In this second installment of an SPR focus on next year’s US Senate races in the South, the spotlights are on North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. These and other contests in the South could be crucial to either party’s control of the Senate: The Democrats need just four more Senate seats to have a majority.
North Carolina: US Sen. Thom Tillis (R) has been a regular supporter of President Trump’s agenda but sensing this usually too-close-to-call state may want a shift of focus, Tillis “is trying to ease toward the center,” says Ferrel Guillory, founder of the University of North Carolina’s Program on Public Life. Tillis recently published an op-ed opposing the President’s assertion of emergency powers in the border controversy. Tillis’s announced opponents include state Sen. Erica Smith (D), who hails from a black-majority rural district, and Mecklenburg County commissioner Trevor Fuller (D). Tax Attorney Eva Lee of Raleigh announced in 2017 but has made no moves toward an active campaign. “The Democratic race is still formless,” says Guillory. Tillis, a former state House Speaker, should have solid Republican support. Depending on the national mood, Tillis should be reelected.
Oklahoma: US Sen. Jim Inhofe (R) entered the Senate in 1994 and chairs the influential Senate Armed Services Committee. “He will be virtually unbeatable if he decides to seek reelection,” says political consultant Chad Alexander, a former chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party. Inhofe has solid support among the state’s Republican voters, who are in sync with President Trump. “They’re not going to vote Democratic, especially in this national environment,” says Alexander.
South Carolina: US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), who entered the Senate in 2003, was an early critic of Donald Trump, but now has become a strong Trump supporter. There are some hardcore conservatives who dislike Graham, but “Anyone trying to challenge Senator Graham in the primary is absolutely crazy,” says political consultant and former GOP chairman Matt Moore. “He is in fantastic shape heading into his reelection.” If he does get a primary opponent, it is likely to be someone from outside of the political mainstream. But Graham does have a major foe on the Democratic side. Former state Democratic chairman Jaime Harrison has an impressive resume: Graduate of Yale and Georgetown Law School, a former aide to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), and currently associate chair and counsel to the Democratic National Committee. He will very likely unite the Democratic Party, “but South Carolina is still a Republican state,” says Moore.
Tennessee: The decision of US Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) not to seek reelection next year gives the Volunteer State an open seat. The likeliest – and strongest – candidate for the seat is former Gov. Bill Haslam (R), who is expected to announce yea or nay before the end of March. “Others are holding out to see what Haslam does,” says former Tennessee Chamber of Commerce executive Deb Wooley. If Haslam does not run, other possibilities (R) include US Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, surgeon Manny Sethi, former US Rep. Stephen Fincher, and US Rep. Mark Green, who has suggested a link between vaccines and autism. The strongest Democrat would probably be former Gov. Phil Bredesen, but he lost a Senate bid in 2018 by some ten points.
Texas: US Sen. John Cornyn (R) is finishing his third term and is seeking a fourth term next year. An influential lawmaker, Cornyn has a term as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under his belt. Considered a moderate by many conservative GOPers in Texas, Cornyn got a major boost when President Trump endorsed him, which put the kibosh on likely primary challenges. There are a number of Democrats who might run against Cornyn. Sema Hernandez, who came in second to Beto O’Rourke in last year’s US Senate primary (D), has already announced. O’Rourke, who is mulling a presidential race, might jump into the Senate race instead. US Rep. Joaquin Castro (D) might also run, according to his brother, presidential candidate Julian Castro (D). Former state Sen. and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is also looking at the race, as are M. J. Hegar and Joseph Kopser, both failed 2018 congressional candidates. Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Houston-based Quorum Report, says, “It’s still Cornyn’s to lose… Whether last-year’s strong showing by O’Rourke will be repeated, by him or another Democrat, remains to be seen, but once reliably Republican suburbs have definitely turned,” says Kronberg.
Virginia: US Sen. Mark Warner (D) is completing his second term in the Senate, where he is vice-chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus and of the Senate Intelligence Committee, where he is in the national spotlight for the committee’s investigation of the Trump campaign and the Russians. In Virginia, “Warner is strong,” says Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “I haven’t heard rumors of any Republican candidates” to challenge him. “The only thing I can say is that there will be a Republican nominated,” says longtime GOP National Committeeman Morton Blackwell. 2017 gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie (R), an obvious choice, is telling folks he is not going to run. Safe Democratic.