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Democrats Needed A Big Blue Wave To Win The Senate, And It Looks Like They Didn’t Get It

At this time last week, it seemed like Democrats had a good chance to win control of the U.S. Senate (FiveThirtyEight’s forecast put the odds at 3-in-4). There was a clear path. Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama would likely lose (he did), but Democrats were favorites to flip four GOP-held seats, turning the current 53-47 GOP-controlled Senate into a 50-50 chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris as the Senate president and tiebreaking vote. There was even an outside chance that Democrats would win 52, 53 or 54 seats and have a real governing majority.

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Things aren’t looking so rosy for the Democrats now. The party could still win that Senate majority, but it probably needs an unlikely sweep in Georgia. A state that last elected a Democratic U.S. senator in 2000 would need to decide to elect two Democrats at the same time, as both the state’s Senate seats — the one that was normally scheduled election this year and a special election to fill a seat left vacant by a 2019 retirement — head for a runoff on Jan 5.

So what happened to Democrats’ seemingly good Senate prospects? At root, it looks like the overall national political environment will end up being Democratic-leaning but not overwhelmingly so — votes are still being counted, so it’s hard to put an exact number on this yet. The Senate’s structure gives it a Republican bias — the median seat is 6-7 percentage points more GOP-leaning than the nation, so Democrats need to really overperform nationally to win the chamber. And while the party did well in 2020, it looks it didn’t quite clear that bar.

The most obvious path for Democrats to win a majority was by gaining seats in Colorado and Maine, two states where Joe Biden was expected to win handily, and in Arizona and North Carolina, two states where Biden was narrowly favored. After all, in 2016, presidential and Senate races were perfectly correlated — no Senate candidate won a state where his or her party didn’t win at the presidential level too.

We’ll come back to the Maine race in a bit, but Colorado went as expected, with former Gov. John Hicklenlooper comfortably defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in a state Biden also won easily. In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly ran a bit ahead of Biden and won that race over incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally even as Arizona remains too close to call at the presidential level.

But Democrat Cal Cunningham in North Carolina basically received the same percentage of the vote as Biden did. In both cases, that was a slightly lower percentage than preelection polls suggested it might be. Biden looks likely to fall just short in the Tar Heel State, and Cunningham seems likely to lose to incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis as well, although North Carolina is still counting votes and ABC News1 has not yet projected a winner in either race.

Meanwhile, although it looked like Democrats had a chance in redder states if there was a strong enough blue wave, those races ended up being out of reach.

Democrat Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, like Cunningham, ran about even with Biden. That wasn’t enough for either Democrat in increasingly GOP-leaning Iowa, and Greenfield lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst.

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In Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff ran a bit behind Biden, but that was not a state Democrats were counting on for their route to a Senate majority. Ossoff got 48 percent of the vote and incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue finished just below 50 percent, setting up a Jan. 5 runoff.

Republicans ended up winning easily in Senate races in Kansas, Montana and South Carolina, all states where some pre-election polls showed fairly tight margins. President Trump comfortably won all three states, and the Democratic candidates in these races, unlike GOP Sen. Susan Collins in Maine, were not able to appeal to voters who backed the other party’s presidential candidate.

OK, so what about Maine? It turns out Collins is good at politics.

A few Senate races have not yet been called, but so far, Collins is the only Senate candidate who won in a state that her party lost at the presidential level. How did she pull this off? It’s almost certainly the case that some voters backed Biden but also Collins. And that makes sense: Collins has long tried to carve out her own brand as a moderate Republican and has sometimes acted on that. In terms of voting records, the Maine senator was the Senate Republican least likely to vote in line with Trump’s positions. She has broken with her party in some high-profile votes, most notably opposing the GOP’s 2017 attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court last month. In the run-up to this year’s election, Collins repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether she was personally voting for Trump.

All of those moves probably helped her in this left-leaning state, even if she annoyed Maine Democratic activists by voting for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation in 2018 and giving a speech ahead of that vote in which she bluntly denounced her critics.

So right now, it looks like Republicans control 49 seats (including the North Carolina race where the result hasn’t officially been projected yet), Democrats 48.2 Let’s look closely at the other three. It’s hard to imagine Alaska incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan losing in a GOP-leaning state against Al Gross, who is officially an independent but is being backed by Democratic Party groups. That said, less than 60 percent of the expected votes there have been tabulated and the overwhelming majority of those left are absentee ballots, which are likely to be Democratic-leaning. So Sullivan’s victory is not guaranteed, and it may be a while before an official winner is declared in that race.

But Georgia is the real story of the Senate now. Incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler was appointed to her seat earlier this year, and she ran in a special election in which the top two candidates from either party would advance. Democrats coalesced behind Atlanta pastor Raphael Warnock, who received the most votes of any candidate in this first round, about 33 percent. He didn’t really have any strong Democratic competition. Loeffler had to pull ahead of GOP congressman Doug Collins to make it to the runoff, and she narrowly did (26-20 percent). So it’s Warnock vs. Loeffler and Ossoff v. Perdue in Round 2 on Jan. 5.

The Georgia races could be super close — at least going by the results of the November election. In the race for the Loeffler seat, the total vote for the eight Democrats who got at least 0.5 percent support, including Warnock, was around 48.4 percent. The total vote for the six Republicans who got at least 0.5 percent, including Leoffler, was about 49.4 percent. As of right now, Ossoff is around 47.9 percent of the vote, compared to Perdue’s 49.7 percent. Biden is at 49.5 percent in Georgia, Trump at 49.3.

I assume we at FiveThirtyEight will do many, many more stories about Georgia if those two races end up being the ones that will determine control of the Senate, so I will not delve too deeply here into how those races might shake out. But only a few days after the election, one story is clear — Democrats can probably only win a Senate majority with two wins in Georgia, which illustrates the decline of their once-bright Senate hopes.


  1. ABC News owns FiveThirtyEight.

  2. Counting the two independent senators who caucus with the Democrats.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.