Democrats have a relatively clear path to securing a majority in the U.S. Senate: Win seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina — all states where the Democratic candidate is favored. Carrying these four states, and winning the presidency, would take Democrats from 47 seats currently1 to 50 seats — Democrat Doug Jones is likely to lose his reelection race in Alabama — with a Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking 51st vote. Democrats also have about even odds of picking up a seat in Iowa.
But 50 or 51 votes would be an extremely narrow majority, so Democrats would need to keep essentially all their members in line on key votes. And there are still some relatively conservative Democrats in the Senate, such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. But Democrats also have a real chance at a bigger Senate majority — that is, if they can win seats in some redder states where they’re underdogs but have a meaningful chance of pulling off an upset. It’s worth thinking about two groups of states. One, as we explained in a story last week, is in the South: Democrats could win Senate races in Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas because those states have large numbers of voters of color. But those states are challenging for Democrats because they’re “inelastic,” with few swing voters who are really persuadable (in this case, lots of white evangelical Protestants and white voters with conservative views on racial issues who rarely if ever vote for Democratic candidates).
The second group of red states where Democrats look at least somewhat competitive in Senate races — Alaska, Kansas and Montana — is basically the opposite: fairly white but not as evangelical or racially conservative.2 These are more elastic states, where voters are more likely to swing between the two parties according to national political dynamics.
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President Trump is very likely to carry all three of these states, and Joe Biden’s campaign really isn’t competing in any of them. Besides that, these are not swing states — Democrats last won the presidential race in Alaska and Kansas in 1964, and in Montana, it was 1992.
That said, a big reason why Democrats are competitive in these states at the Senate level is that Trump isn’t doing that well in them. (Or, alternatively, Biden is doing fairly well in them.) The broader anti-Trump wave has hit Alaska, Kansas and Montana too. Polls suggest that the president will win in these three states comfortably, but by several percentage points less than he carried them in 2016. (He won Kansas and Montana by about 20 points four years ago, and Alaska by about 15.) Trump’s net job approval rating3 has declined in all three states since the start of his term.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at these races. We have ordered them from Democrats’ best chances to their worst.
Between Alaska, Kansas and Montana, this is the race where Democrats probably have the best chance of pulling off an upset. That’s true for two reasons. First, Montana is not that Republican-leaning. Barack Obama and his campaign tried hard to win Montana in 2008 and lost there by just about 2 points. Montanans reelected Democrat Jon Tester as the state’s other senator in 2018. And the state has had a Democratic governor since 2005 (Brian Schweitzer, then Steve Bullock).
Second, Democrats have a strong candidate in the Senate race: Gov. Bullock. He has won statewide elections in Montana three times (once as attorney general and twice as governor). It’s likely that Bullock would be the favorite here if this were an open seat.
Of course, it’s not an open seat. Bullock is challenging incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, who has voted nearly in lock step with Trump and hasn’t had any major controversies over the past four years. So, the most likely scenario here is that Trump wins the state and that essentially everyone who votes for Trump also supports Daines, lifting the incumbent to victory. On the other hand, if it’s a particularly good night for Democrats, Montana’s Senate seat is one of the likelier reach seats that could come along for the ride.
The biggest factor working in Democrats’ favor in Kansas is that no incumbent Republican is running for this seat. (Pat Roberts, who is 84 years old, is retiring.) And, as we mentioned above, it’s simply easier to win an open seat than to oust an incumbent.
Democrats have a few other things going for them too. For one, their candidate in Kansas, state senator Barbara Bollier, is an ideal person to appeal to longtime Republicans who may be frustrated with the Trump-era GOP. She is one of those people herself. Bollier served as a Republican member of the state’s House and then Senate from 2010 to December 2018, when she remained in office but switched parties and became a Democrat. Bollier’s switch was not a surprise — she had been part of a group of more moderate Republicans who embraced Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and now Kansas governor) Laura Kelly and argued that Kansas’s GOP had moved too far to the right. Bollier had also been critical of Trump.
Kansas may also be leaning a bit more blue in the Trump era. The GOP brand in Kansas has been hobbled by not only Trump but also by former governor Sam Brownback, whose large tax cuts and large cuts to government programs were deeply unpopular, and by Kansas’s former secretary of state Kris Kobach, who has been heavily involved in GOP efforts in Kansas and across the country to limit immigration and make it harder to vote.
The result has been a modestly friendlier playing field for Democrats. In 2018, Sharice Davids won the congressional district in the Kansas City area, becoming the state’s first Democratic U.S. House member since 2010. And Kelly was elected governor two years ago.
But Republicans are still favorites in Kansas because … well, it’s still a red state. Additionally, they have a strong Senate candidate in congressman Roger Marshall, who isn’t particularly tied to Brownback, Kobach or Trump. In fact, Marshall defeated Kobach in the Kansas Senate primary in August in part because national Republican groups spent heavily on television commercials boosting Marshall. GOP officials intervened because they were worried Kobach would lose in 2020, as he did in 2018 when facing Kelly for governor.
There are four reasons this race could be close. First, Alaska voters, like those in Montana, aren’t as consistently Republican-leaning as you might think based on how the state votes in presidential elections alone. Democrats won this Senate seat in 2008 before losing it in 2014. And in 2010, Alaskans reelected Lisa Murkowski, who was running as a write-in candidate against the official Republican Party nominee, Joe Miller. (Miller had won the GOP primary by running to Murkowski’s right.) The state’s governor from 2015 to 2019 was Bill Walker, a Republican-turned-independent who aligned with the state’s Democrats.
Second, Al Gross, the Democratic candidate in Alaska, might appeal to the state’s voters because he, like Murkowski and Walker, is running against a Republican candidate but is not a traditional Democrat. The doctor and commercial fisherman is a registered independent (so not a Democrat) and before this race didn’t have many formal ties to the Democratic Party. (He did run for and win the Democratic nomination for this seat and is being backed by the groups allied with the Democratic Party.)
Third, incumbent GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan and the broader Republican Party may have been caught off guard in Alaska. It was obvious that Bullock was a strong candidate in Montana, and open seats like the one in Kansas are always hard to defend, so the GOP was prepared for those races to be competitive. But Gross’s strong fundraising, the millions being pumped into his campaign by Democratic-aligned super PACs, and the close poll numbers in this state weren’t easy to foresee a year ago.
Finally, a local issue might hurt Sullivan. He has received campaign donations from people involved in a project to build a large gold and copper mine in an area near Bristol Bay. The project, known as Pebble Mine, is fairly unpopular with Alaskans. Last month, secret recordings were released in which Pebble Mine executives implied that Sullivan would support the project (or at least not publicly oppose it) once his reelection contest was over. After those recordings emerged, Sullivan issued a statement emphatically opposing the mining project. (His comments before had been more circumspect.) But Gross is still attacking the incumbent on this issue.
All that said, Sullivan is the favorite. He’s an incumbent Republican in a GOP-leaning state. A few polls have been released that find Gross within striking distance, but we have very little polling in Alaska in total — less so than in Montana and Kansas.
Personally, I’d be surprised if Democrats won any of these three races. Like South Carolina, it’s pretty hard for a Democratic Senate candidate to win in these states, particularly Kansas. But it’s an indication of how blue 2020 is shaping up to be that Democrats have a chance of winning in all three of these states. And if they do pull off upsets in Alaska, Kansas or Montana, Democrats might win control of the Senate with a few votes to spare.
CORRECTION (Oct. 15, 2020, 6:05 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Alaska as a “very white” state. About 72 percent of all Alaskan voters in the 2020 election will likely be non-Hispanic white, roughly in line with the country overall. (The original version of the second footnote said 75 percent of Alaskan voters in this election would be non-Hispanic white, but that number comes from the 2016 election and is likely to be lower this year.) Accordingly, we have updated the text to say Alaska is “fairly white.”