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New Polls And New Candidates Are Giving Democrats Some Hope Of Flipping The Senate

The topsy-turvy Democratic primary for president dominated political news for the first two-and-a-half months of 2020 — and rightfully so, it was bonkers — but now that it’s settled down, it’s time for us to check in once again on the other major political battle of 2020: the fight for the U.S. Senate.

Republicans started the cycle with the advantage, but Democrats have had reason for optimism of late. New polls have shown Democratic challengers ahead of GOP incumbents, the party is recruiting strong candidates, and, perhaps most importantly given the tight correlation between presidential and Senate voting, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrat who has polled the best against President Trump, has become the party’s likely presidential nominee.

The most likely outcome is still that Republicans maintain control of the Senate, though perhaps with a reduced majority: The status quo favors them, and most of the states where the Senate will be decided lean red. (As a refresher, Republicans currently have 53 Senate seats to Democrats’ 47,1 meaning Democrats need to flip four seats, on net, to take control — or three if they also win the vice presidency.) But Democrats have expanded the map to the point where they have a lot more pick-up opportunities than Republicans do, so they have a lot of upside.

Democrats have pick-up opportunities in the Senate

Competitive U.S. Senate seats up for election in 2020, as rated by three major election handicappers

State Incumbent Incumbent Party Rating
Minnesota Tina Smith D Likely D
New Hampshire Jeanne Shaheen D Likely D
New Mexico OPEN D Likely D
Michigan Gary Peters D Lean D
Arizona* Martha McSally R Toss-up
Colorado Cory Gardner R Toss-up
North Carolina Thom Tillis R Toss-up
Maine Susan Collins R Toss-up/Lean R
Alabama Doug Jones D Lean R
Georgia* Kelly Loeffler R Lean R
Iowa Joni Ernst R Lean R
Kansas OPEN R Lean R
Montana Steve Daines R Lean R
Georgia David Perdue R Likely R
Kentucky Mitch McConnell R Likely R
Texas John Cornyn R Likely R

Rating is the race’s median rating among the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and Sabato’s Crystal Ball. Races with a median rating of Solid D or Solid R are excluded.

*Special election.

Sources: Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball

The most competitive Senate races remain unchanged from late last year — there haven’t been any significant developments in Colorado or Maine, for example, that have dislodged them from their too-close-to-call status. Instead, the biggest Senate news of the last couple months came in the longer-shot Democratic pick-up opportunity of Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock’s entry has shaken up the race. Bullock was considered to be the only Democrat who could put this red state in play, and his announcement caused nonpartisan handicappers to move the race from “Solid Republican” to “Lean Republican.”

According to Morning Consult, Bullock has a +21 net approval rating (approval rating minus disapproval rating) and at least 83 percent of Montanans are able to form an opinion of him (approval rating plus disapproval rating). This gives him a leg up against incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines (who has just a +16 net approval rating and at least 78 percent name recognition, according to the same poll). Indeed, Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling put out a survey shortly after Bullock entered the race that found Bullock and Daines deadlocked at 47 percent support. However, the poll was sponsored by liberal group End Citizens United, which has endorsed Bullock, so you should take it with a grain of salt.

The special election in Georgia has also seen a flurry of new candidates. After now-Sen. Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the vacant seat instead of Republican Rep. Doug Collins, Collins announced in late January that he would challenge her in November’s jungle primary. (Unlike a normal Georgia election, all candidates in the special election, regardless of party, will run on the same ballot in November; then, if no one gets a majority, the top two finishers advance to a runoff.) But Collins isn’t the only one entering the fray. Democrat Matt Lieberman, the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman, has been running since last year, and fellow Democrat Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, announced in late January that he would run. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee quickly endorsed Warnock. Then, in February, former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver became the third prominent Democrat to join the race.

With both the Republican and Democratic vote splintered among several candidates, it now seems extremely likely that the race will advance to a runoff election in January. And unfortunately for Democrats, there’s a chance they get locked out of a runoff completely: Several early polls of the race (granted, only one of which was nonpartisan) showed Collins and Loeffler finishing first and second in the jungle primary. However, if a Democrat does make it through to the runoff, he might find Collins or Loeffler to be a relatively soft target. Collins’s hardline conservative views may make him a poor fit for an increasingly moderate state like Georgia, while Loeffler has faced a firestorm of criticism since it was revealed she sold millions of dollars in stocks after she received a briefing on the dangers of the coronavirus.2 In fact, one GOP pollster has shown her losing ground in the last few weeks — although, as always, we shouldn’t read too much into just one poll.

Meanwhile, handicappers still rate Arizona as a toss-up, but there’s an increasingly strong argument that Democrats are actually favored despite the state’s Republican lean. Five polls of Arizona’s U.S. Senate race have been conducted so far in March, and Democrat Mark Kelly led Republican Sen. Martha McSally in all five. His average lead was 7 percentage points.

Democrat Mark Kelly leads in recent Arizona polls

Public polls of Arizona’s U.S. Senate race conducted in March 2020

Results
Dates Pollster Sample Kelly (D) McSally (R) Margin
March 2-3 Public Policy Polling 666 V 47% 42% D+5
March 3-4 OH Predictive Insights 600 LV 49 42 D+7
March 6-11 Latino Decisions 1036 RV 48 36 D+12
March 10-15 Marist College 2523 RV 48 45 D+3
March 11-14 Monmouth University 847 RV 50 44 D+6
Average 48 42 D+7

Source: Polls

Of course, contrarians need only recall the fate of former Tallahassee, Florida, Mayor Andrew Gillum in 2018: He led almost every poll of the Florida governor’s race yet still went down to defeat. Even a small systematic polling error in Arizona could mean that McSally is actually ahead (most of those Kelly leads are within the margin of error). However, Kelly also has the advantage of being a monster fundraiser — he took in more than $20.2 million in 2019. McSally raised only $12.6 million.

Finally, the first few Senate battlegrounds have now held their primaries, which means we have a clearer picture of who will face off in the fall. In North Carolina, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who had the support of the DSCC, won the Democratic primary with 57 percent of the vote. That sets up a close general election with Republican Sen. Thom Tillis: A survey by Democratic firm Public Policy Polling claims Cunningham is ahead, while Tillis’s pollster gave the incumbent the lead.

And in Texas, Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s Democratic opponent will be either DSCC-endorsed veteran MJ Hegar or state Sen. Royce West. After finishing first and second, in the March 3 primary, the two Democrats will face off in a July 14 runoff that was delayed two months by the coronavirus pandemic. (This could be a problem for Democrats, as their eventual nominee will be forced to spend time and money on an extended intraparty fight rather than stockpiling enough cash to compete with Cornyn in this very expensive state.)

Also on July 14 (and also months later than originally scheduled), Democratic Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama will find out if his Republican opponent will be former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville or former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Tuberville and Sessions finished neck and neck in the first round of the GOP primary on March 3, but Tuberville may have the advantage in the runoff: He leads in multiple polls, and Trump, still nursing a grudge against Sessions for not protecting him from the Mueller probe, formally endorsed Tuberville a couple weeks ago.

No matter who wins, though, things look dire for Jones. In a Mason-Dixon poll from early February, Tuberville led the Democrat by 8 percentage points, and Sessions led him by 13 points. Democrats’ best chance at holding onto this seat likely went out the window after former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore — whose profound flaws as a candidate allowed Jones to first win this seat back in 2017 — failed in his comeback bid; he finished fourth with just 7 percent in the GOP primary earlier this month.

With seven months to go until Election Day, though, there is still a lot that can change — in these races and others. The overall race for the Senate could still go either way, and we’ll of course keep you updated.

Footnotes

  1. Counting independent Sens. Angus King and Bernie Sanders, who caucus with the Democrats.

  2. The other senator engulfed in that scandal, Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, isn’t up for reelection this year.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

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