Maine race key to flipping control of U.S. Senate
Sara Gideon was leading a local town council less than a decade ago, but the Democrat is tapping anger with President Donald Trump and Sen. Susan Collin’s vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in her push to oust the Republican. (Oct. 22)
WASHINGTON — Republican control of the U.S. Senate is in jeopardy Tuesday, with the COVID-19 crisis, the economic contraction that followed and President Donald Trump’s management of both all weighing on Republican incumbents and helping boost Democrats’ path to a majority.
There are 35 Senate seats up for grabs, but only about 14 are truly in play.
Democrats would need a net gain of three or four seats to flip control of the Senate, depending on whether Republicans or Democrats win the White House. Republicans currently hold 53 seats, while Democrats have 45, plus two independents who caucus with them.
Election results in some states could take daysto finalize because of the unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots this election – meaning control of the Senate could remain unclear well past election night. The same is true for the presidential race.
In the run up to Election Day, the Senate battlefield seemed to favor Democrats, with their candidates leading in polls and in fundraising. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rated 12 Republican-held seats as competitive, while just two Democratic-held seats were in that category.
“Democrats remain the clear favorites to take back the Senate,” the Cook Report’s Jessica Taylor wrote in her final preelection analysis. Trump “continues to be a drag” on down-ballot Republican candidates and could “doom” some GOP incumbents, she added.
Possible Democratic pick-ups
Arizona: This is a top target of Democrats as former astronaut Mark Kelly looks to hand Republican Sen. Martha McSally her second Senate election loss in two years.
Kelly, a gun control activist whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, survived an assassination attempt in 2011, has led polls throughout the race. Democrats waged a joint effort in Arizona with presidential nominee Joe Biden making a strong play there as well. Arizona last voted Democratic for president in 1996.
McSally, a firebrand conservative who has aligned closely with Trump, might need Trump to carry Arizona to fend off Kelly.
McSally, who is a former military pilot, lost narrowly to Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. She was later appointed to fill the seat left after the death of Sen. John McCain. The race between McSally and Kelly is a special election to complete that term.
Colorado: Sen. Cory Gardner is perhaps one of the most vulnerable Senate Republican incumbents of this cycle. He is running against the state’s former governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, a one-time presidential candidate who dropped his White House bid to run for the Senate.
Colorado has shifted in the Democrats’ favor in recent years, and Hickenlooper has maintained a significant edge in the polls and in fundraising. But Hickenlooper’s campaign faced a setback when a state ethics panel found he had improperly accepted valuable gifts as governor.
The Colorado Senate race is rated as leaning Democratic.
Maine: Sen. Susan Collins has long been a target of Democrats eager to take the seat held by the moderate Republican since 1997. This year, Collins is in a tight race with Maine House speaker Sara Gideon.
Collins is perhaps one of the most important votes in the U.S. Senate, often casting deciding votes that have defined the future of the nation’s healthcare and the Supreme Court. She was one of three Republicans to vote against repealing the Affordable Care Act in 2017 when Republicans controlled both chambers. Collins was also the lone Republican to vote against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
But her unique position has drawn ire from both sides of the aisle, thrusting her race in the very divided state in the limelight.
Her race became a focal point in 2018 after she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The vote led to a crowdfunding campaign that brought in $4 million to the Democrat who would face Collins in 2020; that money eventually went to Gideon.
The Supreme Court vote has played a major role in the race and Gideon, like many other Democrats running this year, has criticized the Republican incumbent for her party’s handling of health care and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Gideon has more than twice outraised Collins, according to federal campaign finance records, and recent polls show her leading in the race.
Republican firewall races
Iowa: Iowa, which Trump won by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016, seemed like a longshot for Democrats a year ago. But as Trump took a beating politically amid the coronavirus pandemic, the race between Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield turned into a top play for Democrats.
If Democrats can win Senate races in Maine, Colorado and Arizona, a win in Iowa would be among the party’s best chances to capture control.
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Ernst, a first-term senator, promised to “make ’em squeal” in Washington, D.C., and famously described castrating hogs on her family farm during her 2014 run. She has steadfastly embraced the politics of Trump and perhaps hinged her hopes on the president carrying Iowa.
Greenfield, a former real estate development executive, has cast herself as a “scrappy farm kid” focused on bipartisanship, protecting access to health care and Social Security, and expanding jobs training.
North Carolina: Republican Sen. Thom Tillis has faced one of the more interesting Senate races of this cycle, attempting to fend off Democrat Cal Cunningham in a campaign that included Tillis contracting COVID-19 just weeks before Election Day and the revelation that Cunningham had an affair.
The state has swung between Democrats and Republicans by narrow margins at the presidential level in the past several elections. The highly competitive Senate race has become the most expensive congressional race in U.S. history, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Cunningham has outraised Tillis and led him in opinion polls, but the race seemed to narrow after Cunningham’s disclosure of an affair.
As in other races, Cunningham has focused on health care, criticizing Tillis over Republicans’ efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for Tillis’ role as state House Speaker in opposing the expansion of Medicaid. Tillis, for his part, has tried to link Cunningham to national Democratic controversies and attacked him for not immediately disclosing the affair.
Georgia: In an unusual twist, Georgia is home to two hotly contested Senate races this election, with both seats currently held by Republicans.
In one showdown – pitting incumbent Sen. David Perdue against Democrat Jon Ossoff – polls show a virtual tie. If neither candidate wins 50% of the vote in November, the race will go to a runoff.
The second race is a special election with an open primary, which means incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler is facing a challenger from her own party in Rep. Doug Collins, as well as a bevy of other contenders, including the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat and pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
If one or both seats go into a runoff, which is likely, that could leave the fate of the Senate unknown for weeks after Nov. 3.
Montana: Democrats recruited outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock to challenge Republican Sen. Steve Daines in a state Trump won by more than 20 percentage points in 2016. Bullock, a two-term centrist governor, briefly ran for the Democratic nomination for president but bowed out early after his candidacy didn’t gain steam.
Daines has hit Bullock on cultural issues such as gun rights, saying Bullock is “too liberal” given his poor rating from the National Rifle Association. Bullock has slammed Daines for being praised by China’s ambassador to the U.S., who once called the incumbent the foreign country’s “ambassador to Congress.”
Montana got massive early voting turnout, eclipsing more than 95% of the total votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. Daines has polled ahead of Bullock for most of the race. A win for Bullock would mean historically conservative Montana would have two Democratic senators after Sen. Jon Tester won his reelection in 2018.
Possible Republican pick ups
Alabama: In ruby-red Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones faces an uphill battle against Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach.
Jones won this seat in a 2017 special election against Republican Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore was dogged by allegations that he pursued sexual relationships with four teenage girls when he was in his early 30s.
The Alabama contest is a bright spot for Republicans as they seek to keep control of the Senate. Trump has enthusiastically backed Tuberville and an early October poll from Auburn University-Montgomery had Tuberville up 54%-42%.
Michigan: First-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters faces a close race against Republican challenger John James, a businessman and Army veteran.
James’ strong showing against incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018 spurred Republicans’ hopes they can flip the seat. Polls have shown a tight race in Michigan for the Senate race, though Biden leads Trump at the presidential level.
Michigan is being targeted by both parties as Trump won the state by a slim margin after Barack Obama previously carried it by nearly 10 points. But, the race is anything but a sure thing for Republicans, who haven’t held a Senate seat in the state since 2001. The Cook Political Report has rated the race as leaning toward Democrats.
Kentucky: Early in this election season, Democrats had high hopes of unseating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the taciturn Republican who has helped Trump cement a conservative Supreme Court majority. McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Amy McGrath, is a fundraising powerhouse and former fighter pilot who nearly won a staunchly conservative House seat in 2018.
But while McGrath has raised eye-popping money – more than $88 million – she has not been able to gain significant traction against McConnell, a master political strategist who “leave absolutely nothing to chance,” as the Cook Report notes.
South Carolina: Outside of knocking off McConnell, Democrats would love nothing more than to upset Sen. Lindsey Graham, who emerged as one of Trump’s most loyal soldiers in the Senate despite regularly criticizing Trump during the 2016 presidential primary.
Democrats nationally have poured record-breaking money into the campaign of challenger Jaime Harrison, a former chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. He raised $57 million from July through September, the most a candidate for Senate has ever raised in one quarter.
Graham, a former congressman seeking his fourth term in the Senate, is in the toughest fight of his political career.
Although South Carolina is reliably red, some polls have shown Harrison tied with Graham. Still, the incumbent senator has maintained a small lead in most surveys. Harrison needs a significant turnout among Black voters to have a chance.
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Harrison has slammed Graham for being a part of a GOP-led Senate that has failed to pass additional relief for families struggling through the pandemic. Graham has sought to tie Harrison to the liberal-wing of the Democratic Party, arguing his opponent has “radical views.”
If Harrison wins, he would join Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, in Washington and make South Carolina the only state with two Black senators.
Texas: Democrats are hoping for a blue wave in Texas that includes not only Biden coming out on top but also taking a prime Senate seat.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn faces tough competition from Democrat MJ Hegar, a decorated Air Force veteran. While polls show Cornyn ahead of Hegar, the margin is much smaller than 2014, when he overwhelmingly won.
Democrats acknowledge the uphill battle in winning Texas, a monster state with 38 electoral votes. The state hasn’t been blue since 1976 with Jimmy Carter at the presidential level and Democrats haven’t held a Senate seat since 1993 with Sen. Bob Krueger, who was appointed to the seat.
Alaska: Democrats did not have Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan on their target list at the start of the 2020 cycle. After all, Trump carried Alaska by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016, and while Sullivan won a narrow victory in 2014, his reelection initially seemed like a sure bet.
But Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic has been a drag on Senate Republicans, giving Democrats new opportunities even in reliably red states. Sullivan faces an independent, Al Gross, who is a doctor and commercial fisherman.
Gross faces an uphill battle to unseat Sullivan, but his bid has some Republicans nervous as they seek to protect their slim GOP majority.