2020 US Election Preview: Democrats with Slim Advantage in Race for US Senate Control


While the US Presidential Election has been relatively stable since the Summer, 2020’s key US Senate contests have been anything but. Democrats are aiming to retake the chamber after a disappointing last few cycles, while Republicans have openly stated their goal is to “hold the line” and retain control, even if Donald Trump loses re-election at the top of the ticket.

If they are successful, it will in all likelihood be Republican’s lone foothold in either the legislative or executive branch. Facing a limited number of pickup opportunities, Republicans have mostly focused on protecting incumbents while Democrats put forward a diverse group of nominees across the country. Here is your look at Tuesday’s Senate elections state by state.

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Presuming Biden wins, Vice President Kamala Harris would be the tiebreaker in a 50-50 Senate, Dems need one of the Georgia seats, or minor upsets in Montana or Iowa to get 51+ and a true majority on their own though.

Safe and Likely Republican States

Nothing super exciting on this list, a bunch of Trump states will be returning Republican Senators like Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Nebraska, the only races of note are Kentucky Senator Cocaine Mitch McConnell easily fending off the incredibly well funder challenger Amy McGrath, who has been great at fundraising and terrible at everything else in a wasted effort from Democrats, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton facing a Libertarian because the Democrats failed to get a Democratic nominee on the ballot against him. Cotton will win, but his margin will be interesting to watch against a third party candidate in a head to head contest. Mississippi sees Democrat Mike Espy taking on Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith in a rematch of what was an interesting race in 2018. Hyde-Smith is an abysmal candidate, but Espy, a moderate who served in the Clinton administration, and in Congress, still faces a tough sell with the state’s white majority electorate that is among the most conservative in the nation. Lastly, Republicans will pick up the Senate seat in Alabama they should have never lost in the first place. Democrat Doug Jones has toed the party line, while at the same time doing everything he can to mobilize potential voters and broaden his coalition in this deep south state, but Trump being on the ballot, and the Republican nominee not being notorious should be enough for them to gain this seat back. Former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville has shaken off minor scandals and is relaxing headed into election day, the margin will be one to watch, but Jones is more likely to be the nation’s next Attorney General, than retain his job as the Senator from Alabama. Tuberville’s toughest fight was the primary.

Lean Republican States (SC, AK, KS, TX)

Democrats have been very optimistic about this set of states cementing a new majority, but they remain at a structural disadvantage in all four. Democrat Jamie Harrison has waged a stronger campaign than many expected in South Carolina, against long time incumbent and political shapeshifter Lindsey Graham, a Trump critic, turned Trump defender. However Harrison has hit a hard ceiling of support in the mid to low 40s (in line with Joe Biden in the state), and is dependent on Graham underwhelming with hardcore conservatives. The Harrison campaign and its allies have taken advantage of their riches to support a dropped out third party candidate named Bill Bledsoe, who dropped out and endorsed Graham after spending part of the election running to his right as a “true conservative”. These tactics are legal, but they don’t imply any confidence that Harrison can garner a majority even if he gets close. Most of the remaining undecided vote appears Trump leaning, and that partially explains Graham’s embrace of the most conservative elements of the GOP after spending many years as a centrist.

Kansas is another state where Democrats have a low ceiling issue, Barbara Bollier, a former Republican, and state lawmaker, is running your standard “Midwest centrist” Democratic campaign against Trump supporting physician and Congressman Dr. Roger Marshall, who is rather underwhelming as far as red state Republicans goes. Bollier is enjoying a surge of support in the Kansas City suburbs and will do well in educated places like Riley County (where Kansas State University is located), but the state remains functionally conservative and Trump leaning, Bollier will likely outperform Biden, enjoying support from many former Republicans who are to the left of Trump, but finish short of where Democratic Governor Laura Kelly finished, because Marshall is not as extreme or controversial as Kelly’s Republican opponent was. Watch the margins in the Wichita media market to decide this race, that will be close, even if a clear path to victory hasn’t formalized for Bollier.

Texas also features a Republican turned Democrat running for Senate, military veteran MJ Hegar lost a competitive bid for Congress in 2018 and immediately pivoted to the Senate race against incumbent Republican John Cornyn. Cornyn has been another quiet member of the Republican chamber, and the fact he’s even in a competitive race is more about Trump’s loss of support than anything he’s done. Hegar was a b-list Democratic recruit though, she’s struggled with name ID in a massive, and expensive state, and lacked Beto O’Rourke’s national and regional star power. Instead the campaign has focused on trying to ride Biden’s coattails to a surprise win, but Cornyn should outperform Trump with Latinos in the state, he retains slightly more suburban support, and Hegar has struggled courting the state’s sizeable African-American electorate, with former primary opponent Royce West notably stating that he’s not supporting her. An open admission from Hegar that she didn’t vote for Barack Obama in either 2008 or 2012 hasn’t helped either. Dems would love to win the Lone Star State, but Hegar trailing Biden slightly is the expected result, meaning Biden could win Texas and Cornyn still hangs on.

Alaska will be the latest (competitive) state in terms of poll closing on Tuesday, all eyes will be on whether Dan Sullivan eases past Democrat/Independent Dr. Al Gross or if the race is much closer than expected. Democrats have floated some polling that shows Gross competitive, but he’s rarely been ahead, the state is notoriously hard to poll though, and Democrats have won here before, so an upset is more likely here than a lot of states. In any case Gross, an everyman candidate with a compelling story, has done better than Democrats could reasonably expect given he started as an unknown, Sullivan has also not been fully on his game or invested and that would put him in an awkward position if he loses, as the “one that got away” for the GOP. Republicans have depended on tying gross to politically toxic “California Liberalism”, rather than uplifting Sullivan.

Tilt Republican States (IA, MT)

Iowa’s Joni Ernst and Montana’s Steve Daines will need the floor to not fall out from underneath Donald Trump if they are going to stay in the US Senate. The Iowa race looks to be one of the closest in the nation, with Ernst, a breakout candidate in 2014 for Republicans, surprisingly locked in a knife fight with Theresa Greenfield, who failed to make the ballot running for Congress in 2018 (a race she likely would have won), but has surged back politically, taking advantage of Ernst’s arrogance and aloofness on the campaign trail to try to show she better connects with voters. A recent debate saw Ernst struggle to name the price of farm commodities in Iowa, but the Republican Senator, who didn’t lead a poll for much of September and October, has surged back to (presumably) take a narrow lead. Given that this state was a disappointment for Democrats in 2018, the winds have shifted slightly against Greenfield, if Biden wins Iowa, she will win, but winning the state if Trump does the same would take some real luck.

Even Republicans concede that Montana‘s Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is personally popular, but Bullock repeating the feat of Montana’s other Senator, Jon Tester, and winning as Democrat in a state Trump is favored to win would still come as a surprise. Bullock, like Colorado’s Hickenlooper, expressed little desire to be a Senate candidate until forced to make a decision on the matter after his brief Presidential campaign was unsuccessful. Unlike Hickenlooper, Bullock has embraced campaign full force though, and with the state seeing record voter turnout, he’s certainly within striking distance. Daines is a relatively bland conservative that’s focused on making sure every Trump voter ends up in his camp. The absence of third party options on the Montana ballot this year is probably a boost for Daines as well, as Democrats have a better chance winning a plurality than a majority in Montana. Voters like Bullock, but they probably don’t like the Democratic policy agenda enough to send him to the Senate.

Safe and Likely Democratic States

In a better year for Republicans Virginia and New Hampshire might be of interest, both the incumbent Democrats in these states (Mark Warner and Jeanne Shaheen) are safe, nominating Q Anon supporters hasn’t helped Republican’s nonexistent chances in Delaware or Oregon either. Colorado and New Mexico never quite made it on the board this year for Republicans, Colorado Senator Cory Gardner had his career ruined by Donald Trump, Gardner came into office in 2014 on a moderate brand, and despite being a relatively successful and non-scandalous Senator, voters are set to reject him by a large margin in favor of former Governor and (brief) Presidential candidate John Hickenlooper, a quirky moderate in his own right who has run a relatively low profile campaign, a campaign he originally stated he never wanted to run. His party line support should be enough for Democrats to flip one of the seats they need for control. In New Mexico Democrat Ben Ray Lujan has faced a credible challenge from Republican Mark Ronchetti in an open seat race. Ronchetti has campaigned harder and more effectively than Lujan, but with the Trump campaign facing long odds in his state, it will be for naught. Lujan will be happy with his luck.

Lean Democratic States (AZ, MN, MI, ME)

Democrats must sweep these four states to take control, losing any of them would be a massive disappointment for the DSCC. Both Mark Kelly in Arizona and Sara Gideon in Maine have raised obscene amounts of money for their races, and put it to use building name ID and savaging their Republican opponents in states where Trump looks set to lose to Biden in. The Arizona race sees Republican retread Martha McSally looking to avenge her 2018 defeat, that hasn’t been going well though, Kelly, the husband for beloved former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, is a plain spoken moderate who fits the state well, and McSally faces skepticism from the right and the center, she’s neither close to Trump, or the McCain wing of the Arizona GOP, the military veteran has struggled with authenticity.

The Maine Senate race is unique as rank choice voting is used, four candidates are on the ballot, and voters select their preferences in a 1 through 4 order. Republican Senator Susan Collins is one of the most famous moderate Republicans alive today, but her brand has been damaged by Trump’s low approval ratings in the state, and her support for Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh cemented she was in for a tough fight for re-election. Famous Republicans from the Bush family to Massachusetts and Maryland Governor’s Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan have spoken up for Collins, but the weight of the Democratic party is behind Gideon and giving her no quarter. Gideon was a powerful state lawmaker in her own right and unlike some of Collins past opponents, has not underperformed or wilted under pressure. Her polling lead is stable and consistent, and votes for the Green Party candidate should transfer to Gideon in a state where many voters are not hardcore partisans. In the past voters may have rewarded Collins centrism, but with the Democratic party pushing straight ticket voting, it should be enough to push Gideon over.

Republicans have flirted with putting Michigan and Minnesota in play, but unless Trump’s fortunes are markedly better than the data suggests in either state, they won’t end up in play. John James, a black veteran, overperformed expectations in 2018, and he’s continued his Senate campaign for the state’s other Senate seat this year against generic Democratic Gary Peters. Peters is hardly a household name in the state, but being low profile isn’t always harmful, and Biden/Democratic party efforts to unify the ticket and ensure voters stick to the party line should be enough to hand James a second defeat in as many years.

Former suburban Congressman Jason Lewis has been a credible recruit for Republicans in Minnesota, but Senator Tina Smith has avoided any unforced errors in a state Biden should win, and Lewis has failed to differentiate himself from Trump enough to exceed his support. Lewis isn’t as exciting as James for Republicans, but Minnesota may have been a better investment this cycle than Michigan. Mitch McConnell’s complete refusal to work with Democrats has also ensured many Democratic Senators have a low, but inoffensive policy and public profile.

Tilt Democratic States (and a runoff state) (NC, GA x2)

The “majority makers” for Democrats are Georgia’s two Senate seats, and the seat in North Carolina. Jon Ossoff, Raphael Warnock, and Cal Cunningham will be hoping Biden shines in the Sun Belt and carries them over the line, though in Georgia a runoff is almost certain in the special election race, and quite possible in the regular race.

Democrats were feeling good about Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, the vanilla Democrat had scandal plagued Senator Thom Tillis, a Trump ally, on the ropes, before he engaged in one of the dumbest self inflicted scandals in politics. A credible lead wilted away when it was revealed he had engaged in multiple extramarital affairs while on the campaign trail. The campaign chose to respond by staying the course, Cunningham started his campaign in a “windowless basement”, and is likely to end it that way too, hoping that voters gift him a Senate seat thanks to hatred of Trump. Tillis policy agenda and support of Trump is (presumably) unpalatable to a majority of the Tar Heel state’s voters and Cunningham is pledging not to screw them over, even if he screwed himself over.

Georgia’s special election will be going to a runoff, Democrats coalesced around Pastor Raphael Warnock, the leader of the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (Martin Luther King Jr.’s Church), while Republicans have warred with themselves all year after Republican Governor Brian Kemp chose wealthy businesswoman Kelly Loeffler, a little known Republican, instead of Congressman Doug Collins, a staunch Trump ally in the House. In addition to Loeffler and Collins fight over who is the “real conservative”, there are dozens of other candidates from across the political spectrum on a maze of a ballot. Under and over voting will be a real problem, but in any case even if Biden wins Georgia, Warnock is not going to fully transfer his vote, he’s certain to finish first, but (nearly) certain to be in a runoff anyway, even though other Democratic campaigns on the ballot are non-existent at this point.

His likely opponent in a January runoff that could decide Senate control is Loeffler, with NRSC support and a massive amount of self funding, she’s had a megaphone, while Collins has been yelling, even if they are using the same lines. Early voter turnout was strong in Collins conservative district though, so Loeffler is far from a lock, and she’s going to have to make a sudden pivot in the runoff away from the far right, after she spent the last weeks of the primary campaigning with Q Anon supporter, future Congresswoman, and all around wacky Marjorie Taylor Greene. Warnock, who is relatively quiet for a preacher, has maintained a low profile and his spent his money to build name ID instead of a policy profile, but mobilizing Democratic voters for a second time in Georgia will be a challenge all the same (and will be previewed separately in a few weeks).

Both parties hope to put Georgia’s regular Senate election away without going to overtime, but a January runoff looms in a state that either Biden or Trump could plausibly win with a plurality of the vote. Jon Ossoff surprised many by winning the state’s June Democratic primary without a runoff, and continues to show he’s not the same candidate who lost the most expensive special election in US History just a few years ago for Congress in the Atlanta suburbs. Ossoff has evolved, but his standing still depends on Joe Biden’s in the Peach State, and he seems destined to continue to be in the middle of extremely expensive political races.

Republican David Perdue chose to embrace Trump early on and has stuck with him despite Georgia’s lurch to the center politically. Perdue has traded any chance of outperforming Trump markedly in the state’s diverse and growing Atlanta suburbs for the hope of riding the coattails of Trump’s white working class and rural coalition in exurban and rural parts of the state. These areas are shrinking in population, but Perdue will run up massive numbers. Ossoff also has a very low profile outside of the Atlanta media market (something that was also true in the Primary). Perdue and Republicans have invested heavily in aggressive, negative attacks to define him, and I’m not sure a Georgia Democrat can win a majority of the state based on the Atlanta media market and a few other urban outposts alone. Biden and Ossoff likely emerge with the most votes on Tuesday, but both will be a plurality, and votes for Libertarian Shane Hazel should push the Senate race into a January runoff, meaning Georgia gets double runoffs that could decide Senate Control (most likely making them two of the most expensive Senate races in American history).

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