The Democrats Should Try the Sun Belt Strategy in 2020

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Democrats should be encouraged by their recapturing of the House of Representatives, but results in the Senate should give them cause for concern in 2020. While not all races have been called, the path to what Democrats really want in 2021 — the presidency and control of both houses of Congress — got tougher last night, and may force Democrats to try an untested electoral strategy.

There will be a lot of noise about the Democratic presidential primary, with maybe a dozen or more candidates and debates about whether the party should be focused more on identity politics or economically based concerns. But what it really comes down to is whether the party wants to try to win back the Midwestern states that President Donald Trump flipped in 2016, or try to win new territory in Sun Belt states with changing demographics.

It’s not clear that Democrats have the roster to energize both regions. Candidates like Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio may give the party better chances in the Midwest, but at the cost of lower turnout in younger, more diverse electorates in states like Arizona and Georgia. Conversely, a candidate like Senator Kamala Harris of California, who could energize African-American voters in the South, may turn off white voters in the heartland. Losses by Democratic senators in North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana show how difficult it might be for Midwestern Democrats to shake off the evolving national identity of the party, particularly in a race that’s likely to be as polarizing as the 2020 presidential election.

As Democrats mull over these differing approaches, the tiebreaker might be the 2020 Senate map. The Senate races in the Midwest — Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa — seem less likely to be competitive than those in the Sun Belt. Democrats are increasingly competitive in Arizona, Texas, Georgia and North Carolina, for instance.

If Democrats want to be able to actually do anything, winning the Senate in 2020 is crucial. The emerging norm in American politics is that the president needs a majority in the Senate to support and enact an agenda. That’s become clear with Supreme Court nominations, but it may become equally true for Cabinet appointments and other nominations. A world where Democrats win the presidency in 2020, but Republicans maintain a Senate majority, could be a new kind of not just for disaster for democracy — and American governance as a whole, if Republicans refuse to let the president form a Cabinet.

The path to a Democratic Senate majority in 2021 probably runs through at least one or two seats in the Sun Belt. A Midwest-centered 2020 electoral strategy for Democrats would provide a hollow victory at best. Whether they want to or not, Democrats have to embrace the progressive energy of politicians like Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke in order to govern again.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Conor Sen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.

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