President Trump is trailing in both national polling and in the Electoral College. If Joe Biden becomes president, it becomes even more important for Republicans to maintain control of the Senate, but the structure of the 2020 elections in which the GOP is defending many more vulnerable seats than Democrats, as well as alarming polls, make keeping control of Congress’s upper body a difficult proposition.
As I discussed two weeks ago in my last look at Senate races, the dynamics of this year’s election mean that Republicans are defending 23 Senate seats while Democrats only have to defend 12. Most of these seats on both sides are in states that are not competitive, but, as you might expect, the sheer numbers mean that more Republican seats are vulnerable. As 2020 has turned progressively more ugly for Republicans, seats once thought safe for the GOP have become vulnerable. At this point, 10 Republican seats are at risk compared to only two Democratic seats.
On the Democratic side, the two seats that it was considered possible for Republicans to flip were those of Doug Jones in Alabama and Gary Peters in Michigan. When Doug Jones won the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ seat against Roy Moore in 2018, everyone knew it was a temporary thing. Moore, a former state supreme court justice who was removed from the bench for judicial misconduct and who was the subject of sexual assault allegations, was a uniquely bad candidate. No one expected that Jones would win re-election against a more mainstream Republican.
The conventional wisdom appears to be correct. Most polling shows Jones trailing former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville by double-digit margins. As you’d expect for one of the reddest states in the nation, this looks like a Republican pickup.
Not so for Michigan. Republicans had high hopes for the Wolverine State after 2016, but it looks as though they will be disappointed. After a narrow win there over Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump is trailing by nine points. Republican John James is doing slightly better than the president but is still trailing by six points. Michigan seems destined to go blue again this year, leaving the Republicans with a gain of one seat.
That was the good news for Republicans. Now let’s look at the list of Republican seats that are at risk.
- Arizona – Republican Martha McSally is not a bad candidate, but she is the victim of the poor timing of being a Republican candidate in the Trump era. McSally lost the race to replace Jeff Flake to Kirsten Sinema in 2018 and then was appointed to fill Jon Kyl’s seat. Now she is trailing Democrat Mark Kelly by four points, which is slightly better than Donald Trump’s position in the state. The race is somewhat of a tossup, but McSally is the clear underdog. The seat is likely to go blue.
- Colorado – Republican Cory Gardner came into the Senate as a Tea Party candidate in 2014, but Colorado is trending more and more blue. Gardner is trailing by double digits in most polls and looks to be toast. This would be the Democrats’ second pickup.
- Georgia – Republican David Perdue is facing surprisingly stiff opposition from Democrat Jon Ossoff. Perdue has narrowly led in most polling but a partisan Civiqs poll released yesterday showed Ossoff ahead by six points. Georgia’s requirement that a candidate wins a majority means that the race will probably go to a runoff in January where Perdue would likely have an advantage.
- Georgia special election – Kelly Loeffler was appointed to replace Johnny Isakson last winter and now she is fighting for her political life. Loeffler is competing in a jungle primary against both Doug Collins, a Republican congressman, and Democrat Raphael Warnock (as well as a handful of other candidates). Both Republicans now trail Warnock but the runoff would likely favor the eventual Republican nominee.
- Iowa – Joni Ernst, another 2014 Tea Partier, is in a close race with Democrat Theresa Greenfield. The race has tightened in recent weeks with two polls that show a one-point lead for Ernst, but Greenfield still leads the polling average by two points. This race could go either way but is a likely Democratic pickup even though Donald Trump may win the state.
- Kansas – Republican Roger Marshall and Democrat Barbara Bollier are vying to replace the retiring Pat Roberts in this sleeper race. The race is surprisingly close, but Republicans should retain the seat.
- Maine – Susan Collins has been a Republican that other Republicans love to hate for as long as I can remember. It looks as though Republican voters won’t have to worry about her swing votes after this year. They’ll be complaining about Democrat Sara Gideon, who has led in every poll since July. Maine could be the fourth seat that Democrats flip.
- Montana – Donald Trump will win Montana handily but the Battle of the Steves in the Senate race is much closer. Republican Steve Daines narrowly leads Democrat Steve Bullock by three points. The seat will likely stay red.
- North Carolina – Both the Senate and the presidential races in the Tar Heel State are tossups this year. Democrat Cal Cunningham has lost some of his lead after a sex scandal erupted a few weeks ago. Nevertheless, Cunnigham still holds a polling edge over Republican Thom Tillis. This is another tossup, but North Carolina could easily become a fifth Republican loss.
- South Carolina – Polling favors Lindsey Graham in this surprise tossup although several recent polls have shown a tied race or a slight lead for Democrat Jaime Harrison. Republicans should hold this seat but there is a good opportunity for an upset.
The changing political situation is also leading to an additional Republican seat that may be vulnerable. Polling in Texas shows a very close race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but so far Republican John Cornyn has maintained a comfortable lead over Democrat MJ Hegar. The race is not a tossup but a few recent polls have indicated that the race may be tightening. As Trump struggles in the Lone Star State, the Senate race bears watching as well.
The big picture here is that Democrats are likely to lose one seat (Alabama) while Republicans are almost certain to lose three seats (Arizona, Colorado, and Maine) and are somewhat likely to lose as many as five (adding Iowa and North Carolina). If the Democrats get the breaks on Election Day, things could get even worse for the GOP. A net gain of at least two seats for Democrats is a virtual certainty.
A net gain of three seats for Democrats would mean a 50-50 tie in the Senate. In that case, the vice president would cast the deciding vote for legislative ties.
If Democrats take the three likely seats and then add two or more tossup races to their tally, they will win control of the Senate. They would fall short of a filibuster-proof majority, however. If Senate Democrats elected to retain the filibuster, Republicans would still have enough clout to act as a speedbrake on the progressive agenda, except for judicial nominations where Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell have exercised their respective nuclear options.
At this point, the odds seem close to even money that the balance of the Senate next term will be a tie or a Democratic majority. The Senate races are looking slightly better for Republicans than the presidential race, their odds of holding the Senate having improved with Cal Cunningham’s sex scandal and Joni Ernst’s recent surge. Republican candidates may also benefit from split-ticket voters who are experiencing Trump-fatigue but don’t want to hand the Democrats a blank check.
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