WASHINGTON - With more than five months to go until Election Day 2020 and coronavirus lockdowns just beginning to ease around the nation, control of the U.S. Senate is still too early to call. But some key polling numbers from around the country are providing insight into a pandemic-era election that will look very different and have far-reaching consequences for governance in the United States.
One-third of the U.S. Senate, currently controlled by Republicans, is up for re-election in 2020. Right now, 45 Democrats sit in the Senate, along with two independents who usually vote with Democrats. To win a majority in November, Democrats will have to flip three to four seats to their control. If President Donald Trump is re-elected in the fall, a Democratic-majority U.S. Senate could severely hamper his second-term agenda.
The unknown element in this year’s election is the course of the pandemic. Analysts cannot predict the impact of an autumn resurgence of the virus as some health experts anticipate, driving voters away from the polls. Data suggests the pandemic has already impacted voter registration numbers which had been on a pace to break the record set in the last presidential election year of 2016.
Here’s a look at several states whose Senate races will determine that outcome:
President Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has kept the Alabama Senate race in the national spotlight. Sessions’ run-off race with former football coach Tommy Tuberville drew the attention of Trump last week when he Tweeted “Jeff, you had your chance & you blew it. Recused yourself ON DAY ONE (you never told me of a problem), and ran for the hills. You had no courage, & ruined many lives.”
Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation during his time as attorney general angered many Trump allies and could be a deciding factor in his bid to win the Republican nomination on July 14 to go up against Democrat incumbent Senator Doug Jones in the fall. A poll conducted May 7-10 shows Trump’s endorsed pick, Tuberville leading Sessions 55% to 31%. The odds are still in Republicans’ favor to pick up this seat in the fall — the independent Cook Political Report currently rates this race as leaning Republican.
The first of four Senate seats all rated by Cook Political Report as a toss-up between Democrats and Republicans, Martha McSally’s Senate race has caused increasing concern for Republicans lately.
A May poll of Arizona voters found McSally trailing her Democratic challenger, former astronaut Mark Kelly 51% to 38%. Even worse for McSally, Kelly is the best-funded Senate candidate in the entire country — with a campaign war chest of $51 million to McSally’s $18 million.
But McSally’s problems are indicative of a larger issue for Republicans in the state. President Trump is not polling well in the state he won by almost four percentage points in 2016. Polls conducted in May show former vice president Joe Biden leading Trump 50% to 43%.
Republican Cory Gardner also saw disappointing polling numbers in his state in May. Two polls conducted in mid-April and early-May show Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper with nearly identical 17- and 18-point leads over the incumbent senator.
One of those polls — the Western States Survey, primarily conducted by researchers at the University of Montana — shows only 18% of voters disapprove of Gardner’s handling of the coronavirus, there are already signs he is differentiating himself from the Republican response to the pandemic.
In a Tweet last week, Gardner called on the U.S. Senate to take immediate action on a second round of aid addressing the economic impact of the coronavirus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has cautioned against adding to the national debt but Gardner threatened to hold up a Senate recess to force work on the topic. He eventually stood down on that attempt after negotiations with leadership.
Four-term Republican Senator Susan Collins has enjoyed a reputation as one of the bi-partisan lawmakers in the U.S. Congress with a key swing vote on important legislation. But after controversial votes in the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and her decision not to vote to call witnesses in the Trump Senate impeachment trial, Collins appears to be losing ground to Democratic challenger Sara Gideon.
In two polls conducted in late winter before the coronavirus fully hit the United States, Gideon led Collins by as much as four percentage points. The Maine Senate race has attracted intense attention and numerous out-of-state donors for Gideon’s campaign.
Both senate seats are up for re-election this cycle in the state Trump lost in 2016 but Collins’ national profile makes her the more vulnerable of the two Republicans.
Incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis — who won his senate seat six years ago by just one percentage point — is likely to face another close race in a state where demographics are shifting towards Democrats. In a poll conducted at the beginning of May, Tillis is in a virtual tie with his Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham. A veteran of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cunningham is running a well-funded campaign accusing Tillis of siding with Washington and corporate interests.
To date, Tillis has sided with the state’s Democratic governor, Rory Cooper, on coronavirus closures, telling constituents at an April townhall meeting, “We’re moving in the right direction but we have not beaten this virus. And the last thing we can do now is to let our guard down.” That could be a political liability for Tillis in a state that has seen protests by the armed militia group ReopenNC for several weeks running in the state capital of Raleigh.
As with all of these races, Tillis and Cunningham have had to move their campaigns entirely online because of the coronavirus, throwing even more uncertainty into an already high-stakes election year.