For all the (occasional and limited) bipartisanship of the congressional response to COVID-19, developments in Washington ought to make it clear to Democrats how desperately they need to pull off a trifecta in November to control Congress and the White House. Totally aside from the usual, and very important, concerns about getting executive and judicial nominees confirmed, if Republicans hold on to the Senate after losing the White House, you can be sure they’ll make the upper chamber a torture chamber for Democrats. You can almost hear the 24/7 demands from Mitch McConnell and every precinct of conservative media that the Biden administration austerely dedicate itself to paying off the federal spending conducted under Trump; all that “progressive agenda” junk can wait till kingdom come!
So wiping out the GOP’s three-seat margin in the Senate is a big deal. It will require a net four-seat gain if Republicans hang on to the White House and Mike Pence keeps his tie-breaking vote as vice-president, though the conventional wisdom is that if Trump’s strong enough to win, Republicans are strong enough to keep the Senate, too.
One key reason Democrats have been considered major underdogs in the quest to retake the Senate is that they start in a hole, thanks to the very high odds facing Alabama’s Doug Jones, who won his seat in a 2017 special election wherein the eternally controversial Judge Roy Moore was the GOP nominee. In a presidential year with lots of straight-ticket voting, it will be tough for any statewide Democrats to win in a state Trump carried by 27 points in 2016, though a fractious Republican runoff (concluding in a delayed July 14 vote) between former Senator Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach (and Trump endorsee) Tommy Tuberville is giving Team Jones some hope.
Beyond Alabama, there are four Republican-held seats (the “Core Four,” as Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball calls them), that look particularly vulnerable in November. They are held by Arizona appointee Martha McSally (facing former astronaut Mark Kelly); Colorado’s Cory Gardner (opposed by former Denver mayor and governor John Hickenlooper); Maine’s Susan Collins (probably facing Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon); and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis (opposed by former state legislator Cal Cunningham). Gardner and Collins are in states tilting blue; McSally is fresh from losing an earlier Senate race to Kyrsten Sinema in 2018; and Tillis is just not very popular. And at this point, Joe Biden’s looking competitive in both Arizona and North Carolina.
Beyond the “Core Four” are three states where Democrats also have a shot, for varying reasons. In Kansas, nativist and voter suppressionist Kris Kobach blew the 2018 governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly. He’s currently the front-runner in the Republican race for the open seat being vacated by Pat Roberts, which gives Democrats a chance at an upset. State senator Barbara Bollier, a recent party-switcher, is considered the Democratic front-runner, and someone who might replicate the recently successful strategy of splitting the state’s Republicans when a hard-core social conservative like Kobach is on the ballot.
Like Arizona, Georgia is a state that has been slowly trending blue, and has two Senate seats up in November. Incumbent Trump favorite David Perdue has attracted a reasonably strong field of Democratic opponents, including 2017 House special-election sensation (albeit ultimately losing) Jon Ossoff, a fundraising dynamo, and former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson. But the race drawing more attention is a nonpartisan “jungle primary” being held on Election Day (with the top-two survivors heading to a January 2021 runoff) featuring appointed Republican senator Kelly Loeffler, a Trump-endorsed right-wing challenger in congressman Doug Collins, and Democrat and Ebenezer Baptist Church pastor Raphael Warnock. Republicans are favored in both Senate races, but not by much.
In a red-trending state where Democrats did well in 2018, Republican Joni Ernst is favored against likely Democratic nominee Theresa Greenfield, but not comfortably.
There’s one race looking competitive where it’s not the state but the candidate that may matter for Democrats. Two-term governor Steve Bullock, who has won twice against the tide in presidential years, is running for the Senate against incumbent Republican Steve Daines after folding a disappointing presidential campaign. Some polling out on Tuesday seems to vindicate those in Montana and in Washington who spent months luring Bullock into this contest (though caveats apply):
There are a few other Senate races where Democrats are mounting strong efforts in tough landscapes, including South Carolina, where Jaime Harrison is actually out-raising Lindsey Graham; Alaska, where Democrats are making common cause with independents like Senate candidate Al Gross in a bid against incumbent Dan Sullivan; and Kentucky, where Mitch McConnell traditionally looks vulnerable (as he does against former Marine pilot and congressional candidate Amy McGrath) before crushing all opposition with huge sacks of money.
All the many promising red-state Democratic candidates are fighting a recent trend against ticket-splitting. In 2016, no Senate candidates won whose presidential candidate didn’t carry their states. So it would probably take a big presidential win by Biden to make some of these states close enough for a Senate upset (e.g., Montana, where the MSU poll shows Biden only down by five points in a state Trump won by 20 in 2016).
But the landscape this year is turning a very pale blue, with a lot more Democratic than Republican opportunities. Aside from Jones, the only Democratic incumbent in even remote danger is Michigan’s Gary Peters, who has led John James (who ran a creditable losing race against Debbie Stabenow in 2018) by a steady if modest margin in a presidential battleground state that may be looking a bit blue itself. If Biden can hang on to win, he has a good chance of bringing the Senate — and the House — along with him.