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Election Update: The Senate Races The Supreme Court Fight May (Or May Not) Affect

Of all the massively consequential questions raised by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the more callous — but nevertheless important — is, “How does it affect the 2020 election?” The short answer is that nobody knows; it’s simply too early to tell. But we can use the FiveThirtyEight forecast to lay down a marker and advance a few plausible theories.

As of 3 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, Sept. 22, Joe Biden has a 77 in 100 chance of winning the presidential election, while President Trump still has a 22 in 100 chance. Despite the fact that polling has been telling the same old story, Biden’s chances have ticked up in recent weeks, largely because we are getting closer to the election and Biden is continuing to get some good state polls.

But could the Supreme Court opening shake up the race? Preliminary evidence suggests probably not. In a SurveyMonkey/Insider poll conducted immediately after Ginsburg’s death, only 5 percent of registered voters said the vacant seat made them less certain of their vote. And in a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 30 percent (most of them Democrats) said it made them more likely to vote for Biden, about the same as the 25 percent (most of them Republicans) who said it made them more likely to vote for Trump. A plurality (38 percent) said it would have no impact on their presidential vote.

However, the Senate — where Democrats have a 60 in 100 chance of taking control1 — may be a different story. Several vulnerable members of that chamber are now faced with the politically difficult choice of whether to vote to confirm Trump’s soon-to-be-announced Supreme Court nominee.

We still don’t know what effect — if any — that development could have on Senate races, but one plausible theory is that the Supreme Court vacancy will make partisanship — as expressed by a person’s presidential vote — an even more important consideration. This may have been the case in the 2018 elections, when now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote appeared to consolidate Republican support in red states and Democratic support in blue states. (Of course, this “coming home to the base” might have happened regardless.)

If that happens in 2020, how might it change the Senate landscape? I used our forecast’s projected vote margins to see which competitive Senate races were most out of sync with the expected presidential results in that state. If the “Kavanaugh effect” theory is true, then these are the states where we’d expect it to have the most impact.

Not all Senate races line up with the presidential race

Forecasted margin in competitive Senate races, compared with the forecasted margin of the presidential race in those states, according to the FiveThirtyEight model at 3 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 22

State Forecasted Senate Margin Forecasted Presidential Margin Difference
Alabama R+7 R+18 R+11
Maine D+2 D+12 D+10
Montana R+3 R+10 R+7
Georgia* R+8 R+2 D+6
Texas R+10 R+3 D+6
Colorado D+4 D+9 D+5
Kansas R+7 R+12 R+5
Minnesota D+13 D+8 R+5
Arizona* D+6 D+4 R+2
Mississippi R+13 R+12 D+2
Georgia R+4 R+2 D+2
North Carolina D+3 D+1 R+2
New Mexico D+15 D+13 R+1
Iowa R+1 R+3 R+1
Alaska R+10 R+8 D+1
Michigan D+7 D+8 D+1
South Carolina R+7 R+8 R+1

Competitive Senate races are defined as those where both parties have at least a 5 percent chance of winning in the FiveThirtyEight model.

*Special election. In the Georgia special election, the forecasted margin is the difference between the total forecasted Republican vote share and the total forecasted Democratic vote share.

The biggest gap between the forecasted Senate result and the forecasted presidential result comes in Alabama, where Democratic Sen. Doug Jones is only a minor underdog despite the state being a conservative bastion. But the Supreme Court vacancy may put Jones in an even tougher spot: Alabama is one of the most anti-abortion states in the nation, so it wouldn’t be surprising if putting a pro-life judge on the Supreme Court is a top priority for many voters there. And if Jones votes against Trump’s nominee (he has already said he believes the next president should choose Ginsburg’s replacement), it has the potential to really hurt his reelection prospects.

The Supreme Court confirmation battle could also make life more difficult for Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who is in a toss-up race in a state (Maine) that we forecast will vote for Biden by 12 points. Collins’s vote to confirm Kavanaugh in 2018 was already a major factor in shifting Collins’s image from a moderate to a more partisan figure, so any reminder of her Supreme Court voting record is unlikely to help her (especially since she needs some crossover Democratic support to win reelection). That said, Collins is one of the few Republican senators who has already come out against filling Ginsburg’s seat before the election (although that hasn’t stopped her Democratic opponent from dinging her on judicial appointments).

The Supreme Court issue could also help vulnerable Republican incumbents. For instance, Sen. Steve Daines is only a slight favorite over Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock despite Trump’s forecasted 10-point lead in Montana. Bullock has made the race close thanks to his personal popularity, but Daines is already trying to use the Supreme Court issue to his advantage. Daines has called for a vote on a new justice now, saying Trump will nominate “the type of justice Montanans want on the Supreme Court.” But, he added, “If Joe Biden is elected, he will nominate, with the support of Steve Bullock, a liberal activist justice who will threaten our Montana way of life.”

That said, there aren’t a lot of other Senate seats where Republicans stand to gain from deeper partisan polarization — Kansas and Minnesota, perhaps, being notable exceptions.

And perhaps contrary to instinct, polarization would actually benefit Democrats in the light red states of Georgia (at least in the special election) and Texas, where the presidential race is actually quite close but the Senate races are not, implying there is room for Democrats to grow. Finally, in South Carolina, there is a lot of speculation about how Supreme Court hearings could affect Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham’s reelection campaign. However, the safest answer might be “they won’t.” The forecasted result of the Senate race almost exactly matches the forecasted result of the presidential race there, implying voters aren’t casting their Senate ballots with the unique attributes of Graham (or his Democratic opponent) in mind — more so that they are just voting a straight-ticket ballot.

All told, if the theory that the Supreme Court fight will increase partisan polarization is correct, Democrats stand to gain in some races, while Republicans stand to gain in others. Notably, though, we were already expecting a repeat of what happened in 2016 — that every Senate seat would go the same way as the presidential race in that state. So it’s entirely possible that Ginsburg’s death won’t change the odds of Senate control that much.

Footnotes

  1. Based on the “Deluxe” version of our forecast.

Nathaniel Rakich is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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