2020: Will Independents Decide?

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2020 is shaping up to be a wild election year. After months of civil unrest induced by police violence, a deadly pandemic running roughshod over the country, and an economic recession, it seems political sides have only hardened.

The Republican Party has gone full-in for President Trump with fringe candidates becoming a bigger factor in the equation. Several supporters and sympathizers of the QAnon conspiracy have won Republican primaries and will be running for congressional seats.

The Democratic Party is also experiencing a growing split, despite nominating one of the most moderate candidates within their presidential primary, former President Joe Biden. Members of the left-wing “Squad” posted big incumbent wins, and progressive challengers like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush knocked off long-serving establishment Democrats.

Here you might be thinking, so how is this the year of the independent voter then?

To answer that, we have to look at key Senate and House races that threaten to turn the tide of Congress, and who both respective parties are wooing as they vie to take control of the coveted legislative branch of government.

Key Races

While some House primaries have seen more left Democrats and more right Republicans win, many of these were already in solid hands of the incumbent party. Tossup elections that could go one way or the other tell a very different story about what bets the parties are making.

The coronavirus pandemic and its massive economic fallout have reshaped the potential of the 2020 election. A quick look at presidential polls shows Biden’s lead over Trump has doubled from just under 4% in February to nearly 8% in a national polling average according to FiveThirtyEight.

What to some is the writing on the wall seems to have genuinely worried the President who has suggested postponing the election and reportedly privately lamented that he might be a one-term president.

This perceived weakness at the top of the ballot has thrown multiple Republican Senate seats into question. A handful of races are looking close enough to potentially turn the Republican-controlled Senate in what previously was viewed as a shoo-in for Republicans to hold.

But unlike the warnings from the White House that Biden and the Democrats are socialists looking to destroy the country, many of the Democratic candidates in these races are mainstream moderate Democrats.

The University of Virginia, Politico, and The Cook Political Report all project the outcomes of Senate and House races based on polling, and three of the tightest races tell a lot about the Democratic strategy to take the Senate.

Three States in Contention

Colorado, North Carolina, and Maine have three Senate races with Republican incumbents at risk of losing their seat to a highly-funded Democrat with big-name recognition in their state.

Out west, Republican Senator Cory Gardner is facing a tough challenge from former Governor John Hickenlooper, who also had a short-lived run for President in 2020.

Gardner is awkwardly positioned in a state that has crept left in presidential elections but still has a place for Republican lawmakers. Just before the coronavirus pandemic began to tank Trump’s polling numbers, Gardner pinned his reelection hopes to the President at a Colorado Springs rally.

This comes from a Senator who previously called Trump a “buffoon” when he was running for the Republican presidential nomination. Throughout the pandemic and slumping polls for both himself and the President, Gardner has remained mostly loyal, to the surprise of many.

Hickenlooper has immensely benefited from Gardner sticking true to the Trump base, but there was a point in his Senate campaign when it looked like he might be beaten by a progressive challenger, Andrew Romanoff.

But, big Democratic names and donors came out to bat for Hickenlooper, a moderate Democrat and friend of many big donors in the state. Despite the credible progressive threat of Romanoff, more left-wing national politicians like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren endorsed the more centrist candidate.

The decision to back an established moderate over progressive upstart is a trend we have seen in multiple Senate races, indicating the Democrats are pitching to the coveted moderates, independents, and swing voters.

North Carolina has a similar story, a Trump-backing Republican incumbent is at risk of losing to his Democratic challenger with deep pockets and support.

Two local lawmakers were running for the chance to take on Republican Thom Tillis, a progressive Black woman critical of the Democratic Party establishment and a moderate Army veteran who supported Pete Buttigieg for President.

The party support and money went to the moderate, and Cal Cunningham won the primary to face Tillis by a comfortable margin.

It’s a similar tale in Maine, where Republican Senator Susan Collins has long been tipped to be a troubled seat for Republicans in November.

Collins will be challenged by Maine’s Speaker of the House Sara Gideon who defeated a progressive challenger in her primary. Unlike the above mentioned Democratic challengers, Gideon won big by fending off two challengers who supported Medicare For All, a more leftward push for healthcare reform than Gideon’s advocacy for a public option.

According to Open Secrets, Gideon has out-raised Collins by $7 million, showing that the moderate push of the Democratic party has already paid off financially for the party.

Whether these races and others push Democrats over the hill in Senate remains to be seen, but they would most likely be part of a historic wave of voting against the President. However, as we saw in 2016, it’s not over until the fat lady sings, and the Biden campaign will still be fighting for the votes they think they need to secure a victory.

Presidential Race

There’s been a lot of talk of a Biden-sweep through the election and some Democrats have giddily proclaimed that even Texas is up for grabs in the presidential race. Comparing 2012 and 2016 results shows that Florida, and four Rust Belt states (Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) are key for the next President.

If Biden turns just two or three of these states back to blue it will be enough to secure the Presidency.

Setting the ideological split aside, some questioned the Democratic Party’s decision to coalesce around Biden considering the main Democratic competition’s ability to often outraise Biden.Yet, after a rough start combined with a resurgence ahead of Super Tuesday, it was big wins in Michigan, Florida, and Ohio that sealed Biden’s victory in the primary.

Biden has been able to build on the momentum of a collapsing Trump campaign and economy and has done particularly well in toss-up counties in swing states, where the economy and unemployment are constituents’ greatest concern.

Despite proclamations that Biden could be the “most progressive president since FDR”, it’s a still moderate messaging and appeals to prominent never-Trump Republicans like Ana Navarro, John Kasich, and the Republican strategists of The Lincoln Project that have marked the Biden campaign.

VP Kamala

The Biden campaign’s announcement of California Senator Kamala Harris as the ticket’s Vice President is making more headlines than Clinton’s Tim Kaine pick, but it’s not only Harris’s identity that is noteworthy, but also what she represents politically.

In a year of massive civil uprising against the police brutality black men and women face in this country, the Biden campaign opted for California’s former “top cop.” Harris served as California’s Attorney General for six years before winning her Senate seat.

The selection will draw ire from the Party’s most progressive corners due to Harris’s controversial tenure as a perceived “tough-on-crime” Attorney General. The pick is less notable for a potential mass exodus of voters from the ticket, but instead, we see what voters the campaign is pushing for the most and which they think they have in the bag.

Harris is viewed as the safe pick, one who does not challenge US-Israel relations despite a growing number of Democratic senators swearing off AIPAC and other lobbying groups. On the most progressive issues, Harris has shown her flexibility in appealing to progressive elements of the party while not committing wholeheartedly to any radical policy changes.

Whether it be in Senate races or the Democratic presidential ticket, the Democratic Party is clearly eyeing disaffected independents and moderate voters. Thus far the strategy has paid dividends and could deliver all three branches to the Democrats.

If that is the state of affairs after November, both Republicans and Democrats might be set up for inter-party ideological battles with moderate Democrats trying to corral its more progressive members and moderate Republicans trying to take back their party from Trump acolytes.

As the political center recalibrates with uncertain times ahead, more independent politicians might see 2020 as a marker to throw down the gauntlet and strike it out on their own. Whatever the result may be in November, the 2020 election has already been impacted by the independent and moderate voter making it the election and the year of the independent voter.
Via Unsplash by Element5 Digital.