Flipping the Senate

With less than two months to go, all eyes in the US and many across the world are glued to the race for the White House. Despite the clamour surrounding Joe Biden and President Trump, another race, equally contentious and consequential, rages in many states out of the spotlight of 24-hour news. 35 (including two special elections) of the 100 US Senate seats are up for grabs, along with control of the chamber. Both in and outside of the US, the power of Congress and the Senate in particular is overlooked. With the power to confirm or deny presidential nominations to the federal judiciary and the Supreme Court, the Republican Party under Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell have used the past four years to flood the judiciary with conservatives with lifetime appointments, a major power grab that will outlive both men. Along with a veto on all legislation, and the archaic filibuster rule, control of the Senate would make or break a Biden presidency, depending on how the Republicans’ three-seat majority fairs.

The Republican Party is on the defensive. It holds roughly two-thirds of the seats that are up for grabs in November, and polls are predicting a major swing to Democrats, not just nationally, but in many states where Republican senators are up for re-election. Obviously some races are not seen as competitive, with states such as Arkansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska set to re-elect Republicans and others like New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island highly likely to send their Democratic representatives back to Washington. Despite this, if polls follow through, there could be a swathe of Senate seats changing hands in the next Congress.

Colorado is highly likely to be one of these. Former Governor John Hickenlooper transitioned from being a minor presidential candidate to running for Senate against deeply unpopular incumbent Republican Cory Gardener. Another, surprisingly, is Arizona. This is a special election, coming two years earlier than planned after the death of Arizona Senator John McCain. Democratic nominee and former astronaut Mark Kelly is way ahead in polls, as is Joe Biden in the state. Arizona is a traditionally Republican state, but elected a Democrat as Senator in 2018, and, if polls are to be trusted, might be about to elect a second Democratic Senator and support a Democrat for President.

Alabama is in a similar position. Incumbent Democrat Doug Jones scraped a win in a special election in 2017 thanks to a highly controversial Republican opponent and a huge African-American turnout, but is unlikely to be able to repeat this against football coach Tommy Tuberville, who leads heavily in polls. These 3 seats are almost certain to flip – so chalk that up to a net gain of one for the Democrats.

Other likely changes include Maine, where Republican Susan Collins is facing a strong challenge. Previously seen as a moderate and known for her bipartisanship, Collins has sided with Trump one too many times for the many Democrats who supported her in Maine, who will likely vote against her in November, but still could be close, with most polls having Democrat Sara Gideon leading by an average of 4%. In Montana, much like in Colorado, Governor Steve Bullock transitioned his 2020 presidential run into a run for the Senate. A popular governor, Bullock has a decent shot despite the state’s history of consistently voting for Republicans for federal office, making it a toss-up. Iowa is similarly close and hard to predict but is essential to Republicans maintaining their majority in the chamber. Republicans are also in the back foot in other states but look set to retain these seats in any situation outside of a Joe Biden landslide. The nature of a Senate election in a presidential year, especially one that is defined by a major crisis, is that more voters are mobilised to get out and vote for their preferred presidential candidate. If COVID-19 or the past four years under Trump mobilises more voters to support Joe Biden, it is likely many of them will vote for other Democrats down the ticket, including Senate races. Outside of a Biden landslide where he wins the national popular vote by more than ten points (current polls have him up by around seven percent) it’s unlikely that either of Georgia’s seats will go blue, nor will Texas or Kansas. But the races in these three solidly Republican states are far tighter than they have been in decades, so if Biden can narrow margins in the presidential election, it certainly is possible this could push down-ballot Democrats over the line in Congressional races.

Expect the Senate results to be incredibly close, in both these individual states, and in the final results and number of seats that each party holds. It is certainly possible that after all votes are counted the Republicans and Democrats will have 50 seats, meaning control of the Senate defers to whoever wins the White House, with the Vice President casting the deciding vote in a tie in the Congress’ upper chamber. If you predict a gain for Republicans in Alabama, three gain for Democrats in Colorado, Arizona and Maine, then it comes down to two states, both which are polling on a knife edge. This election could enable a second term Trump administration to continue damaging the US and the world, or force progressive legislation onto President Biden’s desk, helping push him to the left in office. Presidential elections define the news cycle, but congressional elections define presidencies.

Lewis Quinn

7 Sept 2020

POLSIS in Colour /

Flipping the Senate

Image by FlipTheSenate