No matter who wins the 2020 presidential election, they won’t be able to get much done if their party doesn’t also win the Senate. Historically, the presidential election results in a given state have tracked closely with the Senate outcome there, and the two are only coming into closer alignment (in 2016, for example, the presidential and Senate outcome was the same in every state). But partisanship isn’t the only factor in Senate races (yet); a senator’s popularity can still make a difference. That’s why, today, we’re unveiling a metric of a senator’s political standing that takes both partisanship and popularity into account.
With the help of Morning Consult, which polls the approval ratings of U.S. senators every quarter, we’ve created a statistic that I’m playfully calling Popularity Above Replacement Senator (PARS). It’s based on the same premise as my Popularity Above Replacement Governor (PARG) statistic1 — that it’s a good idea to think about politicians’ popularity in the context of their states’ partisanship. PARS, like PARG, is calculated by measuring the distance between a politician’s net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) in her state and the state’s partisan lean (how much more Republican- or Democratic-leaning it is than the country as a whole).2 Take West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin as an example. According to the latest Morning Consult poll, which covered the first three months of 2019, Manchin had a +5 net approval rating. That may not look like anything special, but it’s actually quite impressive because Manchin is a Democrat in one of the reddest states in the nation (R+30). Accordingly, he leads all senators with a +35 PARS.
|State||Name||Party||Net Approval||State Partisan Lean||PARS|
|NV||Catherine Cortez Masto||D||+7||R+1||+8|
|MD||Chris Van Hollen||D||+25||D+23||+2|
|WV||Shelley Moore Capito||R||+18||R+30||-12|
Like we did for PARG, we can use PARS as a tool to assess the 2020 Senate elections — specifically, to give us clues about which of the senators whose seats are up in 2020 might be poised to over- or underperform their party’s presidential ticket.
That conversation starts with Sen. Doug Jones, who comes in at No. 2 in PARS with a score of +33. Jones is a Democratic senator in R+27 Alabama, so he’s fighting an uphill battle. And if he is able to maintain a positive net approval rating (it’s +6 currently), that will be a sign of life for his candidacy.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins is another senator who hopes to overcome the partisan lean of her state (Maine is 5 points more Democratic-leaning than the nation) to win reelection. Her net approval rating in the Morning Consult poll has been on the decline over the past two years, but she still has a solid +13 net approval rating. The question is whether the results in 2020 will be closer to her net approval rating or Maine’s light-blue partisanship; splitting the difference yields a race that leans (or tilts) Republican, which is exactly where major election handicappers have it.
Similarly, if you were to look at state partisanship alone, you might assume that Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia and Tina Smith of Minnesota are electorally vulnerable. But PARS reveals why the handicappers aren’t so sure. They all sit in closely divided states (from R+2 for New Hampshire to D+2 for Minnesota), yes, but they are all also quite popular. Shaheen has a +21 net approval rating, Warner has a +19 net approval rating and Smith has a +18 net approval rating.
Unlike this trio, there are some senators whose electoral fates probably do hinge on the presidential race. Those include Republican Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas. Each has a PARS between +1 and -3, indicating that their net approval rating is in line with their states’ partisan lean. If the Democratic presidential nominee carries their states (admittedly, this will be easier for Colorado than for Texas), the party may get a Senate seat as a bonus.
Finally, the senator who ranks last in PARS is also up for reelection in 2020, and it’s a big name: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell manages just a -13 net approval rating despite inhabiting an R+23 state. It’s not crazy to think he could be vulnerable in 2020. Democrats are reportedly trying to recruit former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath, who raised $8.6 million for an unsuccessful 2018 congressional bid, to run against him. But it’s worth remembering that Lucy has held this football in front of Democrats before. In 2014, McConnell also had popularity problems, and Democrats thought they had a top candidate to challenge him in Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell beat Grimes 56 percent to 41 percent.
Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.