I’ve spent a lot of time on the presidential election in 2020. But the post-2020 Congress is of equal importance. So, with 34 Senate seats on the ballot, can Republicans hold or build onto their slim majority or will Democrats take back the Senate for the first time since 2014? Republicans are at a greater risk, with 22 seats up for reelection, but 12 are already considered safely Republican (according to The Cook Political Report). Democrats have the remaining 12 seats at risk, but eight of them are considered safely Democrat.
First, a look at the four Democratic seats that could help Republicans preserve or build on their majority. The most obvious vulnerability for Democrats is Doug Jones in Alabama. Jones won a special election over a very damaged Roy Moore, and by a slim margin. Cook rates this seat as a toss-up, but other sites have it leaning Republican. In 2016, Trump won the state by 28 points, so any Republican would have a great chance despite Jones’ moderate behavior in office.
Unfortunately for Republicans, that may be the only seat in play.
The other three seats up for election are Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico. All are likely Democratic seats, and Minnesota is probably very safe for Senator Tina Smith. Smith was appointed to replace Al Franken, and won a special election to hold her seat in 2018 by more than 10 points. Michigan is more in play, simply because Trump won it in 2016 and could do so again. But a Republican challenger will be going against incumbent Gary Peters, who won his seat in 2014 by 13 points. Republicans could run John James, who garnered quite a bit of attention entirely too late against Debbie Stabenow in 2018. If they do, the Republican ticket in Michigan will be very high energy with James and Trump running. Republicans haven’t had much luck in New Mexico recently, with the Republican challenger to Martin Heinrich receiving only 30% of the vote in 2018 (with Gary Johnson winning 15% with the LP). Incumbent Tom Udall is retiring, though, so a good Republican candidate and some national momentum could put New Mexico back in play.
Two Republican seats are rated as tossups, and both probably favor the Democrats. In Arizona, Senator Martha McSally faces a special election after having been appointed to the late John McCain’s seat.
Her road was certainly an interesting one. After McCain died, Governor Ducey appointed former Senator Jon Kyl to his seat. McSally then ran against then-Representative Kyrsten Simena for retiring Senator Jeff Flake’s seat, and lost a very close election. Kyl then resigned from the seat he never really appeared to want, and Ducey appointed McSally to the best consolation prize ever. McSally will have to face the voters who rejected her just two years ago, but the Democratic bench in Arizona doesn’t appear particularly deep, and there likely won’t be such a “blue wave” this year. The other tossup is Senator Cory Gardner in Colorado. Clinton won the state by only 3 points in 2016, and incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet defended his seat by 6 points. Still, with the natural advantage Gardner has as an incumbent, a tossup in this race is fair. Gardner first won his seat in 2014.
Senator Susan Collins in Maine is at risk, with her seat only considered to be leaning Republican. Collins will not only have to battle the Democrats in Maine, the only party to have two senators despite having no senators (independent Angus King caucuses with Democrats), but also her own party. Collins is criticized for constantly voting against Republicans in key, close votes, like Obamacare repeal efforts. Honestly, if she wasn’t reelected, it wouldn’t make a huge difference to Republicans. Still, that seat matters for things like leadership, and I suppose Republicans still wouldn’t necessarily want to lose it. She could face a challenge from either of the state’s congressmen, the Democratic challenger to King in 2018, or any other prominent Democrat in the state that seems to be moving further left by the year.
The seven remaining Republican seats are considered “likely” to stay Republican. Georgia’s David Perdue, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, Mississippi’s Cincy Hyde-Smith, and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis are probably all pretty safe. The other two, Kansas’s Pat Roberts and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, are retiring.
Kansas did elect a Democrat governor in 2018, but the state is generally safely Republican. There will probably be more drama in the Republican primary than in the general election, but that is what we said last year (though that Republican primary did have a lot of drama). Tennessee Republicans had a bit of a sweat for the Senate race in 2018, with a lot of national attention being given (especially by Hollywood) due to the retirement of incumbent Bob Corker. Eventually Republican Marsha Blackburn won that seat by more than 10 points, though, and it wouldn’t be unlikely to see a very similar dynamic this year.
All in all, I don’t expect to see a lot of movement in the Senate this year. Alabama and Colorado could switch places, and plenty of seats, mostly Republican, are far from safe. We’ll reevaluate this in a year and see just how wrong I am, but as it sits, I’ll say Republicans are likely to hold but unlikely to build on their majority, ending with 51 to 53 seats. Democrats will have to sweep the tossup and lean seats if they want to take back the Senate.
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