A Senate majority is well within reach for Democrats nearing Election Day 2020. The fight for the White House is well underway, but Democrats are also heavily focused on flipping the Senate to ensure another majority on Capitol Hill.
Are Senate races as important as presidential races?
Whichever party controls the Senate has the ability to block or pass legislation on key issues such as health care, climate change and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Republican incumbents are facing tight re-election races against Democratic candidates eager to take their place. There are 35 seats up for grabs in the 2020 election, 23 of which are currently held by the GOP.
Senate races have become increasingly reflective of presidential elections. In 2016, for the first time, every state voted for president the same way it did for the Senate. If this trend is repeated in 2020, and former Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidency, as national polling suggests he will, Democrats only need to win three new Senate seats to hold a majority (because the vice president breaks ties in the Senate). In the case that President Donald Trump is victorious, Democrats will need to obtain four Senate seats to win the chamber.
Contentious races have tightened over the past few weeks. In the eight most competitive Senate contests, Democrats have raised $261.8 million during the third quarter, almost three times more than the $96 million raised by Republican incumbents over the same time. But with Election Day one week away, frontrunner margins are slim. Here are five states to watch as Nov. 3 approaches:
Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins is being seriously challenged for the first time after 24 years of serving in the Senate. Collins’ popularity at home has plummeted in the last year as she has shifted from a moderate to a more partisan figure. Most notably, the 2018 vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court came down to Collins’ vote, which she ultimately cast in favor of his appointment. In turn, the Maine Republican became a target for Democrats looking to flip Senate seats in 2020.
Collins is being challenged by the speaker of the Maine state House, Sara Gideon, who is currently favored slightly to win the Senate election. Gideon is running as a moderate, and is focused on health care expansion and environmental protection. She has raised $63.6 million from Democrats across the country determined to vote Collins out of office.
North Carolina is the epitome of a purple state: politically split between progressives in some areas and conservatives with ties to Southern tradition in others. The state’s Senate race has been overwhelmed by scandals in both campaigns.
Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has been criticized for his close relationship with Trump; as a politician once honored for being unpredictable and amenable, Tillis may have undermined his own chance at re-election by associating so strongly with Trump. These concerns heightened when the incumbent contracted coronavirus after attending an event for Judge Amy Coney Barrett without a mask, the same event that likely exposed the President to COVID-19.
Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, a former Democratic state senator and Iraq war veteran, has been leading in his bid for Senate. However, Cunningham, whose personal image has been a centerpiece of his campaign, recently admitted to an extramarital affair after romantic exchanges between him and his public relations strategist became public. We’ll see if this news will impact polling numbers in one of the most competitive, “toss up” races of the year.
Democratic incumbent Sen. Doug Jones’ seat is considered the Democratic party’s most endangered facing re-election. Jones is best known for prosecuting two Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham Baptist Church that killed four young Black girls. He narrowly won his seat in a 2017 special election, making him the first Democratic senator from Alabama since 1997.
Jones is challenged by former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who has closely aligned himself with Trump throughout his campaign. Tuberville has refused to debate Jones and lacks government experience, but his alignment with Trump will likely gain him support among the strong conservative base of Alabama’s voters.
As a historically red state, Alabama is the GOP’s best chance at flipping a seat to maintain their majority. Cook Political Report rates Jones’ seat as “leaning Republican.”
In a state trending away from the Republican Party, Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner’s seat is at grave risk in Colorado. Gardner, who was elected in the 2014 Republican midterm wave, continues to be a reliable Trump ally even as ideological trends in his state shift. This partnership contradicts Gardner’s promotion of the Great American Outdoors Act and focus on energy policy, demonstrating his struggle to articulate where he stands politically.
Polling averages currently have Gardner more than seven points behind his Democratic competitor, John Hickenlooper, who was highly regarded by the public as an effective mayor of Denver from 2004 to 2010. Hickenlooper is running on his history of bipartisan work as mayor, specifically with Medicaid and environmental regulations.
Arizona’s special Senate election this year has been called a “bright spot” for Democrats, as Biden currently polls ahead of Trump in the traditionally-red state. Under state law, the winner of a special election can be seated after a final review of election results, known as a canvass. Sen. Martha McSally, who lost her Senate race in 2018 and was appointed to an open seat soon after, will face off against Democratic candidate Mark Kelly in the state’s evolving political climate. Kelly has maintained his independence from the Democratic establishment as a selling point of his campaign.
McSally has lost support amongst key voter demographics as her alliance with Trump alienates suburban and Latino communities. Among women, a key bloc in the suburbs of Maricopa County, Kelly is leading McSally by a 26-point lead. McSally has not broken 40% among the demographic since July.
At the moment, there are many more Republican trouble spots than Democratic ones in Senate election races. Biden’s current lead in national polls has given Democratic contenders a chance to play offense in the last few weeks of campaigning. But with narrow margins separating candidates in almost all Senate races this election cycle, it is unclear who will ultimately control the Legislature.
Article Thumbnail: Doug Mills/The New York Times via AP, Pool