Of the 22 seats Senate Republicans have to defend in 2020, only two — Colorado and Maine — voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Which means that if Republicans win only the seats they hold in the states President Donald Trump carried in the last presidential race, they hold their Senate majority. (Democrats need to net three Senate seats if they win the White House and four if they don’t in order to retake control of the chamber following 2020.) That prospect seems entirely doable — especially when you consider that one of the 12 seats Democrats have to defend next November is in Alabama, where Trump won by 27 points in 2016.
Meet Kris Kobach and Roy Moore.
Both men are running for the Senate as Republicans — Kobach in Kansas, a candidacy he made official on Monday, and Moore in Alabama. And both men, if they wind up as the Republican nominees in their respective states, have a very real chance of losing a general election to a Democrats — despite the heavily Republican nature of both states.
Which would be a stunning blow to Senate Republicans’ majority math and would amount to the ultimate cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face move for a party which has proven to be skilled at self-sabotage — especially in the Senate in recent elections. And while neither Kobach nor Moore starts their races as prohibitive favorites, it’s not all that hard to see one or both of them winding up as the nominee.
Start with Kobach. A controversial former state party chair and secretary of state in Kansas, Kobach returned from a short stint as the chair of President Trump’s ill-fated election fraud commission to run for governor in 2018. He narrowly edged appointed Gov. Jeff Colyer in the Republican primary and went on to lose the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly — the first GOPer to lose a statewide race in the Sunflower State in nearly a decade.
Now, Kobach is back — seeing an opportunity created by the retirement of longtime Sen. Pat Roberts in 2020. Due to his name ID statewide and his past support from Trump — “if he loses, I’ll bring him into my administration in two seconds,” the President said of Kobach in October 2018 — Kobach is a force to be reckoned with in the still-forming GOP primary. Which, many Republicans worry, could put a Senate seat in jeopardy in a state where Democrats haven’t won a Senate race since 1932(!).
“L-O-S-E-R,” David Kensinger, campaign manager for Roberts and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, said in a text message to CNN when asked about Kobach’s candidacy, a swipe at a spelling error on Kobach’s filing forms.
“Kansas Republicans deserve a nominee who can win,” said the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, in a statement.
McConnell will be facing a challenge of his own in 2020, after Kentucky Democrat Amy McGrath, a former fighter pilot who rose to national prominence last year in a failed congressional campaign, announced Tuesday that she would run for his Kentucky Senate seat.
The situation is equally nightmarish for Senate Republicans with Moore in Alabama. Moore is a two-time chief justice of the state Supreme Court (he was removed from the office both times) who lost a seemingly can’t-lose 2017 special election for the seat of former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R). Moore fell to Democrat Doug Jones in that contest amid allegations of sexual assault and misconduct against Moore, who several women said pursued relationships with them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. (Moore denied all allegations and brought a lawsuit against three of the women; it remains in the legal system.)
That 2017 race is instructive — and not just because Moore lost. It’s actually his victory — over then-appointed Sen. Luther Strange in the 2017 primary — that has to really worry Republicans looking to preserve their Senate majority. In that special election primary, everyone from Trump to McConnell endorsed Strange — warning that nominating the controversial Moore could jeopardize Republican chances of holding the seat in the general election.
Didn’t matter. And in fact, there’s a case to be made that the establishment lining up behind Strange made Moore’s point for him — that he and his supporters were a David, challenging the big, bad political Goliath.
Which brings us back to the 2020 map. And Moore. And Kobach.
As I said above, neither should be considered the favorite in their respective races. But neither can they be dismissed. Both have active followings among the most conservative elements of the GOP. And in a fractured primary — which is already developing in Alabama and could happen in Kansas — their blocs of support might just be enough to win them the nominations. Which is a cataclysmic situation for the likes of McConnell.
Now, none of this may come to pass. Kobach and Moore might well flame out. They might watch the establishment effectively coalesce to keep them from winning. But the very fact they are both now in and running is bad news for Senate Republicans. Very bad news.