WASHINGTON - With less than four months to go until Election Day, congressional Democrats are feeling increasingly confident they can win the handful of seats needed to take back control of the U.S. Senate.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leads President Donald Trump nationally, with a RealClearPolitics average of polls conducted at the end of June showing the former vice president ahead by eight percentage points. The dynamics of the presidential race are making for a friendlier environment for Democratic challengers in down-ballot races.
Republicans currently control 23 of the 35 seats up for reelection this year, but races in just a few key states will decide the balance of power. A Democratic-controlled Senate could significantly impact the ability of a reelected Trump to enact a second term agenda, or for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden to enact his policies if he is elected the country’s 46th president. Democrats will have to win three to four Senate seats to cement their advantage.
While the coronavirus has made for a political environment not seen in any other election year, the unique dynamics of running online campaigns could mean the presidential race has even more of an effect than usual on down-ballot contests.
"Both presidential candidates have an awful lot of money to spend,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. “And in the absence of being able to do a lot of in-person type of stuff, they're going to be spending it targeting swing states.”
Here is a look at several states whose Senate races will help determine the presidential outcome.
President Trump remains extremely popular in Alabama, the only state where Republicans have a good chance of unseating Democratic incumbent Doug Jones. Trump is set to rally for former football coach Tommy Tuberville in Mobile, Alabama, later this month, just ahead of the July 14th Republican primary in which former Attorney General Jeff Sessions is Tuberville’s Republican rival.
Trump has kept the Republican race in the national spotlight with negative tweets about Sessions. Earlier this year, Trump criticized the former attorney general for recusing himself during the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“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,” Trump tweeted. [[ https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1264328744682078208?lang=en ]]
Sessions responded to the announcement of Trump’s rally for Tuberville, tweeting, "The people of Alabama will not be told who to vote for by anyone in Washington. As recent experience demonstrates, in Alabama we make our own decisions on who will represent us in the US Senate.”
A June 26 survey by Democratic polling firm ALG Research shows Jones trailing both Tuberville and Sessions by two to three percentage points in hypothetical head-to-head matchups. The odds still favor Republicans to pick up this seat. The independent Cook Political Report analysis website rates Alabama as a Senate seat that likely leans Republican.
One of five seats held by Republicans senators that are all rated toss-up races by Cook Political Report, Arizona now looks increasingly positive for Democratic challenger and former astronaut Mark Kelly. He leads Republican Martha McSally by an average of six percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics polls. Kelly has also outraised McSally, who lost her 2018 race to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. John McCain, and was eventually appointed to fill the vacated seat of Sen. John Kyl.
McSally’s problems represent a bigger issue for the Republican Party in Arizona. Trump won Arizona by almost four percentage points in the 2016 election, but a poll of 600 likely voters conducted in the last week of June found Biden leading the president by two percentage points. The state’s burgeoning Latino population, and the impact that voter turnout in the blue-leaning Phoenix area have on the state overall, could result in the state flipping for Biden.
Belt says that while the state’s demographics are in Kelly’s favor, McSally has personal weaknesses that impact the race.
“She couldn't even win against her competitor, Kyrsten Sinema,” Belt said. “She's extremely vulnerable, having been appointed to that seat, only been there for two years. So, she hasn't really had a chance to bring home the bacon and do the types of things that make reelection easier.”
The Colorado Senate race features a matchup between former Gov. John Hickenlooper and incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner, neither of whom has ever lost a political race in the state. Hickenlooper recently bested his primary challengers while raising a total of $3.7 million in less than three months, a state record for a candidate in the pre-primary stage of the election cycle. A survey of likely Colorado voters at the end of June also showed encouraging numbers for Hickenlooper. He leads Gardner by 11 percentage points. Gardner has tried to deemphasize his ties to Trump and pushed for a second round of coronavirus aid earlier than most Republicans.
Colorado has always been included in the handful of presidential swing states. But like Arizona, its demographics are diversifying and pushing the state closer toward Democrats. Colorado has not gone for a Republican presidential candidate since George W. Bush won the state in 2004.
Four-term Sen. Susan Collins is one of a handful of Republican women in the Senate who could lose their seat in November, decreasing the party’s gender diversity. Collins faced a flood of fundraising against her reelection extremely early in the election cycle following her controversial vote confirming Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, and earlier this year when she was a key swing vote in the decision not to call witnesses in Trump’s Senate impeachment trial.
In a July Public Policy Polling survey, Maine voters favored Collins’s Democratic primary challenger, Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon, by four percentage points. That same group of voters told pollsters they perceived Collins as a partisan voice for Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by four percentage points over the group of voters who saw her as an independent voice for Maine. Collins was well-known for her ability to be a swing vote between Democrats and Republicans and cultivated a nonpartisan reputation that now appears to be in jeopardy.
Trump lost Maine in 2016. Angus King, Collins’s colleague on the Maine Senate delegation, is expected to win his reelection race this year.
Like the Democratic challenger in Colorado, Cal Cunningham has raised record amounts, notching $7.4 million for his campaign in the latest quarter of the election cycle. The lawyer and military veteran is taking on incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, who won his seat in 2014 by just 1 percentage point.
North Carolina is part of a handful of states that could be trending away from Republicans due to diversifying demographics, which is borne out in the latest polling data. A RealClearPolitics average of several polls conducted in June show Cunningham leading Tillis by three percentage points.
Belt sees an opportunity for Democrats in the state, with Trump occupied defending states he has a better chance of winning.
“It doesn't look like Trump is going to try to be very competitive there,” Belt said of the president’s chances in North Carolina. “He's really fighting a rear-guard action, trying to hold onto Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, where he just did a huge ad buy in those three states. And so, he's sort of neglecting North Carolina.”