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Democrats’ presidential also-rans could be key to battle for the Senate in 2020

Former astronaut Mark Kelly, right, shown with his twin brother Scott Kelly, has no political experience as he takes on Martha McSally for U.S. Senate. That’s not necessarily a negative today.
Former astronaut Mark Kelly, right, shown with his twin brother Scott Kelly, has no political experience as he takes on Martha McSally for U.S. Senate. That’s not necessarily a negative today. Undated NASA photo

Voters not on vacation will likely be closely watching this week’s Democratic primary debates. But so will party leaders in a handful of key states.

These are the last debates under the low qualification bar initially set by the Democratic National Committee. The criteria will be considerably tougher for the next set of debates, Sept. 12-13.

Which means that by then or shortly after, some of the 24 candidates currently building national name recognition will likely be dropping out of the presidential race. And they might be persuaded to help the Democratic Party seize control of the Senate from Republicans in 2020.

That will be a crucial struggle because of the Senate’s ability to confirm or reject a president’s judicial nominees and block the other party’s legislation sent over by the House. So far, President Donald Trump has nominated 191 federal judges; 127 have been confirmed. And 127 vacancies remain.

Currently, the GOP and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell control the Senate with 53 seats to 47 in the Democrats’ caucus. That means capturing just three more of the 34 seats up for grabs in 2020 would create a 50-50 tie, leaving Senate control to the vice president of the party that won the White House.

This time, Republicans must defend 22 of the 34 seats up for reelection. But that’s not as difficult as it might seem. Fifteen of those 22 seats are safely Republican by tradition, history and Trump’s showing last time.

For Democrats, seven of the 12 seats they’re defending seem safely noncompetitive. Alabama, however, seems virtually lost already this time; Trump carried that state by 28 points, but Judge Roy Moore blew it for the GOP.

If Republicans bounce back there, then Democrats must win four other GOP seats, plus the White House to grab Senate control.

Arizona, which Donald Trump took by only four points, could be one possible gain. There, ex-astronaut Mark Kelly looks to challenge incumbent Martha McSally. Political experience once seemed a prerequisite for election to office. Kelly has none. But perhaps you’ve noticed that rule no longer seems to hold. Think Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Colorado, where Trump lost by five points, and first-term incumbent Republican Cory Gardner seems to have a shaky hold, could also be in play.

Maine is another possible Democratic pickup if the party’s nominee can make the race about Trump. He won two of the state’s four electoral votes. Sen. Susan Collins remains popular, despite her vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis defeated an incumbent Democrat in 2014, but only by two points. Trump carried the state by 3.5 points and orchestrated the 2020 national convention for Charlotte late next summer.

Two other possibilities to keep eyes on: Iowa and Texas. Trump took both states by nearly 10 points. But his trade war with China has hit Hawkeye corn and soybean farmers hard. Will his ethanol and makeup subsidies be enough to keep Sen. Joni Ernst in office?

In Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 leader John Cornyn is running (as is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky), and here comes the presidential dropout impact. Democratic party leaders hope to convince Robert Francis O’Rourke to focus instead on trying for the Senate again after losing his race against Sen. Ted Cruz last year by only 214,000 votes out of 8.3 million.

O’Rourke has been underwhelming in the presidential race, but could call on his national list of enthusiastic donors and name recognition to attempt to improve upon last year’s showing.

Colorado, where Trump lost by five points, and first-term Sen. Cory Gardner seems to have a shaky hold, could also be in play. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proven ability to win statewide and his failure to gain traction in the overcrowded Democratic presidential field have spurred a growing chorus of calls for him to challenge the Republican incumbent.

You’ve no doubt heard of Steve Bullock. No? He’s Montana’s term-limited Democratic governor who announced a presidential campaign. And that’s about all we’ve heard from him so far.

If he were to drop out, no one would notice. But the DNC would be on him fast to challenge incumbent GOP Senator Steve Daines.

Trump took Montana 56-36% in 2016. But if there’s an anti-Trump Democratic wave next year, anything’s possible.

Anything except probably not a senator moving into the White House. That once-august body, now peopled by millionaire blowhards, has become a nest of presidential ambitions. One-third of the Democratic field are senators.

Reality, however, rears its ugly head. In this country’s entire history only three sitting senators have become president — Warren Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. Both of them died two years into their first term.

The third was Barack Obama in 2008, who has yet to endorse his two-term vice president, Joe Biden.

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