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Rating changes: Texas and Minnesota Senate races shift the Democrats’ way

Cornyn remains the favorite, but defending his seat could cost the GOP resources

 Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas,  is still favored for reelection next year, but may have to work harder than past Republicans as the state trends more Democratic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
 Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas,  is still favored for reelection next year, but may have to work harder than past Republicans as the state trends more Democratic. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The fight for Senate control is still taking shape and, less than 16 months before Election Day, two states appear to moving in the Democrats’ direction on the battlefield.

Donald Trump came within about a point and a half of winning Minnesota in the 2016 presidential election. But that might be the new high-water mark for Republicans, and the GOP will have a hard time unseating Democratic Sen. Tina Smith in 2020.

Democrats have a 52-43 percent advantage statewide, according to the Inside Elections Baseline, which includes all statewide and House results over the most recent four election cycles. Republicans took a half-hearted shot at Smith last cycle, when she was on the ballot for the first time as a senator, but state Sen. Karin Housley lost by more than 10 points.

Housley recently announced she will not challenge Smith in 2020. That’s not a huge loss for Republicans considering she underperformed a generic GOP candidate with her 42 percent showing. But Republicans also lack immediate, strong alternatives.

Former Rep. Jason Lewis, who lost reelection last fall by more than 5 points, is publicly considering a comeback attempt in the 2nd District or a Senate run. And former 21st Century Fox executive Bill Guidera, a onetime finance chairman for the Republican Party of Minnesota, is seriously exploring a run.

Any GOP Senate nominee in the North Star State will start as a distinct underdog and will likely depend on Trump over-performing at the top of the ticket to boost the party’s chances against Smith. That’s not likely to happen at this point. We’re changing our rating of the Minnesota Senate race from Likely Democratic to Solid Democratic.

Texas distraction

After Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s meteoric rise in 2018, everyone cares about Senate races in Texas again. It had been awhile since the Lone Star State received that sort of attention, considering Democrats hadn’t won a Senate contest there since Ronald Reagan was president.

But even though three-term GOP Sen. John Cornyn still has the advantage in 2020, the race is likely to gain more attention as the cycle develops and could affect the battle for control of the Senate, even if it never becomes a Toss-up race.

Last cycle, O’Rourke outperformed the Democratic baseline of the state (41 percent) while losing to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz 51 percent to 48 percent. The 2018 results shouldn’t be dismissed, but also shouldn’t be treated as the new floor for a statewide Democrat in Texas.

This cycle’s Democratic field is still unclear. Air Force combat veteran MJ Hegar lost a race for the 31st District last fall but is the initial front-runner for the 2020 Senate nomination after raising $1 million in April, May and June. (For some comparison, O’Rourke took in $2.1 million before June 30, 2017, in his race against Cruz, eventually raising $80 million for the cycle.) Not only will any Texas Democrat struggle to match O’Rourke’s fundraising, but Cornyn also starts in a better financial position. Cruz had $5.7 million on hand on June 30, 2017, while Cornyn had $7.4 million in the bank on March 31, 2019. Second quarter Federal Election Commission reports are due July 15.

Hegar also likely needs to budget for a primary race. Houston City Councilwoman Amanda Edwards and state Sen. Royce West are seriously considering bids, and other Democrats are running, including Sema Hernandez, an under-funded candidate who received 24 percent in the 2018 primary against O’Rourke.

The primary is early enough for Democrats to regroup before the general election, but that could require some resources that would otherwise be spent against Cornyn. Rather than attacking the senator for being too extreme, Democrats are more likely to paint him as being too close to “special interests.” But it’s too early to know how well the message will resonate.

The bigger question is how quickly Texas is changing. Democrats picked up two House seats in 2018 and have their eyes on a half-dozen more in 2020. And an early June poll by Quinnipiac University showed Trump struggling to break away from a handful of Democratic challengers in hypothetical matchups in the Lone Star State.

It’s not that the Texas Senate race has moved dramatically in the Democrats’ direction in the last six months. But it’s more likely that Republicans will have to spend some time or money (or a combination of the two) defending the seat. That would be a small victory for Democrats because it could take GOP resources away from other states.

We’re changing our rating of the Texas Senate race from Solid Republican to Likely Republican.

Path to victory

With the Minnesota and Texas changes, the overall Senate battleground still sits at 10 states: three currently held by Democrats and seven by Republicans.

To gain Senate control, Democrats need to win six of those 10 seats and the White House to have the vice president break any tied votes. For an outright majority, Democrats need to win seven of those seats. That’s possible, but still not the most likely scenario at this stage of the cycle. But, similar to winning in Texas, Republicans can’t assume that maintaining control of the Senate is a foregone conclusion.

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