2020 elections

Biden’s Surge Could Flip the Senate — and Boost His Presidency

Democrat Mark Kelly has built a solid lead over appointed Senator Martha McSally in Arizona. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Savvy Democrats generally understand that if Joe Biden wants to get anything done as president, Democrats need to take the Senate. If Republicans maintain control, Mitch McConnell stands waiting like a bridge troll to obstruct anything a new administration or its House allies might try to accomplish.

Biden will need a lot of help from Senate Democrats should he win, and he’s giving them a hand right now with his increasingly strong position against Donald Trump. Given the polarized atmosphere and a strong trend toward straight-ticket voting (in 2016, no party won a Senate race in a state its presidential candidate lost), a solid Biden win in the presidential race might be just enough to lift his party to the net gain of three seats it needs to achieve control (with a Democratic vice-president breaking a 50–50 tie).

The landscape is most definitely tilting blue. The Cook Political Report’s Senate ratings list contests for two Democratic-held seats as competitive (Michigan is “Lean D,” while Alabama is “Lean R”), while nine Republican-held seats are in play (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina are tossups, while Iowa, Kansas, and both races in Georgia are rated “Lean R”).

Recent Senate polling, as analyzed by Geoffrey Skelley for FiveThirtyEight, is generally very donkey-positive:

Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona has long been endangered, and three new surveys confirm she’s in real trouble. Last week, Democratic pollster Civiqs released a poll that found Democrat Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, leading McSally 51 percent to 42 percent. Two additional polls dropped on Thursday: The New York Times/Siena College gave Kelly a 9-point edge, 47 percent to 38 percent, and Redfield & Wilton Strategies found him ahead by 15 points, 49 percent to 34 percent …

In North Carolina, five new polls show Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in a tight race with former Democratic state Sen. Cal Cunningham. The New York Times/Siena College survey of the race gave Cunningham a slim edge, 42 percent to 39 percent, which echoed another poll released this week — Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling had Cunningham up 44 percent to 40 percent.

Meanwhile, two recent polls in Georgia suggest that Democrats have a chance of capturing a Peach State seat.

Aside from McSally, the most vulnerable Republicans, particularly if Trump isn’t doing well, have long been thought to be Colorado Senator Cory Gardner and Maine Senator Susan Collins. Former governor John Hickenlooper was persuaded by national Democrats to enter the Colorado race, and despite some notable stumbles, recent polls show him dispatching primary opponent Andrew Romanoff and entering the general election as a big favorite over Gardner, for whom Trump is a real millstone. Collins has trailed Democratic favorite Sara Gideon (expected to win a July 14 primary) in every poll taken this year.

Republicans may have missed out on securing another potentially vulnerable seat when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo passed up the contest to succeed Republican senator Pat Roberts, which made the highly controversial nativist and vote-suppressor Kris Kobach the GOP front-runner. Kobach lost the 2018 gubernatorial race pretty badly to Democrat Laura Kelly.

The only two vulnerable Democratic-held seats are beginning to diverge a bit. Michigan’s trending blue, as Skelley notes:

[W]e also have five fresh surveys from Michigan, where Democratic Sen. Gary Peters faces Republican John James, an Army veteran. James lost the state’s 2018 Senate race, but still performed fairly well in a Democratic-leaning environment. Yet the numbers now mostly augur well for Peters. Thursday’s New York Times/Siena College poll put Peters ahead by 10 points, 41 percent to 31 percent while Redfield & Wilton Strategies had him up by 18 points, 50 percent to 32 percent.

Alabama’s Doug Jones has mostly trailed either Republican facing off in a July 14 runoff (his predecessor Jeff Sessions is an underdog against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville). But there’s a possibility the bitter Republican race could improve the incumbent’s odds, which could also benefit from Biden holding Trump to a smaller win than his 27 percent margin in 2016.

All in all, the sheer number of races in which Republicans are on the defensive, along with Trump’s current struggles, are making a Democratic Senate look like a better-than-even bet. And even after November 3, Democrats will almost certainly get a final chance to flip a seat in a general-election runoff in Georgia. Two Republicans (appointed incumbent Kelly Loeffler and challenger Doug Collins) are going after each other with tire irons in a crowded nonpartisan “jungle primary” (this is a special election for the seat given up by Johnny Isakson at the end of last year), with the survivor facing a Democrat — probably the Reverend Raphael Warnock — next January.

A Democratic Senate would likely make confirmation of Biden’s executive-branch and judicial appointees relatively easy, while giving the new administration a decent shot at passing legislation if it can be crammed into a budget reconciliation bill (which cannot be filibustered) or if Democrats kill the filibuster altogether. But if he wants that relatively sunny outcome, Biden would be wise not to play it safe but to build as large a lead over Trump as he can and give his party and his country a soul-satisfying repudiation of the 45th president.

Biden Surge Could Flip the Senate — and Boost His Presidency