The media has focused rightly on the presidential race between former Vice-President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump. However, what either man will be able to accomplish will be determined by the shape of the next Congress, particularly the U.S. Senate.
The first thing to be clear on is what we’re not seeing. There’s no indication of either a blue wave or a red wave. There are a couple of states where GOP incumbents are being hurt by Trump or the way they’ve responded to his presidency. However, there’s no evidence of some dramatic shift to the Democrats or to the GOP. What we do have are individual races whose direction will probably be dependent on what happens in the presidential race.
First, we’ll take a look at the battle for control of the U.S. Senate.
Seats That Will Likely Change Hands
U.S. Senator Marsha McSally, R-Ariz., hasn’t led in a single poll since May of last year. She frequently runs far behind in her race against astronaut Mark Kelly. Her campaign has featured many unforced errors including when she suggested her supporters fast in order to support her campaign. McSally’s race is a lost cause. Given Kelly’s cash advantage as well as her record as a candidate over the last four years, Kelly will likely fill John McCain’s old Senate seat until the regular election in 2022.
U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala., won in a fluke special election in 2017 against Roy Moore after late-breaking allegations of sexual misconduct. There hasn’t been much polling done in this race. A February Mason-Dixon poll indicated that former Senator and Attorney General Jeff Sessions would have been a stronger general election candidate than former Auburn Football Coach Tommy Tuberville. Still, in a state that’s overwhelming Republican, Jones is too far to the left to win against a candidate that’s not as damaged as Moore. Barring some major revelation against Tuberville, this should be a GOP pick up.
U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, R-Colo., won his election in the Republican wave year of 2014. However, Colorado has been trending blue for some time now and the Trump years have done nothing to decelerate that. Former Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper has faced some ethics issues but continues to lead Gardner in the polls. It would be a shock if Gardner somehow survived.
Seats that Will Probably Change Hands
U.S. Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, has won election for the last four terms by being a maverick. Unlike most Republicans, she had no problem with killing partially born infants in the birth canal and opposed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban. She voted to acquit President Clinton in the 1999 impeachment trial. She also handed the Obama Administration a huge victory by voting for Obama’s massive wasteful stimulus package in 2009 (although the wasteful stimulus attempts of more recent years make Obama’s package look conservative by comparison.)
However, during the Trump administration, the shine has come off for the left’s formerly favorite Republican. Instead of seeming principled and above the fray, she’s come off as ingenuine. Collins has tried to avoid alienating the MAGA base of the Republican Party and the moderates and liberals who voted for her back home. She demanded an FBI Investigation of thirty-year-old sexual assault allegations against Justice Kavanaugh and then voted to confirm him when the investigation turned up the only thing it could have: nothing. She was one of only two Republicans who voted to call witnesses in the President’s impeachment trial, but then voted to acquit him. Her insistence that President Trump “learned a lesson” from the impeachment debacle is laughable (unless the lesson is that he owns the Republican Party and can get away with anything).
She’s been long-time allies with the pro-LGBT Human Rights Campaign. She faces a stiff challenge from Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon, who has led all the polls this year. Typically, her best chance for re-election would be to hope for the two left-wing Independents to take votes from Gideon and allow Collins to squeak through with a 46-45% victory. However, hers is the first senate race to feature ranked-choice voting (RCV). RCV will allow supporters of the two independents to rank the candidates. If their preferred candidate is eliminated, their votes will be transferred to their second choice. Collins will not likely be a net beneficiary. If she ends up with less than 48.5 percent of the vote in the initial vote, she’ll likely lose even if she initially leads the balloting.
It’d be folly to count a four-term incumbent out, but Collins does face an uphill battle for re-election.
U.S. Senator Thom Tillis, R-N.C., is in almost as bad a shape. He’s trailed most polls this year. North Carolina is a swing state this year and Tillis has consistently run behind the President in his battle for re-election with former Democratic State Senator Cal Cunningham. While in most states, incumbency is an advantage, North Carolina Senate seats are an exception. Since 1968, only two Senators have won re-election in North Carolina (Republican U.S. Senators Jesse Helms and Richard Burr). While a couple of Senators did retire during the past 50 years, a massive number of incumbents have failed to win re-election including Democrats like B. Everett Jordan, Terry Sanford, and Kay Hagan to Republicans James Broyhill, Lauch Faircloth, and Elizabeth Dole. It’s difficult to win re-election in North Carolina. Tillis doesn’t appear to be up to the task.
Seats that Will Probably Be Narrow Holds
These four seats could be flipped if there was a major game-changing event. As of right now though, I see them as races where the incumbent will hold on narrowly.
While polls in Iowa are competitive, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, has neither made the sort of mistakes that would typically lead to an incumbent’s ouster and has done a great job maintaining ties to the entire state by visiting all of Iowa’s ninety-nine counties each of the six years she’s been in office. It looks to be a tight race, but I’d bet on Ernst surviving.
Freshman U.S. Senator Steve Daines, R-Mont., initially trailed in the first polls after popular Democratic Governor Steve Bullock joined the U.S. Senate race but has since stabilized his position and enjoys narrow leads in most recent polls. Bullock enjoys widespread popularity in his home state. However, Montana’s a red state, and with the increasing partisanship of the Senate race, voters who vote for a Republican President are far less willing to vote out their Republican Senator.
The majority of the polls have shown Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., up by a typical margin, but several have also shown Graham and former Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison tied, or with Graham up 1 or 2 points. The last two polls, both by Quinnipiac, show the race tied, though I’m tempted to believe this may be an error with the pollster’s sample rather than an actual reflection of how the race will play out. The state is a mirror image of North Carolina, not having voted out an incumbent since the Johnson Administration. My instincts say that Graham survives, but this race could be a sleeper.
Republican Iraq Veteran John James finished within seven points of U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in 2018. Most recent polls have James three or four points down against far less formidable freshman U.S. Senator Gary Peters, D-Mich. James has tried to put some distance between himself and President Trump (as Politico reported in May) but without alienating Trump supporters. It’s a difficult balancing act, and I don’t think James can pull it off. I expect Peters to go back for another term in the Senate.
Seats that Aren’t Likely to Change Hands
Most other senate races really are long shots for the challenging party.
The seats in Georgia are prime examples. In the regular election Incumbent U.S. Senator David Perdue, R-Ga, is holding a narrow lead over Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff. Realistically, the greatest risk for Perdue is being forced into a January 5 runoff and Republicans have a very successful track record in runoffs in Georgia. This will be particularly true if Biden wins the Presidency. So much of the Democratic turnout is based on being against Trump, with Trump not on the ballot, Republican voters would have reason to turn out as they did in Senate runoffs in 1992 and 2008 after the last Democratic Presidents won: to ensure that Georgia’s Senate election checked the new democratic president.
The special election held to fill the unexpired term of former Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga, may even be more difficult for Democrats. Voters may be dealing with a choice between two Republicans in January. The special election is a jungle election where interim U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., have consolidated the Republican vote. The Democratic vote is divided. This has left Rev. Raphael Warnock in third place in most polls, although he has been moving up in some recent surveys. If Warnock doesn’t finish in the top two, there will be an all-Republican runoff.
The only scenario I could see where Perdue’s seat and (if a Democrat makes the runoff) Loeffler’s seat could realistically flip is if President Trump loses in November, no longer fears voters, and does something in the two months between election and the runoff that’s so outrageous to Georgia voters that it overwhelms partisan sentiment.
U.S. Senator Tina Smith, D-Minn., won a special election by double digits for the remainder of disgraced Democratic U.S. Senator Al Franken’s term in 2018 and seeks a full term in her own right. Currently, she’s leading former Republican Congressman Jason Lewis by an average of 8.7 percent in the Real Clear Politics Average. Barring violence in Minneapolis becoming a much larger issue down the stretch, I think Smith will probably win comfortably.
Polling in Mississippi has been sparse. One poll from the Tyson Group shows U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., in a virtual dead heat with former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy in a rematch of 2018’s special election. It would take a political earthquake for Smith to lose in Mississippi.
Overall, if the Senate election was held today, I believe Democrats would net three seats which would lead to a 50-50 Senate with whoever is Vice-President deciding which party will control the Senate.
Many political analysts are raising the possibility that the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and the President’s likely effort to replace her could have a major impact on Senate races. I’m skeptical of that. I think the effect will probably be more complicated and limited.
A confirmed justice would probably help out embattled Red State incumbents like Daines, Graham, and Hyde-Smith. It would probably hurt Collins’ re-election hopes. Collins has come out firmly in opposition to voting on Trump’s nominee before the election or in the lame-duck session if Trump loses. However, the Ginsburg nomination will probably increase the demand among socially liberal Maine residents for a predictably left-wing Senator whose vote can be guaranteed against any conservative justice. It’ll also probably marginally hurt Cory Gardner in Colorado and might do a little good for Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
Beyond that, it’s going to depend on turnout. Will a few Bernie Bros who were going to stay home on Biden and the Democrats show up? Are a few white Evangelicals who were going to stay home or vote for Biden going to vote Republican if they get their first Supreme Court Justice in a couple years? I think the answer to both questions is yes. But I think these will probably cancel each other out.
Who Will Control the U.S. House?
Without going into a race by race analysis, the U.S. House has dynamics that favor Republicans as well as those that favor Democrats.
The great advantage Republican have is that the Democrats won a lot of seats that are going to be difficult for them to hold in 2020. This hasn’t been helped by the radical squad of four hard left House freshmen, who the GOP have been able to link the rest of caucus to. As a rule, in the election after a wave election, the party that made the big gains will give back some of those gains. 2008 was an exception to the rule when Democrats had the advantage of DNC Chairman Howard Dean’s “50 State Strategy” and the strength of the Obama organization. In 2020, Democrats don’t have that advantage and it will hurt their effort to hold all the seats won in the last House election.
On the other hand, Democrats have benefited from a lot of Republican retirements. Several of these have occurred in seats that Democrats have a great chance of picking up (such as that of outgoing Republican Congressman Will Hurd of Texas). The Democrats are presumptive favorites to hold the House, which is why several House Democrats were endorsed by the typically Republican-leaning Chamber of Congress. The House Democratic Campaign Committee has also well out-paced their Republican counterparts in fundraising.
Overall, I think there will be a slight shift towards Republicans in the House of at least three, and no more than nine seats,. I’ll predict a six-seat gain. Most likely the gains will come from the more moderate House Democrats leading to a House Majority that’s further to the left than the current one though slightly less numerous.
If that’s added to a 50-50 Senate, whoever’s elected President will have an interesting term, though perhaps not in the way they’d like.