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Why It’s Harder Than it Looks for Democrats to Win the Senate

A sexting scandal involving Cal Cunningham has cast some doubt on his long-time lead over Republican Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Photo: Gerry Broome/AP/Shutterstock

If Mitch McConnell didn’t have enough to worry about with his Republican senators fighting a COVID-19 outbreak in the middle of trying to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, he also has to contend with the reality that Democrats could to take away his leadership gavel if Joe Biden is elected in November.

As a reminder, here’s the big picture: Assuming Senator Kamala Harris becomes vice-president and provides a tie-breaking vote, Democrats need a net gain of three Senate seats to reach 50. Few observers give Doug Jones — the Democratic senator from Alabama — much of a chance of reelection against Republican Tommy Tuberville in the deep-red state. If Jones loses, then Democrats need a net gain of four seats for control (or five if Trump wins).

Fortunately for the Donkey Party, there are quite a few paths to victory still available. They have an opportunity to win seats in several states, including states where Democrats are currently running as solid favorites (Arizona and Colorado) and those where they have a narrow but real advantage (Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina). And there are a surprising number of races where, polls indicate, a boost from Joe Biden at the top of the ticket could produce victory (Georgia, Montana, South Carolina, Kansas, Alaska, and even Texas). In waging a battle over this broad landscape, it’s significant that Democratic candidates and party fundraising committees have a rare and sometimes sizable financial advantage in all but a few competitive races.

Given partisan polarization and the growing prevalence of straight-ticket voting, you cannot really separate Senate trends from presidential trends. So before looking at the Senate races in detail, it’s important to note that Biden’s lead over Trump has grown in the past turbulent week: It’s at 9.7 percent in the polling averages at RealClearPolitics, the biggest lead since June 24, and 10.2 percent at FiveThirtyEight, the biggest lead of the year. And there are reports that internal Republican polling is showing sharp declines in the president’s standing since the first debate and his COVID-19 diagnosis, particularly in Sun Belt states with a host of competitive Senate races.

The Locks

Looking at the public polls, Democrats remain bullish about Mark Kelly’s odds of knocking off appointed Senator Martha McSally in Arizona. He’s not regularly leading by double-digits as he was earlier this year, but his 7.2 percent lead in the RCP polling average is solid, and the latest survey, from Reuters/Ipsos, has Kelly up by ten points among likely voters. (The same poll has Biden holding a two-point lead in Arizona.) Polling has been relatively sparse in Colorado, but all of it has Democrat John Hickenlooper comfortably ahead of incumbent senator Cory Gardner in a state Biden is expecting to win handily. (In an October SurveyUSA poll Hickenlooper led Gardner 48-39 among likely voters.) This would give Democrats two of the expected four seats they need for control.

The Should-Wins

Closer races where Democrats have been leading most polls include Iowa, where Theresa Greenfield has led Joni Ernst in every poll taken since early August, and has a 5-point lead in the RCP average. Iowa is very close in presidential polls after Trump won the state by nine points last time, and the current unpopularity of Republican governor Kim Reynolds could impact the Senate race on the margins. Similarly, in Maine, Democrat Sara Gideon has held a modest but steady lead over Susan Collins for most of the cycle; her lead in the RCP averages is currently at 3.7 percent. A wild card in Maine is the state’s use of ranked-choice voting, which means second-choice preferences could decide the Senate race if neither candidate wins a majority. Based on the savage (if unsuccessful) fight Maine Republicans put up to stop ranked-choice voting, an “instant runoff” would likely favor Gideon.

The Senate race that has raised the most eyebrows this week, casting some fresh doubt on the likelihood of an easy Democratic sweep to Senate control, is in North Carolina, where Cal Cunningham’s steady lead over incumbent Thom Tillis is potentially endangered by a sexting scandal involving the married Cunningham and a married paramour. Polls taken since the story broke last week have pointed in different directions; most show a continuing modest Cunningham lead, but one Republican-friendly poll has Tillis ahead. Tillis’s ability to take advantage of the scandal has been limited by his own embroilment in the Trump COVID-19 brouhaha (he tested positive as well), and his upcoming responsibilities in the Barrett confirmation (he’s a member of the Judiciary Committee). If Democrats can’t pick up two of these three seats, their challenge gets harder.

The Maybes

Among the smorgasbord of Senate races where Democrats are doing vastly better than expected, none has generated more excitement than Jaime Harrison’s massively funded challenge to Republican veteran Lindsey Graham. The race was recently moved to the “toss-up” column by Cook Political Report; the two candidates have been statistically tied in every public poll since July. As Judiciary Committee Chairman, Graham will be in the national spotlight during the Barrett hearings, which could help him shore up some support among conservatives who’ve had issues with him going back to his days as John McCain’s sidekick, but which may draw even more last-minute money to Harrison. As Perry Bacon Jr. observed in a comment that is also relevant to the Senate races in Georgia and North Carolina, Deep South Democrats often do well by adding upscale white transplants and “knowledge workers” to a sizable Black vote, but they struggle against a wall of “inelastic” white conservatives who represent a narrow majority of the electorate and who just won’t swing Democratic no matter what.

As Bacon suggests, Jon Ossoff may be bumping up against the same ceiling on Deep South Democrats in his challenge to David Perdue. While the occasional poll shows Ossoff leading (e.g., a recent survey from Quinnipiac, a pollster showing very strong Democratic performance almost everywhere), Perdue has a steady advantage in the RCP polling averages, currently at four points. There’s good news for Democrats in the other Georgia Senate race, the November 3 special election whose top two finishers will proceed to a January runoff (so long as no one wins a majority, which, in the vast field for this nonpartisan race, won’t happen). Democratic favorite Raphael Warnock is finally consolidating the Democratic vote and is leading the field in recent polls. He is poised to face the survivor of the vicious Kelly Loeffler–Doug Collins intra-Republican cage match in the runoff election in January. You’d normally give any Republican a big advantage in a stand-alone runoff, but if control of the Senate is at stake, anything could happen.

Aside from South Carolina, the most surprising competitive Senate races are in three states sure to be carried by Trump, but which have a combination of strong Democratic candidates and and shaky Republican opposition: Alaska, Kansas, and Montana. In Alaska, where Democrats have found success backing self-identified independents, indie Al Gross has been within the margin-of-error in the sparse public polling matching him against incumbent Dan Sullivan. Gross has been attracting a lot of money, but may have lost a step when Republican election officials listed him on the ballot as the “Democratic nominee,” not an independent. In Kansas, many national observers wrote off Democrat Barbara Bollier when wildly controversial, nativist (and failed 2018 gubernatorial candidate) Kris Kobach lost the GOP primary to congressman Roger Marshall. But a new poll this week showed Bollier ahead of Marshall by three points, making this seat a new potential Democratic pickup (recognizing that preelection polarization could well save Marshall’s bacon). In Montana, Democratic Governor Steve Bullock has been a formidable challenger to incumbent Steve Daines all along, though the most recent poll from Emerson (a heavily Republican-leaning outlet this cycle) showed Daines well ahead (he leads by 2.7 percent in the RCP averages).

Democratic optimists continue to think that a blue wave is about to hit Texas, where Democrats made huge gains in the suburbs in 2018, and Biden has been more competitive than any Democratic presidential candidate in years. Republican incumbent Jon Cornyn has never trailed against Democrat M.J. Hegar in any public polling but hasn’t completely put the race away.

1980 Redux?

Ideally, Democrats would like to do to Senate Republicans what the GOP did to them in 1980, when a late wave lifted Ronald Reagan to a landslide presidential win that also carried a host of Republican Senate candidates to victory in close races, many of them upsets. With a net gain of 12 seats, Republicans won control of the Senate for the first time since 1954. Democrats likely won’t do that well if there is a Biden landslide, but they won’t need to in order to flip the Senate with some room to spare.

If Republicans manage to hold onto the Senate they will have dodged a bullet, much as they did with some close wins in 2018. But at the moment, their president isn’t doing them any favors.

It’s Harder Than it Looks for Democrats to Win the Senate