.

“Democrats fail to recognize the socialist agenda being promoted by the loudest voices in their party render their Senate candidates unelectable in these reliably Republican states,” said Jesse Hunt, spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Mainstream voters are watching in horror as the Democratic Party embraces policies that eliminate employer-based health care and raise taxes on middle-class families.”

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