Democrats are on the brink of capturing the Senate to give the party full control of Congress, though the final outcome depends heavily on the strength of presidential nominee Joe Biden’s performance in Tuesday’s election.
Polls and independent analysts indicate Democrats have a solid chance at winning at least a narrow Senate majority, with Republicans on the defensive in 12 of the 14 most competitive races. And two years after Democrats gained control of the House by winning 41 GOP-held districts they are looking to add a dozen or more in 2020.
For both parties, the Senate largely hinges on the presidential contest between Biden and President Donald Trump.
Biden has healthy poll leads in two states with vulnerable GOP incumbents on the ballot — Maine and Colorado. He and Trump are essentially deadlocked in several other states with competitive Senate races, including Arizona, Iowa and North Carolina. At the same time, Trump is under-performing in many of the other states he won in 2016, giving Democrats opportunities in traditionally Republican strongholds such as Georgia and South Carolina.
“The top of the ballot is critical,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections. “Four years ago the presidential results and the Senate results matched up in every single state. That demonstrates a small appetite for ticket-splitting.”
Republicans now have a 53-47 Senate majority. If Republicans flip the Alabama Senate seat held by Democrat Doug Jones, Democrats would have to pick up at least four GOP seats to control the Senate if Biden wins. Democrats would need to win at least five seats to have the majority if Trump wins re-election, since the vice president can cast a tie-breaking vote in the 100-member body.
With the House likely to remain firmly in Democratic control, the eventual margin in the Senate will be key to whether Congress will again be gridlocked.
The biggest targets for Democrats are GOP Senators Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado of Martha McSally in Arizona, all of whom have trailed their challengers consistently in public polls and fundraising. Collins and Gardner are the only two Republican incumbents in states won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. McSally lost in 2018 to Kyrsten Sinema before she was appointed to the seat once held by John McCain.
Collins’ support among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, who long have helped her comfortably win re-election in the past, evaporated after her votes for the 2017 GOP tax overhaul, to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and to acquit Trump after his impeachment trial.
Although Collins has tried to distance herself from Trump, refusing to say whether she’ll vote for him on Nov. 3 and opposing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, her Democratic challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, has accused her of putting Trump’s priorities over Maine’s.
Gardner went from leading his party’s Senate campaign committee in 2018 to becoming one of its most-endangered senators, trailing former two-term Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper. Gardner has questioned Hickenlooper on ethics and energy policy, but his embrace of Trump opened him up to Democratic attacks. Republicans are now spending little to try to keep the seat.
McSally’s seat is in formerly reliable territory for a Republican, but demographic shifts, a Trump backlash and the changing politics of health care have her on the defensive. McSally is up against one of the Democrats’ best-funded challengers, astronaut Mark Kelly, who has pledged to be an independent voice for Arizona.
Republicans will likely need to hold on in North Carolina and Iowa to keep the Senate, analysts said.
“North Carolina or Iowa could be the tipping-point states,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Senate campaigns and outside groups in North Carolina have spent more than $250 million on the race between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, according to Advertising Analytics.
Cunningham saw his advantage slip after a scandal broke involving racy texts he sent to a woman who was not his wife. Tillis has said this means Cunningham is untrustworthy, while Cunningham has said what voters really care about is the future of Obamacare, not his personal life. Polls have tightened but Cunningham has clung to a narrow lead in the RealClear Politics average.
Iowa Senator Joni Ernst, who has tied herself closely to Trump and is a member of the GOP’s Senate leadership, is in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. Greenfield has out-raised Ernst in recent quarters, and is the main beneficiary of the $150 million spent by outside groups in the race. Trump won the state by 9 points in 2016, but he and Biden are running neck-in-neck.
In Montana, Republican Steve Daines has a 3-point lead over Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, according to recent polling averages that also show Trump consistently ahead of Biden in the state. Like other Democratic challengers, Bullock has out-raised Daines, raking in $38.7 million to Daines’s $26.1 million. In a reflection of the race’s importance, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super political action committee run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has spent $22 million in the race to help Daines. The rival Senate Majority Fund, run by associates of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has spent $15 million to influence the outcome.
The Swing South
South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, faces a strong challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison. Most recent polls showed them tied, although an Oct. 9-15 New York Times/Siena poll had Graham with a 46%-40% lead. South Carolina hasn’t elected a new Democratic senator since 1966, but Graham faces a backlash for turning from Trump critic to close ally. Harrison broke fundraising records, bringing in $57 million in the third quarter.
Georgia has two Senate races this year, both of them close enough that they could go to a runoff, potentially leaving control of the chamber in doubt until January. In one race, most polls show Republican incumbent David Perdue in a tie with Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff, who narrowly lost an Atlanta-area House special election in 2017. The race includes Libertarian Shane Hazel.
In the other contest, gubernatorally appointed Kelly Loeffler is one of 20 candidates in the special election for her seat, including GOP Representative Doug Collins, who claims to be the true conservative standard-bearer. The leading Democrat in the race is Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
There are several other wild card races that could swing to Democrats if everything goes their way on Election Day, including Alaska, Texas and Kansas.
There is one bright spot for Republicans: in Alabama, where it’s highly likely that Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville will defeat incumbent Democrat Jones.
The GOP’s only other pickup opportunity is in Michigan, where incumbent Democratic Senator Gary Peters is leading GOP challenger John James by 7.6 points in an average of recent polls by RealClearPolitics. Still, Republicans haven’t given up on the race and both parties are fighting it out to the end, Taylor said.
“Both sides are putting a lot of money in Michigan,” Taylor said. “A lot of it is from Republicans trying to find another place to force Democrats to play defense.”
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