The most competitive Senate races in 2020, explained

Control of the Senate could be within Democrats’ grasp this November.

A Senate map that once looked out of reach has become a lot more competitive in the past few months. With former Vice President Joe Biden likely at the top of the ticket as the Democratic nominee for president and a once-humming economy cratering due to the coronavirus, Republicans acknowledge the political landscape looks much different.

“It’s an extraordinary turn of events,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told Vox. “This is not the political environment we expected at the beginning of the year. Things in politics change pretty quickly, but the environment’s been turned upside down.”

Democrats need to win back at least three seats to reclaim the majority, but they are also defending Sen. Doug Jones in deep-red Alabama — a state where President Donald Trump has a 28-point net approval rating. If Jones loses, that means Democrats need to win four seats and the White House (where their party’s vice president could vote to break ties in the Senate), or net five seats without the White House advantage.

Overall, Senate Republicans are defending more turf. Republicans have 23 seats (mostly in red states) to defend, compared to the 12 Senate Democrats who are up for reelection.

Even before the coronavirus hit, four states looked highly competitive for Democrats: Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina. Republicans, meanwhile, are going on offense in two states: Alabama and Michigan. But now, several more seats are in play for Democrats — including Montana and a Georgia special election. Republicans are even worried about hanging on to seats in Iowa and extremely red Kansas if the polarizing politician Kris Kobach wins the Republican nomination there.

“There’s no denying that the Senate is very much in play, and I think a lot of Republicans are in denial about taking that for granted at this point,” Tim Cameron, a Republican strategist and a former chief digital strategist at the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2014 and 2016 cycles, told Vox.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip Sen. John Thune leave after the weekly Senate Republican policy luncheon in Washington, DC, on May 12, 2020.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

A lot of the same GOP senators who swept into office during the Republican wave of the 2014 midterms are now staring down tough reelection battles in states that have rapidly diversified in the past six years. Many of those senators are making the calculation to stick closely with President Trump. It could be a risky bet, in light of stark new unemployment numbers and the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the US.

“For Covid, I think Republicans have acknowledged that, for better or for worse, they are going to be tied to the president,” Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, told Vox. “When the economy was doing well, that was a good thing, but now that has tanked.”

The election is mainly a referendum on Trump

Republicans had been hoping to make Trump’s impeachment the centerpiece of their attack on Democrats in 2020, but now they admit impeachment is no longer registering.

“Impeachment was three or four years ago, it feels like,” Newhouse said.

Instead, the government’s response to the coronavirus, the economy, and Trump’s own approval rating will be driving both the presidential race and many down-ballot races in November. Covid-19 has already thrown elements of campaigning into disarray. With the virus still disrupting American life, campaigns are having to rethink how to fundraise, organize, and get their message out to voters virtually.

“Everyone’s in uncharted territory here,” a Republican strategist told Vox. “I think coronavirus, the response … might take on the largest focus. Right now there are a lot of things that are unpredictable.”

Republican senators may hope anti-Trump voters will split their tickets, but Newhouse said with more people voting straight party up and down the ticket, the fate of Trump and many GOP senators could be inextricably linked. Whereas the 2018 midterms were considered a referendum on Trump without the president being on the ballot, Trump is at the top of the ticket this time.

“The fate of our Senate majority lies in how Donald Trump does in some of these key states,” Newhouse said.

Democrats, meanwhile, are planning to run a playbook that was successful in many 2018 House races: backing moderate, “pragmatic” candidates and focusing on health care in the middle of a pandemic that has millions of newly unemployed people losing their health insurance along with their jobs. Democrats will highlight Medicaid expansion as an issue in states that didn’t expand it, including North Carolina, Kansas, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama. They’re already going after North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis (R) for his role in rejecting Medicaid expansion when he was leading the North Carolina state legislature.

Biden and Democratic Senate candidates alike are hoping disaffected suburban voters who voted for House Democrats in 2018 will vote blue in 2020 as well. And Taylor sees little effort on the part of the GOP to woo these more moderate voters back into the fold.

“I think that 2018 clearly showed there’s some buyer’s remorse,” said Taylor. “And we’re no longer talking about a hypothetical President Trump and what he could do — you’ve seen it in action. I don’t think [Trump] or Republicans writ large have done anything to get [moderate voters] back.”

With the deluge of news in an uncertain environment, political operatives in both parties concede that voters will be judging the president’s and Congress’s response to the pandemic and getting the economy up and running this fall.

President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing about coronavirus testing in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 11, 2020.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“A lot of that is going to be determined in where we’re at as a country handling coronavirus this fall,” Cameron said. “Do these voters trust Trump or Biden more to bring us back from this recession that we’re either in or headed toward? It’s so hard to tell what the political environment is going to be like.”

Here’s where the Senate map stands so far.

Democrats’ four biggest opportunities: Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina

Colorado

Who is the Republican? Sen. Cory Gardner, first elected to the Senate in 2014. Gardner reliably votes with Trump and Republicans, although he has split with the Trump administration on issues including marijuana decriminalization and immigration reform.

Who are the Democrats? Former Gov. John Hickenlooper and former speaker of the Colorado state House Andrew Romanoff are vying for the Democratic nomination in a June primary. Romanoff is running to the left of Hickenlooper, but Colorado political experts see the popular former governor as the likely nominee.

What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Lean Democratic.

What’s the background on the race? Election forecasters believe Colorado is Democrats’ likeliest pickup opportunity in the fall for one big reason: The state has become reliably blue since 2014. There’s a Democratic trifecta in the governor’s mansion and state legislature. Colorado is diversifying, its suburban voters are a prime demographic for Democrats, and polls show many of these voters do not like Trump. Immigration and gun control are two big issues in a state that is home to immigrants and has seen multiple mass shootings. Hickenlooper is double digits ahead of Gardner in recent polls and is fundraising successfully, but the incumbent still has a cash advantage.

Arizona’s special election

Who is the Republican? Sen. Martha McSally, who narrowly lost her 2018 race to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. McSally was appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain in 2018.

Who is the Democrat? Mark Kelly, former US astronaut and husband of Gabrielle Giffords, the former US representative for Arizona and gun control activist.

What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Lean Democratic.

What’s the background on the race? Arizona will be an extremely tight race this fall, both Democrats and Republicans tell Vox. Once seen as a more moderate Republican House member, McSally tied herself closely to Trump in 2018 but lost her race against Sinema by a razor-thin margin. Since she was appointed by Arizona’s Republican governor to fill McCain’s seat in 2018, her favorability ratings with voters don’t look great. Kelly has consistently led polls there by high single digits.

Kelly has the financial resources to get his name out there; he has been raising gobs of cash to compete in the general election. He raised $11 million in the first quarter of 2020 and has more than $19 million cash on hand, compared to about $10 million for McSally. That money will become especially important as the coronavirus forces candidates to wage a campaign on voters’ screens in lieu of in-person events. Arizona certainly isn’t as liberal as Colorado, but Latino voters in the state could be a force to be reckoned with this fall. And McSally — having lost one Senate race — needs to prove she can win this one.

Maine

Who is the Republican? Sen. Susan Collins, in office since 1997.

Who are the Democrats? Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee-backed candidate. Other Democrats in the mix include progressive activist Betsy Sweet and attorney Bre Kidman.

Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon talks to the press in her office on July 3, 2017.
Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images

What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this a toss-up.

What’s the background on the race? Once seen as one of the most moderate Republicans in the US Senate, Collins is facing what could be her toughest reelection yet. Her reputation as an independent senator willing to break from her party has taken a hit in the Trump era — given her vote for a GOP tax bill and her key confirmation vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Collins is now the most unpopular senator in the country, according to Morning Consult, even more so than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Still, Collins has proved her staying power in the state for decades and will be tough to beat. She has cruised to reelection in the past, and Republicans will spend heavily to protect her seat. Many Maine voters are fiercely independent — the state elected conservative firebrand Paul LePage twice as governor. Despite Maine going for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Democrats flipping a congressional district in 2018, there are still plenty of red areas in the rural, northern part of the state.

“[She] won in 2008 despite Obama winning the state pretty handily, and I think if anything, Sen. Collins has proven she’s a survivor,” Cameron said. “Folks there aren’t your typical Acela corridor-type liberals.”

North Carolina

Who is the Republican? Sen. Thom Tillis, elected to the Senate in 2014 and former speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.

Who is the Democrat? Cal Cunningham, a former North Carolina state senator and veteran.

What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this a toss-up.

What’s the background on the race? North Carolina is considered a true swing state in the 2020 presidential election and Senate race because of its changing demographics and swing suburban voters outside of cities like Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. Senate races in North Carolina are often razor-thin; Tillis won his seat in 2014 by just 46,000 votes — or a single percentage point. A recent poll showed a virtual tie in the race, with Tillis ahead by a point.

As Tillis closely aligns himself with Trump, Democrats aren’t just planning to seize on Tillis’s record in the US Senate, they are also delving into his tenure leading the North Carolina state House, where he opposed Medicaid expansion and was part of a Republican effort to reduce the state’s unemployment benefits — two things now hurting North Carolina residents out of work. Cunningham, an Iraq War veteran, will likely make the race about Trump as much as possible. Republicans say the state is still fundamentally red.

Republicans’ two pickup opportunities: Alabama and (maybe) Michigan

Alabama

Who is the Democrat? Sen. Doug Jones, who won a surprise victory in a 2017 special election against Republican Roy Moore.

Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) speaks with the press following a vote in the Senate impeachment trial that acquitted President Donald Trump of all charges on February 5, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

Who are the Republicans? Former Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions is running for his old Senate seat, competing against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville in a July runoff. Moore, who lost to Jones in 2017 after allegations surfaced that he had sexually assaulted a minor, lost the Republican primary.

What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this Lean Republican, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Likely Republican.

What’s the background on the race? The 2020 election is a test of whether Doug Jones’s 2017 win was an aberration or a testament to newfound Democratic strength in the South. The fundamentals of the race clearly favor Republicans; Alabama loves Trump, and the president’s net approval rating has been higher there than any other state. Jones is a moderate Democrat who emphasizes his bipartisan record, but also voted to remove the president after impeachment. The GOP is clearly feeling confident now that Moore is no longer an element in the race.

“Alabama, as far as I’m concerned, is a Republican seat,” a Republican strategist told Vox. “Roy Moore is not going to be the nominee, and I think that was Doug Jones’s only hope.” Democrats may cut their losses and put their money into other, more competitive races. They’re not yet spending to protect Jones, although the incumbent has out-fundraised both Sessions and Tuberville combined. As far as the Republican primary goes, Trump has endorsed Tuberville; clearly, there’s no love lost between the president and his former attorney general.

Michigan

Who is the Democrat? Sen. Gary Peters, elected to the Senate in 2014 and a US House member before that.

Who are the Republicans? Businessman and veteran John James and businessman Bob Carr. James unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018.

What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this Lean Democrat.

What’s the background on the race? James has gotten hype from Republicans for out-fundraising Peters in the first quarter of 2020, but money alone may not be enough to flip the Michigan Senate seat. Peters, a long-serving House member before being elected to the Senate in 2014, is up for his first Senate reelection. He keeps a fairly low profile compared to other senators, focusing on issues like health care and jobs for his Upper Midwest state.

Earlier polls showed a potentially competitive race shaping up, but an April Fox News poll showed Peters leading James by 10 points. Michigan will be one of the most closely watched states of the presidential election, and that is sure to trickle down to the Senate race. Although Trump won there in 2016, the state elected a Democratic governor in 2018 and Biden is leading in recent polls. And Democrats, for their part, feel Peters’s record of winning his House races will translate to this seat.

“He’s been through tough elections and proven he can outperform,” a Democratic strategist told Vox. “Gary knew this was always going to be a tough race and walked into the election prepared.”

Other Republican pickup opportunities are limited

Beyond their likely pickup in Alabama and attempt to make Michigan competitive, Republicans are looking at precious few other offensive opportunities this year. In Minnesota, former US Rep. Jason Lewis (known for once complaining that it was no longer socially acceptable to call women “sluts”) is challenging Democratic Sen. Tina Smith after losing his House seat in 2018. New Mexico also has an open Senate race, where longtime Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján will face off against Republican Mark Ronchetti, a former meteorologist. Republicans got the candidate they wanted in Ronchetti, but Luján is a well-known entity in New Mexico and the state is considered fairly blue. Both races are rated Likely Democratic by Cook and Sabato.

Democrats’ reach races in red states: Montana, Kansas, Iowa, and Georgia

Montana

Who is the Republican? Sen. Steve Daines, elected in 2014. Daines served as the at-large US House member from Montana before that.

Who is the Democrat? Term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock (who briefly ran for president in 2020).

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock speaks at the Iowa State Fair on August 8, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this Lean Republican.

What’s the background on the race? With the long-awaited entrance of Montana’s popular Democratic Gov. Bullock, who won his June 2 primary, this once long-shot Senate race is actually competitive. Montana voted for Trump by 20 points in 2016, but the state has an independent streak and reelected Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018, despite an all-out blitz Trump launched against him. While Bullock out-fundraised Daines in the first quarter of the year, Daines has more money overall and a substantial war chest.

“It’s a red state, but it’s a very elastic state,” said election forecaster J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, who thinks Montana is the next likeliest pickup opportunity for Democrats, beyond their “core four.” In other words, there’s a chance Montana could go for Trump in 2020 and elect Bullock to the Senate. A March poll showed a dead tie, while a more recent Montana State University poll showed Bullock ahead by 5 points. No matter what the outcome is, the race will be extremely close. But Bullock takes the race from being a Republican certainty to a massive question mark.

Georgia special election

Who are the Republicans? Sen. Kelly Loeffler, named to replace retired Sen. Johnny Isakson in 2019, and Rep. Doug Collins.

Who are the Democrats? Rev. Raphael Warnock and entrepreneur Matt Lieberman (son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman).

What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this Lean Republican.

What’s the background on the race? Georgia is yet another traditionally Republican state where the demographics are slowly getting more favorable for Democrats. The Atlanta suburbs are attracting a lot of college-educated voters who are moving away from the GOP. Add to that, the very wealthy Loeffler is facing substantial blowback for allegations that she dumped millions in stock and subsequently bought stock in a teleworking company after being briefed on coronavirus in the Senate (Loeffler said the stock sales were made without her knowledge). Georgia is being hit hard by the coronavirus, with at least a million people out of work before the state opened back up, so Loeffler’s extreme wealth and ability to self-fund could be as much of a liability as it is an asset.

In a normal election cycle, a GOP senator could likely survive Georgia’s changing political winds, but there’s an extra dash of weirdness in this special Senate election to replace Isakson. Rather than a straightforward Republican vs. Democrat contest, there will be an all-party primary on Election Day. The presence of Doug Collins, a Trump ally in the House, could be a massive thorn in Loeffler’s side. If no one wins a majority in November, the election could go to a January runoff where the top two candidates would compete. The DSCC has endorsed Warnock, the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, but Matt Lieberman — the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman — is also a Democratic candidate.

Georgia

Who is the Republican? Sen. David Perdue, a former businessman elected in 2014 and a close ally of Trump’s.

Who is the Democrat? Former congressional candidate Jon Ossoff won his June 9 primary, avoiding a runoff.

What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this Lean Republican, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Likely Republican.

What’s the background on the race? Perdue’s seat was considered less competitive than the Georgia special election with Loeffler, but new polling shows the race there could be tighter than expected. After an early May poll from a Republican firm showed Perdue leading Ossoff by just 2 points, following another Republican poll showing Perdue with a 6-point lead, Taylor recently moved Cook’s rating from Likely Republican to Lean Republican. Perdue will be facing Ossoff this fall; the Democrat won his primary on June 9.

Compared to Loeffler, Perdue is not dealing with the same degree of personal baggage or a serious primary challenger, but he’s facing similar dynamics with Georgia’s shifting demographics. The suburbs outside Atlanta in particular are a tricky spot for the GOP, and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’s narrow loss in the governor’s race in 2018 spooked Republicans. Perdue has the upper hand, and Democrats will undoubtedly have to spend and organize heavily in Georgia in order to make it truly competitive in November. But the poll numbers on Perdue’s race are still worth watching.

Kansas

Who is the Republican? With Sen. Pat Roberts retiring, there’s a crowded Republican primary. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and US Rep. Roger Marshall are the two biggest names competing in the August 4 primary.

Who is the Democrat? Dr. Barbara Bollier, a state senator and former moderate Republican who switched parties in 2018.

What are the odds? Cook Political Report rates this Lean Republican, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates it Likely Republican.

What’s the background on the race? There’s only one way Democrats can make this open Senate seat in a conservative state competitive: if Kobach is the Republican nominee. The scenario of Kobach winning the Republican primary but losing the general is the stuff of nightmares for Washington Republicans. The National Republican Senatorial Committee blasted Kobach’s candidacy last summer, and both Trump and McConnell are still actively encouraging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run (Pompeo, a former member of Congress from Kansas, has declined). But even if party leaders don’t want Kobach to run, Kansas Republicans don’t seem to have buyer’s remorse from his loss in the 2018 gubernatorial election. He is currently the narrow frontrunner of the Republican field, leading or tying Marshall in polls.

“Marshall says the right thing to appeal to Trump conservatives, but it looks halfhearted compared to Kris Kobach,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

Democrats like what they see in Bollier, a doctor and former moderate Republican in the state Senate who recently switched parties. She’s relatively free to fundraise and wait for the Republican primary to play itself out. If Marshall emerges victorious, it could be a much harder race for Bollier. But if she’s facing off against Kobach, she could have a shot at winning; an April survey from Public Policy Polling showed her leading Kobach by 2 points and subsequent polls have shown a tight race.

“You can be a strong candidate as a Democrat and lose statewide, because it’s Kansas,” Miller said. “Where we are after the primary, who knows. But right now she’s doing what she needs to do to prepare for the primary.”

Iowa

Who is the Republican? Sen. Joni Ernst, elected in 2014. Ernst is a veteran and former Iowa state senator.

Who is the Democrat? Business leader Theresa Greenfield (endorsed by the DSCC) won her June 2 primary.

Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield speaks with a reporter at a picnic in Greenfield, Iowa, on August 11, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

What are the odds? Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rate this Lean Republican.

What’s the background on the race? Ernst — a combat veteran and the first woman Iowa has sent to Congress — is up for her first reelection. Republicans see her in a good position, but Democrats are also pouring money into Iowa as they hope to flip it. While Iowa is still seen as a fairly conservative state, Democrats were able to win a couple of key congressional districts in 2018, and Ernst’s approval rating fell 10 points in the past year, according to a recent poll from respected Iowa pollster J. Ann Selzer.

The DSCC-backed Greenfield won her June 2 primary, beating out a field of challengers. Greenfield is a real estate developer in Des Moines and has Iowa roots; she grew up on a farm as the daughter of a crop duster. As Vox’s Li Zhou wrote, Greenfield has emphasized issues including health care and strengthening social safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security, and has already gone after Ernst’s past claims to curb wasteful spending in DC — though she’s since voted to support major tax cuts that have added to the national deficit.

“Democrats would argue that the spending will help introduce her [Greenfield] positively to Iowa voters — beyond helping her in the primary — and that such positive building-up will insulate her from Republican attacks later,” Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, told Zhou. “Some operatives on both sides believe that [Arizona’s] Kyrsten Sinema benefited from this dynamic in 2018.”

Democrats’ tough-to-flip states that still could be interesting to watch

The remaining races Cook rates Likely Republican will all be interesting to watch but difficult for Democrats to actually flip. These states include:

  • South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham is facing Democrat Jaime Harrison.
  • Texas, where Sen. John Cornyn will compete against either MJ Hegar or Royce West.
  • Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is up for reelection and fighter pilot Amy McGrath is raking in millions of dollars to see if she can unseat him (McGrath is the biggest name out of all 10 candidates in the Kentucky Democratic primary).

All of these races will cost millions of dollars, but the fundamentals in each of the states favor Republicans. McConnell’s race in particular is symbolic to Democrats who intensely dislike the majority leader. But while his main challenger, McGrath, fundraises impressive sums of money, he will be extraordinarily difficult to actually beat in a state where Trump has a 17-point approval rating.

At this point, while Democrats would certainly like to emerge victorious in any of these states, they’ll likely focus their efforts on the other, more plausible paths to a Senate majority they now have on the map.

Correction: An early version of this story said Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball rate Michigan Likely Democrat. The two rate the state Lean Democrat.

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