December 26, 2018


U.S. Senators in Illinois and elsewhere have a political shelf life. The bar code usually expires after 18 years, or three 6-year terms. By then the incumbent has become tiresome, or the political environment prevalent 6 or 12 years earlier has vanished - or both.

Illinois' Dick Durbin (D) has crossed the threshold. He has, after 22 years as a senator, become boring, annoying and irksome. But he has also become the Democrats' Senate Minority Whip, the number-two position, which makes him a major player in Washington, and gives him a platform to make comments on everything.

It can be argued that Durbin is not particularly popular, and he's certainly not iconic, but he has two signal advantages going into 2020, when he faces re-election: He will raise and spend $10 million during the 2020 cycle, and the political environment that precipitated his victories in 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014 is, in Illinois, even more pro-Democratic. If Tammy Duckworth (D) could beat an incumbent Republican senator in 2016 by 2,907,420-2,149,417, a margin of 758,003 votes, then there is no doubt that Durbin will obliterate any Republican opponent in 2020. Trump lost Illinois by 844,714 votes.

In 2014, Durbin won by 391,115 votes, and in 2008 by 2,095,223 votes.

The Republicans have a 53-47 senate majority. There is no doubt that the Democrats will win control of the U.S. Senate in 2020, when 21 Republican and 12 Democratic seats will be on the ballot, along with the presidential race (and presumably President Trump). That has the makings of a Democratic blowout in urban, northern and coastal states, with attendant senate victories. With Democratic control there will come the Majority Whip post, which Durbin, age 74, will not want to forego. Durbin will definitely run in 2010 and be-re-elected.

Senate control will take on especial importance if the ailing 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg should vacate her seat, allowing Trump and the Senate Republicans to create an enduring 6-3 conservative majority on the High Court, which would have profound political and ideological implications. Should a vacancy occur in 2019, or especially in 2020, Durbin, a member of the Judiciary Committee, would be among the Democrats' prime attack dogs to delay any approval until after the 2020 election.

Political prognosticators are tabbing 2020 a "realigning" election that could set the stage for decade-long Democratic dominance in the 2020s. But that was also said after Democratic gains in 2006 and 2008, which were reversed in 2010 and 2014. All politics is cyclical. No majority lasts forever. At least four 2020 Republicans are highly vulnerable: Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, who provided a key Brett Kavanaugh vote in 2018. Another such vote in 2019-20 would spell doom, but an anti-conservative vote would go a long way toward rehabilitating her "independent" image. In all likelihood she will retire, and the seat will flip Democratic.

Of the 17 other Republicans, at least five are expected to retire: Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Pat Roberts in Kansas, Mike Enzi in Wyoming, Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, Jim Inhofe in Oklahoma and possibly James Risch in Idaho and Lindsay Graham in South Carolina. The seats in TN, WY, OK and ID are safely Republican, but open KY and KS seats are at serious risk, as would be SC if Graham retired. Alaska's Dan Sullivan could also be pressed.

ALABAMA: Democrats scored an upset 2017 win when Doug Jones (D) beat the massively flawed Roy Moore (R) for the seat of Jeff Sessions, who was appointed Trump's attorney general. Sessions lasted 2 years before being sacked, and the buzz in Alabama is that Sessions, who won in 1996, 2002, 2008 and 2014, will run for his old seat in 2012, when he will be age 73. Sessions is bland and boring, but his ouster has made him something of a folk hero, not a pariah. It should be noted that Sessions still has $2.5 million in his campaign account. Trump won the state 1,318,255-728,547 in 2016, so any reasonably acceptable Republican will beat Jones, even if not Sessions.

KENTUCKY: Rare is an opportunity to defeat a sitting majority leader, but Republicans did it in 2004 in South Dakota, defeating Tom Daschle, and also in Illinois way back in 1950 and in Arizona in 1952. Democrats targeted McConnell in 2014, when McConnell's 30 years of incumbency had grown tiresome and his opposition to the Obama Administration had created pushback. He faced Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), the secretary of state, spent $30 million on a he-delivers-for-Kentucky theme, and won 806,787-584,698, with 56 percent. Grimes, who spent $18 million, is running again, and will face congressman Andy Barr (R). Trump won the state 1,202,971-628,854, so the 2020 outcome will mirror the presidential race.

WYOMING: This is an interesting race for Enzi's seat, featuring the grandson of a former senator versus the daughter of a former vice-president. Outgoing governor Matt Mead and congresswoman Liz Cheney, both staunch conservatives, will compete.

NORTH CAROLINA: Tillis won this seat in 2014, defeating Kay Hagen (D) 1,423,259-1,377,651. In 2016 Roy Cooper (D) defeated the Republican governor 2,308,162-2,298,881, a margin of 10,281 votes, while Trump won the state 2,362,631-2,189,316. Cooper, a moderate Democrat, may run against Tillis, and will definitely win if the presidential race is close.

KANSAS: The state has not elected a Democratic senator since the 1930s, but a perfect storm is developing for 2020. The state has a three-party system: socially conservative Republicans vs. moderate Republicans vs. Democrats. Democrats win when a hard-right Republican is nominated, as in 2018, when anti-immigrant, pro-Trump Kris Kobach was picked for governor, and lost 55-45 to a woman Democrat. If Kobach is the 2020 nominee for Robert's seat, a Democrat could win, even though Trump carried the state 671,018-427,005.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Graham is hawkish on foreign policy, and was vociferous in attacking Kavanaugh's accuser, but he is distrusted by social conservatives, of which there are many in the state, and by the pro-Trump contingent. He's also at the 18-year mark. Graham would have a real problem if the president endorsed a 2020 primary opponent.

MAINE: Like Durbin, Collins was elected in 1996, and won easy re-elections by avoiding partisanship and being liberal on social issues, and never had to raise much money. She will be challenged by congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D) in 2020. Trump lost the state 357,735-335,593. Expect Collins to retire.

COLORADO: The state is generally liberal on social issues but, with a plethora of small businesses, quite libertarian on fiscal matters. Outgoing governor John Hickenlooper (D) and senator Michael Bennet (D) are both considering presidential runs. Republicans did well in 2014, with Gardner winning 983,891-944,203. In 2016 Trump won the state 1,338,870-1,202,484. If Trump tanks in 2020, so will Gardner.

IOWA: Ernst won an open seat 588,575-494,370 in 2014, and Trump carried the state 798,923-650,790 in 2016. Democrats rebounded sharply in 2018, defeating two of three Republican congressmen, but the Republican governor was re-elected. A Democrat has been governor for 12 of the past 50 years. A Trump blowout would bring Ernst down.

Outlook: A Democratic net gain of four seats, and a 51-49 majority.

Illinois has had 21 elected senators since the advent of popular elections in 1912, of which 11 were Democrats and ten were Republicans. The average length of tenure has been 10.4 years for Democrats and 8.7 years for Republicans, or just short of two terms. That has lengthened in recent decades, but the 18-and-out tradition still applies. Because senate terms are 6 years, with an election in a high-turnout presidential year followed by the next election in a lower-turnout mid-term, or vice versa, the environment constantly changes, making longevity difficult. But because Illinois has become so lopsidedly Democratic, neither Durbin nor Duckworth will lose to a Republican.

Earlier in the century, during the 1912-40 period, the state had a succession of one-termers, including Lawrence Sherman (1912-20), Joseph Medill McCormick (1918-24), William McKinley (1920-26) and Otis Glenn (1928-32), all Republicans, and William Dieterich (1932-38); sandwiched around them was Democrat J. Hamilton Lewis (1912-18 and 1930-38), a total of 14 years.

Democrat Scott Lucas, the Democratic majority leader, served from 1938-50, when he was beaten by Everett Dirksen, who rose to become the Republican minority leader, who served 1950-69 until his death, a total of 19 years. Democrat Adlai Stevenson III, who served from 1970-80 and retired succeeded him. He was succeeded by Democrat Alan Dixon, who served from 1980-92, and was defeated in the 1992 primary by Carol Moseley Braun, who served only one term (1992-98), losing to Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998, who retired after one term.
Succeeding Fitzgerald in 2004 was Democrat Barack Obama, elected president in 2008. Republican Mark Kirk won the new term in 2010, but lost to Duckworth in 2016.

The other seat has had fewer turnovers, with Republican Wayland Brooks (1940-48) losing to Democrat Paul Douglas (1948-66), who lost to Republican Chuck Percy (1966-84), who lost to Democrat Paul Simon (1984-96), who retired in 1996 and was replaced by Durbin, then a Springfield congressman. If re-elected in 2020, Durbin could serve 30 years. If that occurs, Durbin will equal the record tenure of Shelby Moore Cullom (R), who served 1883-1913, back in the days when the state legislature elected senators.

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