The Elections That Will Determine Control of the Senate
For the first time since 2014, control of what has been called the world’s greatest deliberative body – the United States Senate – feels truly up for grabs. The Senate of the current 116th Congress is comprised of 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats (though two are listed as Independents). Despite this deficit, Democrats, including small dollar donors, appear confident in their party’s chances of reclaiming a majority in the Senate, spending millions of dollars on longshot races in South Carolina and Georgia. The confidence is not completely unfounded; of the 35 seats up for election this year, 23 are controlled by the GOP, compared to just 12 for Democrats. However, while typically safe red states in the South may be within Democrats’ reach in the event of a genuine blue-wave scenario on Election Day, they will not determine which party controls the Senate for at least the next two years. The key elections that will determine the balance of power are those that are most likely to see incumbents defeated, often states that will be greatly impacted by the presidential election. Unfortunately for Democrats, one of their current Senators is at the top of that list.
Alabama: Senator Doug Jones (D) vs. Former College Football Coach Tommy Tuberville (R)
In 2017, former US Attorney Doug Jones won a narrow victory over former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore to fill the seat vacated when Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) was tapped to serve as the Trump Administration’s first Attorney General. It was a very rare upset that many expected for Democrats following numerous credible public allegations of sexual misconduct made against Moore during the campaign. The combination of a low turnout special election, a historically unpopular Republican candidate, and the backing of highly motivated national Democrats in one of the first major campaigns following the 2016 election were enough to give Democrats their first statewide win in Alabama – by less than 2 points – since a Public Service Commission election in 2008. It is certainly not impossible for Jones to win reelection but at this point, it is exceedingly unlikely. This is one of the safest Republican states and even election forecasts predicting a massive win for former Vice President Joe Biden at the top of the ticket do not expect Democrats to keep this seat in a state that was R+27.7 in 2016.
Any potential path to Democrat’s retaking the Senate likely begins with a step backwards unless Jones can create another perfect storm with less than a week remaining.
Colorado: Former Governor John Hickenlooper (D) vs. Senator Cory Gardner (R)
Gardner, who also serves as Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), is the Republican in perhaps the most danger of losing their seat according to many election forecasts. The conditions in Colorado, which have been trending left with the influx of Californians and New Mexicans flocking to the state in recent years, do not favor the Republican incumbent. While Gardner has the NRSC at his disposal, he is facing a well-known former Governor in a state that twice supported Barack Obama and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
While Hickenlooper and Gardner each had just over $4 million in cash on hand entering the final stretch of the campaign, Hickenlooper has outraised and outspent Gardner by significant margins and has led in every public poll taken in 2020. Notably, Colorado has seen a statistically relevant number of votes go to third party or independent candidates in recent years, a trend that could create additional pathways to victory for Gardner. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state with less than 50% of the vote as Libertarian Gary Johnson, Jill Stein of the Green Party, and independent Evan McMullin combined to earn over 7% of the vote in the presidential election. In 2014, Hickenlooper won reelection to the Governorship with 49.1% of the vote. That same year, Gardner defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall with just 48.5% of the vote in a race that saw 5% of the vote go to independent or third-party candidates. Unfortunately for Gardner, President Trump’s unpopularity in the state may have ended that trend for the time being. In 2018, Democrat Jared Polis won a resounding victory with 53.4% of the vote, 10% more than the Republican nominee. At present, FiveThirtyEight gives Biden a 94% chance of winning the state.
These fundamentals of the race will likely be too much for Gardner to overcome. In a sign of their confidence, on October 16th, national Democrats, through the Senate Majority PAC, have pulled their remaining television ads from Colorado’s market, cancelling an expected $1.2 million expenditure that will be redirected to another more competitive race.
Arizona Special Election: Navy Veteran/Astronaut Mark Kelly (D) vs. Senator Martha Mcsally (R)
This is the election to complete the remainder of the late Senator John McCain’s term, which began following the 2016 election. This contest pits Kelly, an astronaut, and the husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, against McSally, a retired Air Force Colonel who was appointed to the seat by Governor Doug Ducey in January 2019. Notably, this is McSally’s second run for Senate. Just months before she was appointed to McCain’s seat, she ran for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Flake (R), losing narrowly to moderate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. Given the results of the 2018 election, Ducey’s appointment of McSally was controversial at the time and her ensuing decision to tie her fate to President Trump’s may prove costly for Arizona Republicans.
Arizona has not supported a Democratic candidate for president since 1996, but that is on the verge of changing as the state is now firmly a battleground at the presidential level. The impact of that change is a result of both a demographic shift in the state due to a growing Hispanic population and President Trump’s, and thus the GOP’s, dwindling support in the suburbs. Both RealClearPolitics and NYTimes’ The Upshot respective polling averages show Biden leading Trump. For comparison, Republican Mitt Romney won Arizona by 10 points in 2012. Even more recently in 2018, Ducey trounced his Democratic opponent by 14 points despite McSally’s loss down ballot.
Even as Arizona transitions from red to purple, Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county by a wide margin, will continue to decide the state’s election. Maricopa encompasses Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs. One third of its residents identify as Latino. The historically white suburbs have seen a moderate increase in diversity in recent years just as many of college-educated white families that have dominated suburbs for years are abandoning the Republican party. The NYT-Sienna poll of Maricopa earlier this month shows Biden leading by 8 points, almost doubling the 4.2-point margin Sinema won in the county in 2018. All of this bodes extremely well for Kelly, a self-styled moderate with high name recognition in the state. That same poll shows Kelly actually running ahead of Biden overall and with key constituencies (women, young people, and Latino voters). Due to rule changes, Maricopa County – where a majority of residents vote early – will be permitted to process ballots up to two weeks before Election Day and the results at both the presidential and senate level will be critical to watch. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Arizona and Arizona is almost impossible to win without Maricopa County.
Maine: State Rep. Sara Gideon (D) vs. Senator Susan Collins (R)
Maine features one of the most hotly contested races in the country as Susan Collins seeks a fifth term in office. This is a seat, in a politically friendly state, that Democrats have been eyeing for years, particularly since Collins provided one of the deciding votes in Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearing. That vote alone has spurred Gideon’s fundraising for nearly two years. Gideon raised $68.5 million this cycle, compared to just $26.5 million for the incumbent Collins. That is an enormous fundraising gap. Entering the final weeks of the campaign, Collins had just under $4.5 million left in the bank while Gideon still had over $20 million in cash on hand despite spending nearly $48 million.
The polling and forecasting landscape is not much better for Collins. The most recent RealClearPolitics polling average shows Gideon with a 4-point lead. FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast model also lists Gideon as a slight favorite with a 63% chance of victory. The vast majority of polls taken this year show the race tied or with Gideon leading. However, there is one factor to take into consideration when examining polls of this particular election: does the leader have at least 50% of the vote? This is of particular importance because Maine has recently began using ranked choice voting wherein a candidate must secure at least 50% + one vote to win, otherwise, some voters’ second choice candidate will receive additional support. This happened in 2018 at the Congressional level. Republican incumbent Bruce Poliquin received a plurality, but not majority of votes at 46.5% on the first ballot. After voters’ second choices were counted, Democrat Jared Golden emerged victorious. It remains to be seen how ranked choice voting may come into play for this contest, but it is notable that Gideon has struggled to break 50% in most polls taken. Collins incumbency may be enough to make her voters’ second choice and claim victory when the final votes are tallied.
North Carolina: Businessman Cal Cunningham (D) vs. Senator Thom Tillis (R)
In a key southern swing state, former state Senator and businessman Cal Cunningham is challenging first term incumbent Republican Thom Tillis in a very close race. Cunningham has proved a prodigious fundraiser, out-raising Tillis nearly 2-to-1 and bringing in nearly $47 million this cycle. As a result, this may be end as the most expensive Senate race in history. Despite an extramarital affair coming to light in the final weeks of the campaign, Cunningham has maintained a consistent, if small lead over Tillis. Nearly all polling from the last two months shows Cunningham leading within the margin of error. Tillis is spending the final days of the campaign hosting public events across the state with Vice President Mike Pence and other top Republicans. Cunningham is hosting smaller events with voters that are closed to the public, possibly because his campaign reported having just under $900,000 in cash on hand with three weeks remaining.
North Carolina is a swing state of great consequence because while voters there tend to lean right of center economically, they also lean left on social issues. While Republicans have been generally dominant in recent federal elections, the right coalition of voters can boost Democrats to statewide victory. After backing Obama in 2008, North Carolina signaled a return to red in 2012 by supporting Mitt Romney and electing their first Republican Governor since 1992 in Pat McCrory. Tillis was able to knock off Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan to win this seat in 2014 with 49% of the vote. His fate this time around may be tied directly to the top of the ticket. In 2016, Trump carried North Carolina with less than 50% of the vote and roughly 170,000 votes more than Clinton. Recent polling shows this race as either tied or with Biden barely leading. Most election forecasts show this race as a pure toss up. If the Biden-Harris campaign can reenergize the coalition of voters that elected Barack Obama in 2008, Cunningham’s exorbitant spending on this race should be enough to allow him to ride along in a win.
Though, Democrats have a roughly 400,000+ person advantage on Republicans in terms of registered voters in the state, nearly one third of the state’s voters are unaffiliated. Early reports show increased early voting turn out in North Carolina among these unaffiliated voters, a group that has been trending towards Democrats nationally.
Iowa: Businesswoman Theresa Greenfield (D) vs. Senator Joni Ernst (R)
In another presidential swing state featuring a first term Republican incumbent, Theresa Greenfield is about even with Joni Ernst in terms of polling averages for the month of October. While Obama was able to win Iowa in 2008 and 2012, the state backed Trump by nearly 10 points over Clinton in 2016. Notably, Iowans may have sent the GOP a message in 2018 by voting out two incumbent House Republicans in favor of Democratic challengers. Forecasts have shown this race moving away from Republicans since summer gave way to fall. FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model gave Ernst a roughly 58% chance of keeping her seat in early September. One month later, Greenfield became a slight favorite and has built on that lead ever since. Greenfield is currently the slight favorite to win. At the presidential level, the race is a toss-up.
Ernst first came onto the national scene in 2014 with a viral television ad that touched on her experience castrating pigs. With backing from GOP megadonors including the Koch brothers, Ernst defeated her Democratic opponent by almost 9 points to win the seat vacated by longtime Democratic Senator Tom Harkin. This cycle, Ernst has raised over $23 million and still struggled to keep pace with her opponent. Greenfield, essentially a first time candidate after a botched run for the House in 2018, has raised $47 million and spent over $43 million of it to bring this race to a dead heat in the final week.
Montana: Governor Steve Bullock (D) vs. Senator Steve Daines (R)
Like Colorado, the Senate election in Montana features two candidates that have both successfully run statewide elections. Montana is also a state with a recent history of supporting candidates of both parties at the state level. Montana’s Democrats have a brand that is often totally separate from how the national party is viewed by the state’s voters. In 2012, with four elections being determined by statewide vote, Montanans supported two Republicans and two Democrats. Steve Daines won the states only (and then-open) House seat by more than 10 points over the Democratic challenger and Romney easily defeated Obama. That same year, Bullock won his first election for governor by 2 points, while Democrat Jon Tester won his re-election campaign against Daines’ predecessor in the House. In short, split tickets are not a rarity in Montana, especially in presidential years.
At the presidential level, Trump has consistently led in state polls, though his lead has recently shrunk slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Daines has also maintained a persistent, if less commanding lead over the popular Democratic governor Bullock. Perhaps owing to an increased bump from his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for the presidency, Bullock has outraised Daines by about $15 million and outspent him by about $12 million this cycle. Entering the final three weeks of the campaign, Bullock had $4 million in cash on hand, compared to $1.7 million for Daines. Bullock has used his cash advantage to attack Daines’ ties to China in a reversal from the political attacks at the top of the ticket. Despite the onslaught, Daines remains the incumbent most likely to retain his seat among our list of key races to watch.