Control of the Senate could be within Democrats’ grasp this November. But they’re going to have to fight for it.
A once-narrow Senate map has dramatically expanded for Democrats this year, and Republicans have few options to expand their majority. Though some things have improved for the GOP since the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, they are still saddled with a controversial incumbent president at the top of their ticket and a turbulent and uncertain political climate.
“It will not be a news flash to say the Senate is very much in play,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres told Vox. “There are numerous Senate races that are essentially margin of error races right now.”
Many Republicans were in a full-blown panic in the spring and early summer months as the pandemic forced a once-booming US economy to shut down. Coronavirus cases are gradually declining, and the economy has started to recover over the summer — with the unemployment rate falling from 14.7 percent in April to 8.4 percent in August. Still, millions are out of work and new Covid outbreaks are popping up in Midwestern states as schools and colleges have begun to reopen.
National and battleground polling shows the presidential race between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump has largely remained stable over the past few months, with Biden maintaining a substantial lead in national polling and a smaller lead in key battleground states that could decide the election for the White House. With the virus still not under control and racial tensions boiling over in multiple cities, polling this summer has shown the vast majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction — a potentially worrying sign for Trump and the GOP.
“It’s an extraordinary flip of the mood in the country in a short amount of time … that portends change,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse recently told Vox. “Whether [voters] hold Trump or Republicans in the House or Senate accountable or not, they’re still going to vote for change.”
Democrats need to win back at least three seats to reclaim the Senate majority, but they are also defending Sen. Doug Jones in deep-red Alabama, where Trump has a 28-point net approval rating. If Jones loses, that means Democrats need to win four seats and the White House (where their party’s vice president could vote to break ties in the Senate), or net five seats without the White House advantage.
Overall, Senate Republicans are defending more turf: 23 seats (mostly in red states), compared to the 12 Senate Democrats who are up for reelection. Before the coronavirus hit, four states looked highly competitive for Democrats: Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina. Now several more seats are in play for Democrats — including Montana, Iowa, and Georgia. Democratic candidates have even put other reach states like South Carolina in play. Republicans, meanwhile, are going on offense in just two states: Alabama and Michigan.
“There remain multiple paths to the majority for Democrats,” said Cook Political Report Senate editor Jessica Taylor. “I would give Democrats a slight edge, [but] there are plausible scenarios where Republicans can retain their majority.”
Still, Taylor added, with Trump’s grip on the White House uncertain and House Democrats expected to keep — and maybe even expand — their majority in the lower chamber, the Senate is Republicans’ last “firewall.”
The battle to keep it will be a knock-down, drag-out fight.
Some Republicans operatives are projecting a lot more calm and confidence than they were during the early months of Covid-19.
“I think things have improved significantly over the last month for Republicans,” Tim Cameron, a Republican strategist and a former chief digital strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2014 and 2016 cycles, told Vox.
Specifically, Cameron pointed to tightening battleground state polls between Biden and Trump and a wave of spending by the NRSC and McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC. Republicans also averted a potential nightmare in Kansas when US Rep. Roger Marshall won his August primary against former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whose controversial record could have turned off moderate voters and put the normally safe Republican Senate seat at risk.
Still, one Democrat shrugged off the Republican argument that the political winds are shifting in their favor: “I think it’s hard for Republicans to say with a straight face the environment is better and dump $5.5 million into Kansas.”
Republican pollsters and operatives Vox interviewed also acknowledged that the electoral fate of many GOP senators is tied to that of President Trump and said that polling in the presidential race has remained fairly stable, beyond some “slight tightening.”
“The presidential race has a significant impact on the control of the Senate,” Newhouse told Vox. “In areas where the president is doing well, Congressional and Senate campaigns look good; in areas where the president is more challenged in an individual state, it’s more uphill for Republican candidates.”
A few months ago, the political ground turned upside down with the first Covid-19 wave and subsequent shutting down of the American economy. Even though the economy has recovered somewhat over the summer, 1.7 million new unemployment claims were filed the week of August 22 alone, suggesting the recovery is slowing and millions are still out of work. The booming economy Republicans were hoping to run on in 2020 is no more.
A lot of the same GOP senators who swept into office during the Republican wave of the 2014 midterms are now staring down tough reelection battles in states that have rapidly diversified in the past six years. Senators who had once tied themselves closely to Trump are starting to put themselves at arm’s length from the president.
These incumbents are walking a tightrope; they can’t win without the president’s loyal base, but they also need independent and swing voters who may not like Trump. While many of these senators are trying to run on the strength of their brand in their home state, the contentious political climate of 2020 may make that challenging to pull off.
“Can they do it again given the stamp Donald Trump has placed on the Republican Party in the last four years? I don’t know, and neither does anybody else,” Ayres said. “That’s a fine line to walk in a highly polarized electoral environment, but it’s necessary if they’re going to win, and many Republicans have accomplished that feat in the past.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are running a playbook that was successful in many 2018 House races: backing moderate candidates and focusing on health care and jobs in the middle of a pandemic that has millions of newly unemployed people losing their health insurance along with their jobs. Democrats will highlight Medicaid expansion as an issue in states that didn’t expand it, including North and South Carolina, Kansas, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama. They’re already going after North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis (R) for his role in rejecting Medicaid expansion when he was leading the state legislature.
Biden and Democratic Senate candidates alike are hoping that message will appeal to disaffected suburban voters — especially women — who voted for House Democrats in 2018.
“If Republican candidates are able to hold their own with white women, they’re going to do well,” a Republican pollster told Vox. It’s not going to be an easy task; suburban women drove Democratic victories in 2018, and Biden is outpolling Trump among women by double digits.
“It’s a very challenging year for our side of the aisle,” the pollster added.
Even as Trump is focusing his reelection message on maintaining “law and order” in some cities that have seen riots over the summer to those women, Democrats are betting they may care more about things like schools tenuously reopening — some virtually — due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“The Trump campaign is trying to make an issue of the riots that have coincided with some of the racial justice demonstrations, and we will see if that has a significant effect,” Ayres said. “But as a general rule, factors that affect people personally and directly have more political import than factors that affect somebody else.”
With a tsunami of money being poured into Senate races and a deluge of news in an uncertain environment, political operatives in both parties are clear-eyed: The Senate battleground will remain incredibly competitive until November.
Here’s where the Senate map stands so far.
Even though Democrats have expanded their reach to other states including Iowa and Montana, “we also remain focused on the states that take us to a majority and have not taken our eye off the ball on that front,” a Democratic operative told Vox.
Who is the Republican? Sen. Cory Gardner, first elected to the Senate in 2014. Gardner reliably votes with Trump and Republicans, although he has split with the Trump administration on issues including marijuana decriminalization and immigration reform.
Who is the Democrat? Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who led the state from 2011 to 2019. Hickenlooper cuts more of a centrist profile, but he presided over some progressive changes in his state, such as marijuana legalization and gun control laws including universal background checks in Colorado.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Lean Democratic.
What’s the background on the race? Election forecasters believe Colorado is one of Democrats’ likeliest pickup opportunities for one big reason: There aren’t many Republicans left in the state. Colorado is diversifying, its suburban voters are a prime demographic for Democrats, and recent polls show many of these voters do not like Trump. As of August, Biden held a double-digit lead over Trump, state polling averages showed.
“The moderates are being run out of the party, top to bottom,” said David Flaherty, who runs the Colorado-based Republican polling firm Magellan Strategies. “It’s really a math problem for all [GOP] candidates, not just Cory Gardner.”
Public lands, health care, and gun control are all big issues in the state. Hickenlooper has consistently polled ahead of Gardner throughout the spring and summer. Still, Colorado Democrats and Republicans alike say Gardner’s political prowess shouldn’t be underestimated and expect the race to be competitive.
Who is the Republican? Sen. Martha McSally, who narrowly lost her 2018 race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. McSally was appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain in 2018.
Who is the Democrat? Mark Kelly, former US astronaut and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the former US representative for Arizona and gun control activist.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate it Lean Democratic.
What’s the background on the race? This race has shifted in Democrats’ favor recently, but it will remain competitive throughout the fall, Democrats and Republicans alike tell Vox. Once seen as a more moderate Republican House member, McSally tied herself closely to Trump in 2018 but lost her race against Sinema by a razor-thin margin. Since she was appointed by Arizona’s Republican governor to fill McCain’s seat in 2018, her favorability ratings with voters have been low. Kelly currently has close to a 9-point lead there, according to the latest RealClearPolitics average — however, the race has tightened in recent weeks in part due to a barrage of negative advertising.
Kelly has a history in the state and vast financial resources: He has been raising gobs of cash, and has now outraised McSally by over $15 million, according to data from OpenSecrets. Arizona certainly isn’t as liberal as Colorado, but it has an interesting electoral mix of Latino voters who voted more liberal in Democratic primaries, as well as a heavy concentration of older voters who as a bloc seem to be gravitating toward Biden in the presidential race. The state is emerging as a key battleground in the race for White House and Senate alike. And McSally — having lost one Senate race — needs to prove she can win this one.
Who is the Republican? Sen. Susan Collins, in office since 1997.
Who is the Democrat? Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this a toss-up.
What’s the background on the race? The last New England moderate Republican left in the US Senate, Collins is facing what’s shaping up to be her toughest reelection yet. Her reputation as an independent senator willing to break from her party has taken a hit in the Trump era — given her vote for a GOP tax bill, her key confirmation vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and her vote to acquit Trump during his impeachment trial. Collins is now the most unpopular senator in the country, according to Morning Consult, even more so than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Gideon has benefited from that, fundraising millions in her race and getting up on television. Despite attacks from Republicans, Gideon has a single-digit lead in public polls.
Collins is trying to run a race independent of Trump, focusing instead on the federal money she’s brought back to her home state over the years. She hasn’t yet said if she supports or will vote for the president in November. With Trump still popular in conservative rural northern Maine (an area Collins is from and badly needs for reelection) and despised in the liberal southern part of the state, Collins is walking a tightrope on the president. She’s outrun Republican nominees for president before, but many are watching to see if this year is different.
“She’s in this really difficult space; this happens for a lot of moderates across the country,” said Dan Shea, a political science professor and pollster at Colby College in Maine. “The question is, what does she do in that difficult space?”
Who is the Republican? Sen. Thom Tillis, elected to the Senate in 2014 and former speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.
Who is the Democrat? Cal Cunningham, a former North Carolina state senator and veteran.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this a toss-up.
What’s the background on the race? North Carolina is considered a true swing state in the 2020 presidential election and Senate race because of its changing demographics and swing suburban voters outside cities like Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte. Senate races in North Carolina are often razor-thin; Tillis won his seat in 2014 by just 46,000 votes — or a single percentage point. Public polling throughout the summer has shown Cunningham with a slim lead, but the presidential race between Biden and Trump is essentially tied.
As Tillis aligns himself closely with Trump, Democrats aren’t just planning to seize on his record in the US Senate; they are also delving into his tenure leading the North Carolina state House, where he opposed Medicaid expansion and was part of a Republican effort to reduce the state’s unemployment benefits — two things now hurting North Carolina residents out of work. The incumbent has also been weakened by the few times he has crossed Trump, such as his opposition to the president’s border wall declaration, which has softened his support among the most conservative voters.
Cunningham, an Iraq War veteran, is running a campaign laser-focused on health care — including improving the Affordable Care Act and expanding Medicaid in North Carolina. Republicans believe the state is still fundamentally right-leaning, but suburban voters could make it more competitive this year.
Who is the Democrat? Sen. Doug Jones, who won a surprise victory in a 2017 special election against Republican Roy Moore.
Who is the Republican? Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this Lean Republican, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Likely Republican.
What’s the background on the race? The 2020 election is a test of whether Doug Jones’s 2017 win was an aberration or a testament to newfound Democratic strength in the South. The fundamentals of the race clearly favor Republicans; Alabama loves Trump, and the president’s net approval rating has been higher there than any other state. Jones is a moderate Democrat who emphasizes his bipartisan record, but he also hasn’t tried to fit the mold of a conservative Democrat — Jones voted to remove Trump after impeachment and voted against Kavanaugh.
Republicans are feeling confident with Tuberville, who certainly is no Roy Moore, whom four women accused of preying on them when they were teenagers. “Alabama, as far as I’m concerned, is a Republican seat,” a Republican strategist told Vox. “Roy Moore is not going to be the nominee, and I think that was Doug Jones’s only hope.”
The question is whether the GOP is feeling a little too confident. Despite some public polls showing a double-digit race favoring Tuberville, Jones’ campaign says their internal polling shows the race much closer, within striking distance of the Republican. And while the Republican primary in Alabama was largely a contest of who was more loyal to Trump, Jones doesn’t plan to let Tuberville off the hook over accusations of fraud stemming from of shuttered a hedge fund Tuberville once co-owned.
“There’s a lot that I know that they don’t,” Jones told Vox in a recent interview. “I’ve seen the changes that how Alabama has gone through, and I know what’s going on on the ground and Alabamians have always had an independent streak.”
Who is the Democrat? Sen. Gary Peters, elected to the Senate in 2014 and a US House member before that.
Who are the Republicans? Businessman and veteran John James, who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this Lean Democrat.
What’s the background on the race? Peters, a long-serving House member before being elected to the Senate in 2014, is up for his first Senate reelection. He keeps a fairly low profile compared to other senators, focusing on issues like health care and jobs for his Upper Midwest state.
Earlier polls showed a potentially competitive race shaping up, and James — seen by many as a rising star in the GOP — received hype from Republicans for being a strong fundraiser. But money alone may not be enough to flip the Michigan Senate seat. Michigan will be one of the most closely watched states of the presidential election, and that is sure to trickle down to the Senate race. Although Trump won there by a razor-thin margin in 2016, public polling throughout the summer shows Peters in the lead, and the state is also trending for Biden. The Trump campaign pulled its television advertising from Michigan earlier in the year, a sign it may see more opportunity in other states. Democrats, for their part, feel Peters’s record of winning his House races will translate to his Senate seat.
“He’s been through tough elections and proven he can outperform,” a Democratic strategist told Vox. “Gary knew this was always going to be a tough race and walked into the election prepared.”
Beyond their likely pickup in Alabama and attempt to make Michigan competitive, Republicans are looking at precious few other offensive opportunities this year. In Minnesota, former US Rep. Jason Lewis (known for once complaining that it was no longer socially acceptable to call women “sluts”) is challenging Democratic Sen. Tina Smith after losing his House seat in 2018. New Mexico also has an open Senate race, where longtime Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján will face off against Republican Mark Ronchetti, a former meteorologist. Republicans got the candidate they wanted in Ronchetti, but Luján is a well-known entity in New Mexico and the state is considered fairly blue. Both races are rated Solid Democratic by Cook and Likely Democratic by Sabato.
Who is the Republican? Sen. Steve Daines, elected in 2014. Daines served as the at-large US House member from Montana before that.
Who is the Democrat? Term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock (a brief presidential contender in the 2020 Democratic primary).
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Lean Republican.
What’s the background on the race? It takes a certain kind of Democrat to actually be competitive in Montana politics; Steve Bullock is that Democrat. He’s a popular Democratic governor who has put bipartisan cooperation with Montana’s Republican state legislature at the forefront of his campaign. Montana voted for Trump by 20 points in 2016, but the state has an independent streak and reelected Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018, despite an all-out blitz Trump launched against him.
Issues likely to be at the forefront of the race include Covid-19 and the state of the US Postal Service under Trump. Bullock recently announced he was suing US Postmaster General Louis DeJoy for mail delays impacting Montanans who rely on rural mail service, and Daines is part of a bipartisan Senate group pushing a bill to give the Post Office $25 billion (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell so far isn’t allowing that bill to the floor).
“It’s a red state, but it’s a very elastic state,” said election forecaster J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball. In other words, even if Montana votes for Trump in 2020, voters could split the ticket and also elect Bullock to the Senate. Public polls throughout the summer show a very close race between Daines and Bullock, and the DSCC is upping its independent expenditure spending this fall in hopes of flipping the seat.
Who is the Republican? Sen. Joni Ernst, elected in 2014. Ernst is a veteran and former Iowa state senator.
Who is the Democrat? Businesswoman Theresa Greenfield.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this a toss-up.
What’s the background on the race? Ernst — a combat veteran and the first woman Iowa has sent to Congress — is up for her first reelection. Republicans saw Ernst in a good position at the beginning of the summer, but national Democrats think Iowa could be ripe for flipping, and are pouring money into the state to go on offense there while Republicans are spending to defend the incumbent. Iowa is still seen as a fairly conservative general election state, but Democrats were able to win a couple of key congressional districts in 2018, and Ernst’s approval rating fell 10 points in the past year, according to a March poll from respected Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer.
Greenfield is a real estate developer in Des Moines and has Iowa roots; she grew up on a farm as the daughter of a crop duster. As Vox’s Li Zhou wrote, Greenfield has emphasized issues including health care and strengthening social safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security (she raised her family on Social Security survivor’s benefits after her husband was killed in an accident on the job). Greenfield is also going after Ernst’s past claims to curb wasteful spending in Washington — though she’s since voted to support major tax cuts that have added to the national deficit. The coronavirus will likely also play a major role in the race; Iowa has recently emerged as a new hot spot, driven by outbreaks at some reopened universities in the state.
Who is the Republican? Sen. David Perdue, a former businessman elected in 2014 and a close ally of Trump’s.
Who is the Democrat? Former 2017 congressional candidate Jon Ossoff.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this a toss-up, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Lean Republican.
What’s the background on the race? Earlier in the year, Perdue’s seat was considered less competitive than the Georgia special election with Sen. Kelly Loeffler, but new polling shows the race there could be tighter than expected. Two August polls show the race between Ossoff and Perdue is essentially a dead heat, and Cook moved the race from Likely to Lean Republican to toss-up. Those are sobering evaluations for the GOP and Perdue.
Georgia is yet another traditionally Republican state where the demographics are slowly getting more favorable for Democrats. The Atlanta suburbs are attracting a lot of college-educated voters who are moving away from the GOP. Unlike Loeffler, Perdue is not dealing with a serious primary challenger on Election Day, but he’s facing similar dynamics with Georgia’s shifting demographics. The suburbs outside Atlanta are a particularly tricky spot for the GOP, and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s narrow loss in the governor’s race in 2018 spooked Republicans. As the incumbent, Perdue has the upper hand, and Democrats will have to spend and organize heavily in Georgia in order to make it truly competitive in November. But the tightening poll numbers on Perdue’s race make it one very much worth watching.
Who are the Republicans? Sen. Kelly Loeffler, named to replace retired Sen. Johnny Isakson in 2019, and Rep. Doug Collins.
Who are the Democrats? Rev. Raphael Warnock and entrepreneur Matt Lieberman (son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman).
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this Lean Republican, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Likely Republican.
What’s the background on the race? Loeffler is in a better position than she was a few months ago. She seems to have recovered from initial blowback for allegations that she dumped millions in stock and subsequently bought stock in a teleworking company after being briefed on coronavirus in the Senate (Loeffler said the stock sales were made without her knowledge).
In a normal election cycle, a GOP senator could likely survive Georgia’s changing political winds, but there’s an extra dash of weirdness in this special Senate election to replace Isakson. Rather than a straightforward Republican versus Democrat contest, there will be an all-party primary on Election Day. The presence of Doug Collins, a Trump ally in the House, could be a massive thorn in Loeffler’s side. If no one wins a majority in November, the election could go to a January runoff where the top two candidates would compete. The DSCC has endorsed Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, but Matt Lieberman — the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman — is also a Democratic candidate.
Who’s the Republican? Sen. Lindsey Graham, in his Senate seat since 2003. Once a noted Trump critic, Graham has turned into one of Trump’s allies in the Senate.
Who’s the Democrat? Jaime Harrison, the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this race Lean Republican, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Likely Republican.
What’s the background on the race? A few months ago, South Carolina was on few people’s lists of competitive Senate races. And it still isn’t competitive, really. But Harrison has emerged as a strong contender and a fundraising juggernaut. He brought in an eye-popping $14 million in the second quarter, which means he’ll have enough money to see himself through election day without needing much help from national Democrats. Even though Graham has been outraised by his Democratic opponent in the last couple of quarters, he still has a slight overall cash advantage.
Black candidates have already found considerable success in House primaries in a year that’s been defined in part by nationwide protests against longstanding police brutality. Harrison isn’t necessarily as liberal as House candidates like Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones (his state is notably more conservative), but he’s running a playbook focusing on expanding Medicaid and getting more help to those laid off by or otherwise vulnerable to Covid-19. He also could benefit from a competitive House race in South Carolina’s First Congressional District, which Democrats flipped in 2018 and are defending this year. Even though Graham has represented his state for nearly 20 years, his switch from Trump critic to ardent Trump ally could be problematic for swing voters in South Carolina.
Who is the Republican? With longtime Sen. Pat Roberts retiring, US Rep. Roger Marshall won an August primary, defeating controversial former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Who is the Democrat? Dr. Barbara Bollier, a state senator and former moderate Republican who switched parties in 2018.
What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this Lean Republican, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Likely Republican.
What’s the background on the race? For months, the prevailing conventional wisdom about the Kansas Senate race was that the only way Democrats could make it competitive was if Kobach emerged as the Republican nominee. Republicans ended up getting their preferred candidate in the primary with Marshall, a conservative if far less controversial member of Congress. Even though Republicans have the advantage in a conservative Midwestern state, polls show the race between Marshall and Democrat Barbara Bollier is tighter than expected to begin with.
Democrats like what they see in Bollier, a doctor and former moderate Republican in the state Senate who recently switched parties. She built up a substantial war chest while Republicans were duking it out in the primary, and an August SurveyUSA poll showed her just 2 points behind Marshall in the general election race.
Bollier will have an uphill climb. “You can be a strong candidate as a Democrat and lose statewide, because it’s Kansas,” Miller said. But one sign Republicans think she’s competitive is a fresh $5.2 million ad buy in Kansas from the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership fund super PAC. Republicans aren’t sleeping on Kansas just yet.
The remaining races Cook rates Likely Republican will all be interesting to watch but difficult for Democrats to actually flip. These states include:
All these races will cost millions of dollars, but the fundamentals in each of the states favor Republicans. At this point, while Democrats would certainly like to emerge victorious in any of these states, they’ll likely focus their efforts on the other, more plausible paths to a Senate majority they now have on the map.
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