If the coronavirus pandemic has completely overshadowed a presidential contest that was previously considered epochal and mesmerizing, it has also pushed the struggle for control of Congress onto a low-temperature back burner. But even in this situation, political life moves on, and for all the uncertainty associated with COVID-19’s impact on the economy and the president’s approval ratings, not to mention the ability to hold a general election, campaigns are crawling forward and some judgments can be made on their trajectory.
At FiveThirtyEight, Nathaniel Rakich has conducted an overview of Senate races, and concludes that Democrats have a marginally better — though still limited — chance of picking up the three or four (depending on who controls the tie-breaking vice-presidential vote) net seats needed for control in 2021:
The most competitive Senate races remain unchanged from late last year — there haven’t been any significant developments in Colorado or Maine, for example, that have dislodged them from their too-close-to-call status. Instead, the biggest Senate news of the last couple months came in the longer-shot Democratic pick-up opportunity of Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock’s entry has shaken up the race. Bullock was considered to be the only Democrat who could put this red state in play, and his announcement caused nonpartisan handicappers to move the race from “Solid Republican” to “Lean Republican.”
The November special election for a Republican-held Senate seat in Georgia is another potential Democratic pickup opportunity, given the potentially vicious GOP intraparty maneuvering involving Doug Collins and recently appointed senator, Kelly Loeffler. And as Rakich notes, in Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly is beginning to look like a slight favorite against another appointed senator, Martha McSally.
Delayed Senate primaries aren’t that big a factor so far, though underdog Democratic incumbent Doug Jones of Alabama may benefit from residual tension between Jeff Sessions and Tommy Tuberville, whose March 31 runoff was postponed all the way until mid-July. In most competitive states, the likely November contenders have either already been chosen or are pretty clear.
If the Senate landscape is looking slightly bluer but still tinged red, COVID-19 has more decisively affected House races, as Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman explains:
As the COVID-19 outbreak forces more states to delay spring primary and runoff dates, it’s had another, more subtle effect: it’s all but frozen the House recruitment process in place and curtailed fundraising, benefiting incumbents and candidates who had already built large war chests and disadvantaging recent entrants. On the whole, that boosts Democrats, the party on defense this cycle.
Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats to win the majority back. But of the 30 House Democrats who represent districts President Trump carried in 2016, 11 still didn’t have a GOP challenger with more than $200,000 in the bank at the beginning of 2020. In fact, the median Democrat in these 30 seats ended 2019 with $1.8 million on hand to just $247,000 for the median leading Republican challenger.
Amid self-quarantines and massive 401k losses, it’s going to be next to impossible for the parties to convince fence-sitting would-be candidates to jump into races and spend most of the year asking for money. That’s bad news for Republicans, who still have a few glaring recruitment holes.
In his own ratings, Wasserman has moved four freshman Democrats — Laura Underwood of Illinois, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, Antonio Delgado of New York, and Ben McAdams of Utah — from toss-up races to Lean D.
Most obviously, we are in the kind of insane cycle where everything could change between now and November, with the most politically important variables (themselves significantly affected by public-health and economic developments) being Donald Trump’s job approval rating and the capacity of the states to pull off a competent general election with something approaching the high turnout everyone expected before COVID-19 arrived. At this point we don’t even know for sure that the presidential nominees will be healthy as the campaign gets geared up. But it will matter a lot which party controls Congress next year, and whether either has the kind of trifecta that can make governing much easier as the country — God willing — moves beyond the current crisis.