Can Democrats Retake the Senate?

Tim Dickinson
·10 min read

For Democrats determined to solve America’s biggest problems, dislodging Donald Trump is only part of the challenge on Election Day. To advance legislation targeting climate change, pandemic relief, voting rights, higher taxes on corporations and the rich, and to begin the work of rebalancing the federal courts, Democrats need to flip the Senate.

Republicans currently hold a three-seat advantage, 53-47, and the GOP is likely to pick up one seat in 2020, unless lonely deep-south Democrat Sen. Doug Jones can turn back a crimson tide in Alabama. That means that Democrats would need at least four seats to control the chamber — and more than that to prevent a red-state Democrat like West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin from having effective veto power over the party agenda.

The outlook for progressives is encouraging: There are eight Senate races where the Democrat is favored or where the contest is considered a toss-up. The Cook Political Report, a top election forecaster, writes that Democrats are “favorites” to take the Senate.

The Senate battleground is not much changed from the preview Rolling Stone published a year ago, with a few notable exceptions. Jamie Harrison has emerged as a strong challenger to GOP incumbent Lindsey Graham in South Carolina. Democrat Steve Bullock, who’d initially ruled out a run for the Senate, instead leaped into the contest and has put the seat in play. Meanwhile, Democratic hopes of unseating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky have faded significantly.

Here, Rolling Stone offers an overview of the most competitive Senate races heading into Election Day.

TOP DEMOCRATIC TARGETS

Arizona
The contest:
Former NASA astronaut (and husband to former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords) Mark Kelly is taking on Republican incumbent Sen. Martha McSally, who lost a U.S. Senate race in 2018 but was shortly after appointed to the seat opened up by Sen. John Kyl’s resignation. In her two years in the Senate, she has voted with Trump 95 percent of the time.

The polls:
Polls have been tightening, but Kelly has a 3.5 point advantage in the Real Clear Politics (RCP) polling average.

The ratings:
Cook Political Report: Lean D
Five Thirty Eight: Likely D
Inside Elections: Tilt D (this ranking is between Toss Up and Lean D)
Sabato’s Crystal Ball (UVA Center for Politics): Lean D

Colorado
The contest:
Former Democratic Governor and brewer John Hickenlooper is favored to beat GOP incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, who has voted with Trump nearly 90 percent of the time and has been railing against the “extremist agenda” of “far-left bullies” — a questionable re-election strategy in a state that has shifted from purple to blue, and where Biden leads by nearly 20 points.

The polls:
Recent polls put Hickenlooper up about 8 points.

The ratings:
Cook: Lean D
Five Thirty Eight: Likely D
Inside: Lean D
Sabato: Likely D

Maine
The contest:
Maine’s house speaker Sara Gideon is challenging GOP stalwart Sen. Susan Collins, whose reputation for independence has been tarnished by her Trump-era votes, including to confirm Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. In a recent debate Collins declined three times to say whether she supports President Trump, saying “I’m not getting involved in presidential politics.”

The polls:
The spread varies considerably, but Gideon has a small, consistent lead in recent polls.

The ratings:
Cook: Toss Up
Five Thirty Eight: Toss Up
Inside: Tilt D
Sabato: Lean D

TOSS-UP RACES

Iowa
The contest:
Democrat Theresa Greenfield, who was raised on a farm and made a career in urban planning and real estate, is taking on GOP incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst. Ernst campaigned six years ago as a maverick reformer, but instead joined GOP leadership and emerged as a Trump loyalist. She stumbled badly in a recent debate, bungling the break-even price of soybeans after Greenfield nailed the price for corn.

The polls:
Late surveys have been breaking toward the Republican; the RCP polling average puts Ernst up 2 points.

The ratings:
Cook: Toss Up
Five Thirty Eight: Toss Up
Inside: Toss Up
Sabato: Leans D

Georgia (Regular Election)
The contest:
Republican incumbent Sen. David Perdue — who votes with Trump 95 percent of the time — is up for re-election and is being challenged by Jon Ossoff, famous to many progressives for fighting (and coming up short) in an expensive special election House fight in 2017. But Osoff has proved himself a formidable contender, going nuclear on Perdue in a recent debate for downplaying the risk of Covid-19 and alleging Perdue was guilty of “insider trading” for dumping stock before the pandemic-induced market crash last February.

The polls:
The RCP polling average has Ossoff up by one point.

The ratings:
Cook: Toss Up
Five Thirty Eight: Toss Up
Inside: Toss Up
Sabato: Toss Up

Montana
The contest:
Outgoing Democratic Governor Steve Bullock, who briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, is taking on incumbent Sen. Steve Daines. Bullock has a great track record — including winning re-election as governor in 2016, the same year Trump won the state by more than 20 points. He faces in Daines a millionaire former software executive (and current Donald Trump, Jr. hunting buddy) with an approval rating of just 47 percent.

The polls:
Daines has a 3.3 percent lead in the RCP polling average, but handicappers see Bullock with a good shot to win.

The ratings:
Cook: Toss Up
Five Thirty Eight: Lean R
Inside: Toss Up
Sabato: Leans R

North Carolina
The contest:
Democrat Cal Cunningham, a lawyer and Army Reserve officer, is taking on Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, another vulnerable Trump loyalist, who has voted with the president 93 percent of the time. Cunningham has been put on the defensive with a sexting scandal, but it does not seem to be materially impacting the race.

The polls:
Five of the last six polls give Cunningham an edge. He’s got a 2.5-point advantage in the RCP average.

The rankings:
Cook: Toss Up
Five Thirty Eight: Lean D
Inside: Tilt D
Sabato: Toss Up

South Carolina
The contest:
Jamie Harrison, a former state Democratic Party chair, has raised $57 million battling to unseat incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s most pathetic lap-dogs and the Senate Judiciary chair who just jammed through the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. As Harrison sets fundraising records, Graham has been literally begging for money on Fox News. “Lindsey is desperate right now, and I sort of feel bad for him,” Harrison told Rolling Stone in September.

The polls:
Harrison has made South Carolina competitive, but most polls show Graham with a narrow lead.

The ratings:
Cook: Toss Up
Five Thirty Eight: Likely R
Inside: Tilt R
Sabato: Lean R

WILD CARD

Georgia (Special Election)
The contest:
Georgia’s second Senate seat is a special election, resulting from the retirement of Sen. Johnny Isakson last year. The seat is currently occupied by Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, a millionaire married to the chair of the New York Stock Exchange, who was appointed by the governor. She’s a rubber stamp for Trump, voting with the president 100 percent of the time. The November 3rd contest will serve as the primary in this race. Under Georgia election law candidates from all parties compete in a single primary. The seat can be won outright, but if no candidate can claim a majority, the top-two finishers will advance to a runoff, to be held on January 5th. The leading Democrat is Rev. Raphael Warnock, an Atlanta pastor. In her own party, Loeffler is being challenged by Doug Collins, a Republican congressman who serves a district north of Atlanta.

The polls:
Warnock appears to be a lock for the runoff. His (very narrow) path to an outright victory is likely blocked by fellow Democrat Matt Lieberman (son of Joe) who is also competing in the primary and polling in the single digits. Loeffler and Collins are knotted in a very close race, at 22.6 percent apiece in the RCP average.

The ratings:
Cook: Toss Up
Five Thirty Eight: Lean D (primary)
Inside: Tilt R
Sabato: Toss Up

STRETCH OFFENSE

Alaska
The contest:
GOP incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan finds himself in a real contest with doctor and commercial fisherman Al Gross, an independent who is pro-choice and wants to “ditch Mitch McConnell.” In a move seen as boosting Sullivan’s electoral chances, Trump removed protections from the vast Tongass rainforest, opening it to logging and mining. (Sullivan celebrated Trump’s repeal of what he called “overly-burdensome and out-of-touch regulation.”)

The polls:
The latest polls have Sullivan ahead by 5 to 8 points.

The ratings:
Cook: Lean R
Five Thirty Eight: Likely R
Inside: Lean R
Sabato: Lean R

Kansas
The contest:
This is an open Senate seat. The race pits Democrat Barbara Bollier (who left the Republican Party in 2018), a physician and member of the state senate running to be a “voice of reason” in Washington, against Republican Rep. Roger Marshall, a Kansas congressman, who is also an anti-abortion ob-gyn. Marshall has cozied up to Trump, touring Kansas in a tour bus emblazoned: “Keep Kansas Great”.

The polls:
Kansas is a red state that currently has a Democratic governor. The race is not well polled, but recent surveys put Marshall up modestly.

The ratings:
Cook: Lean R
Five Thirty Eight: Likely R
Inside: Tilt R
Sabato: Lean R

Texas
The contest:
Incumbent Sen. John Cornyn, a longtime lieutenant to McConnell, is being challenged by former Air Force helicopter pilot MJ Hegar, who talked to Rolling Stone in August. The soft-spoken Cornyn is not nearly as polarizing as his fellow Texas senator Ted Cruz, but Hegar, who rides a motorcycle and sports arm tattoos, presents an interesting contrast in character. She blasts the incumbent, who votes with Trump 95 percent of the time, as a “spineless bootlicker.” (In a late campaign ad, Cornyn doctored the audio from this interview to put words in Hegar’s mouth.)

The polls:
The RCP polling average puts Cornyn up 6.8 points, but signs point to record-shattering turnout in Texas, perhaps creating an opportunity for Hegar.

The ratings:
Cook: Lean R
Inside: Lean R
Five Thirty Eight: Likely R
Sabato: Likely R

STRETCH DEFENSE

Alabama
The contest:
Democratic incumbent Sen. Doug Jones beat disgraced former state supreme court judge Roy Moore to win this seat in 2017. He’s now up against former Auburn college-football coach Tommy Tuberville, a staunch abortion foe who believes “future generations may very well look back at the current wave of infanticide sweeping across our nation as this generation’s holocaust.”

The polls:
Despite the pressures of being a Democrat in a deep-red state, Jones has served with integrity — recently voting against the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. That fortitude looks unlikely to be rewarded by voters, however. Tuberville has opened up close to a double-digit lead in recent polls.

The ratings:
Cook: Lean R
Inside: Lean R
Five Thirty Eight: Likely R
Sabato: Likely R

OTHER RACES OF NOTE
Another trio of races merit watching. Republicans are still hoping for an upset victory in Michigan. The polling in that race has been trending toward incumbent Democrat Sen. Gary Peters over challenger John James, a charismatic Army vet who has struggled to answer questions about GOP health care plans. Any scenario in which Peters’ seat falls to the GOP is likely inconsistent with a Democratic takeover of the Senate and would indicate Trump is having a very good night. Democrat Mike Espy is giving Mississippi incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith some trouble, but absent an absolute Blue tsunami it’s likely this remains a red seat. Likewise in Kentucky, Mitch McConnell is favored to retain his seat. Former fighter pilot Democrat Amy McGrath has run a respectable race — but McConnell looks most likely to live to torment Democrats another day.

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