2020 elections

Democrats’ Chances of Retaking the Senate Keep Improving

Arizona’s appointed incumbent Martha McSally is now a decided underdog. Photo: Shawn Thew - Pool/Getty Images

The most cautious and authoritative election prognosticators around are at the Cook Political Report, which examines a host of fundamental and campaign-specific factors and even interviews all the candidates it can before projecting an outcome. So it’s significant that Cook now sees a Democratic takeover of the Senate in November as more likely than not, as Cook’s Jessica Taylor explains:

“Something remarkable would have to happen for Republicans to still have control of the Senate after November,” remarked one GOP pollster. “It’s grim. There’s just so many places where Democrats either have the upper hand or are competitive in states that six months ago we wouldn’t have considered at risk.” 

“If you’re an incumbent in a bad environment sitting at 44 percent, you should be pretty damn scared,” another alarmed Republican strategist said. “The expanding map has made it really hard, and there’s just a lot of Democratic momentum right now …”

“The bottom fell out for us at the end of May and June,” with worsening numbers continuing into July now, one national GOP strategist looking at polls across the map bemoaned. 

The Senate landscape has never looked great for Republicans this year, since they are defending 23 seats (including two occupied by appointed senators filling vacancies) while Democrats are defending a mere 12. But with a three-seat margin in the Senate currently, and a strong upper hand in one state (Alabama) with a Democratic incumbent who won a weird 2017 special election, Republicans went into the cycle favored to hang on to the upper chamber, with all but a couple of vulnerable seats being in states won by Trump in 2016.

That’s all changed. According to Cook’s analysis, there are 11 competitive Senate races (those rated as toss-ups or leaning one way or the other). Nine have Republicans playing defense. If the “lean” races go the way they are leaning (two toward Democrats, three toward Republicans) and the six toss-up races split down the middle, Democrats would have the net gain of three seats they need for control (assuming Biden defeats Trump, which is presently a very good bet). And that’s assuming that the pro-Democratic trend we’ve been seeing this spring and summer abates. Before predicting a Democratic takeover, Cook made five ratings changes, all reflecting Democratic gains. Arizona Republican Martha McSally’s race against Democrat Mark Kelly was moved from a toss-up to Lean Democratic. Two other races, in Iowa (where Democrat Theresa Greenfield is challenging incumbent Joni Ernst) and Georgia (where Democrat Jon Ossoff is challenging incumbent David Perdue), were moved from Lean Republican to toss-ups.

If these trends continue, you could see more races slide over into the competitive categories, and more slide away from the GOP. Even in states where they are underdogs, Democratic Senate candidates are raising a lot of money. And if Donald Trump continues to flounder in his handling of his job and in his own reelection campaign, it could further depress down-ballot GOP prospects.

Having said all that, even if Democrats are destined to take back the Senate this year, they may have to wait a while to claim their prize. All the alarums currently going up about an extremely slow count in November caused by heavy voting by mail and overwhelmed election operations applies to Senate races as well as the presidential contest. Trump may not be the only GOP candidate tempted to claim victory on Election Night based on Republican-skewing in-person ballots that happen to be counted first. The outcome of multiple races could be in doubt for days, weeks, and even months.

And there’s even a scenario where long after the presidential and House races are decided, control of the Senate comes down to a January 2021 runoff (or two!) in Georgia, where a majority of the general-election vote is required for victory in statewide contests.

But for now, everything seems to be coming together to produce a Senate led by Chuck Schumer rather than Mitch McConnell. And that could make all the difference in the world for a prospective Biden administration.

Democrats’ Chances of Retaking the Senate Keep Improving