Republicans currently have a majority in the Senate, holding 53 of the 100 seats. Democrats only need to pick up three seats to gain the majority if Biden is elected President (because the Vice President breaks any tie in the Senate) or four seats if Trump is re-elected. Since Senate seats are six-year terms, roughly a third of them are up for election every two years and this year Republicans hold ten more of the seats up for election than Democrats. Republicans have also had more incumbents than normal not running for re-election and an additional seat being decided that was temporarily filled when John McCain (R-AZ) died of cancer. Similar to the House, the historically large number of incumbent Republicans not running again makes it harder for Republicans to hold onto their majority. Despite that, as recently as six months ago Republicans were confident that they would hold onto their majority and most of the incumbents seemed safe. That’s changed in recent months.
On top of the fact that Republicans are trying to defend ten more Senate seats than Democrats, there are a number of other things working in favor of Democrats this election. They have outraised their Republican counterparts by a significant amount and had a huge influx of campaign donations to Democratic Senate campaigns in the third quarter. A total of sixteen Democratic challengers outraised the incumbents last quarter, while the two most vulnerable Democratic incumbents raised more than their challengers
In 2018, Beto O’Rourke shocked the country when he raised$38.1 million in the third quarter, shattering an 18-year-old record by more than $15 million. This year, three Democrats raised more than O’Rourke did just two years ago. Five Democratic challengers raised over $20 million more than their opponents. Despite all the previous talk from Democrats about getting money out of politics, they are more than happy with their efforts and have done well this cycle, raising more than double that of Republicans in US Senate races last quarter. This has allowed them to expand the map and make a number of seats more competitive than expected and put them in a solid position to make gains and re-take the majority.
However, money isn’t everything. Just ask Beta O’Rourke who lost his Senate race in 2018 to Ted Cruz and then was hardly a blip on the polls when he ran for President earlier this year.
The power of incumbency is strong and many Republicans running have a long history of winning. Yet the national environment is dragging down many Republican incumbents and even Republicans acknowledge that President Trump is having a negative effect on many down ballot races. Many Republican Senators are distancing themselves from the President in an attempt to appeal to swing voters that hold the key in many states. Yet they also don’t want to turn off the passionate Trump voters that make up much of their Republican base, so they are walking a difficult line.
The Cook Political Report predicted last week that Democrats would flip seven seats and take the majority. Real Clear Politics predicts that Democrats will gain four seats and also take a slim majority. If those predictions are true, it would mean that Republicans would have lost their majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives during Trump’s Presidency.
Thinking Man predicts that the final tally will be much closer than Cook. It would take a ‘wave election’ for Democrats to pick up seven seats. Thinking Man believes that is unlikely, although it certainly isn’t out of the question. Several races will be won by a small margin and, unfortunately, given the passion of the partisans on both sides, more than one may be decided by the processing of mail-in ballots which would give reason for either side to complain about the process. There are enough close races that we likely will not know who holds the majority in the Senate until very late on election night or even days later as mail-in ballots are counted. It’s also a very good possibility that it may even be until mid-January, after GA holds its runoff election if no one there gets more than 50% of the vote.
For those political junkies who may be interested in more detail, here is a quick look at some of the key races:
AL-The incumbent, Democratic Doug Jones, is a freshman who won in this heavily Republican state against a very flawed candidate in the last election. This seat is the most likely of any in the country to change parties and Republicans have one of their few chances to pick up a seat.
AZ—Republican Martha McSally is temporarily filling the seat formerly held by John McCain. In 2016, both Senators from the swing state of AZ were Republicans. Democrats picked up one of the seats in 2018 and McSally is a heavy underdog. If that happens, it will mean that during Trump’s presidency, the state will have removed their two Republican Senators and will now be represented by two Democrats.
CO-Republican Cory Gardner, the incumbent, is trailing badly to former astronaut Mark Kelly who is also the husband of former Congresswoman Gabby Gifford. This is likely a Democratic pick up.
IA—Freshman Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is in a tough battle for re-election with Theresa Greenfield, who has raised a lot of money and has run a good campaign. Earnst has been behind in the polls for some time but has stayed within the margin of error. Ernst could hold on but this seat has a good chance to flip.
ME—Susan Collins has held this seat for a number of years and is considered a moderate in a state that has a strong independent tradition. She is the only Republican to hold national office in the northeast and is in a battle for her political life. Recent polls have her trailing slightly and she has been outraised by the challenger by millions of dollars. It’s still anybody’s race but Collins could very well lose, which would have big implications for Republicans.
MT-the Republican incumbent is running against a popular former Democratic governor. The Democrat has made an impressive showing and was ahead early on. The incumbent has closed the gap but this is a seat that is likely to flip.
MI—The black Republican challenger, John James, is a West Point graduate who served in Iraq. He is the only Republican challenger to outraise his opponent and he has run an impressive campaign. The race is a tossup by all accounts and national Democrats have recently begun pouring money into TV ads, a sign that they are worried. James has come a long way and may very well flip this seat, although the race may depend on turnout in the Detroit. If minority turnout is high, that will bode well for Democrats.
NC-Republican Thom Tillis, the incumbent, is facing a surprisingly strong challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham and was trailing in the polls and being beat handily in fundraising. All that may have changed in the last two weeks, as Cunningham was caught having an affair with his campaign manager and also another woman. Cunningham’s hormones may have saved the election for Tillis and, quite possibly, the Senate for Republicans.
SC—Lindsay Graham, the long time Republican maverick and incumbent, may be in the most surprising race. This one should be no contest, but former state Democratic Chair Jaime Harrison has made it surprisingly close. This is in large part because he has outraised Graham by tens of millions of dollars and set a record for raising the most money for any Senate campaign in history. Graham has tried to turn this handicap to an advantage by pointing out that more than 90% of the money came from outside the state. Graham, who Chairs the Judiciary Committee, has been a top target of Democrats and liberal special interest groups. He also has had to walk a fine line on securing his Republican base because of his disagreements with President Trump. This will be close, but Thinking Man believes that ultimately Graham’s long time reputation and history in the state will win.
GA—in an oddity, both GA Senate seats are up for election. Kelly Loeffler was appointed temporarily to the seat formerly held by Republican Johnny Issakson and so must run for the full term in the next election, which is this year. GA state law also is somewhat unique in that it requires whoever wins to get more than half the vote. In each of the elections, there are multiple candidates running and against Loeffler, for example, there are two Democrats running for the same seat. If no one gets more than 50% of the vote, a runoff election will be held in January. Loeffler, who is part-owner of a WNBA franchise, got attention when the league donated money to BLM and Loeffler said that she didn’t believe businesses should be giving money to political causes. This drew protest from players who are overwhelmingly black but praise from others who view BLM as a radical organization.
Recent polls show the two GA seats, both of which are currently Republican, to be toss ups. If no one in either race gets 50%, there will be two runoff elections in January. If that happens expect huge amounts of money to flow into these races in November and December. Given how close the national races will be to control the Senate, the Senate elections in GA may determine that.