Can The Democrats Flip The Senate?

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Sam Palmer

As November 3rd approaches, most of the national media attention is devoted to the looming presidential race and its consequences. Even though the Joe Biden vs Donald Trump race is crucial for both parties, the Senate elections may prove just as important. The Senate holds the power to hinder the president’s agenda, or speedily put it into effect. 

Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning Democrats would have to flip 3 seats to gain control if Biden is elected president, or 4 seats if Trump is reelected (the vice president receives a tie-breaking vote). Fortunately for Democrats, the 2020 cycle contains several Republican incumbents in vulnerable positions, and only a couple of Democrats in hot water. There are two reasons for this: Republicans must defend 23 seats, several of which are in battleground states, while Democrats only have to defend 12.

While 36 seats are technically in play this November, only a handful are truly competitive races. If Democrats are to flip the Senate, they will most likely have won at least 3 of the following races: Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado, Maine, and Montana. All of these seats are currently held by Republican incumbents, but are very tight races (as of early October). Meanwhile, Republicans only have one incumbent seat race that is leaning in their direction: Alabama, currently held by democrat Doug Jones. 

Democrats have focused specifically on flipping their seats in Arizona, Colorado, and Maine. These seats represent the most likely pick ups for the Democrats, as Democratic challengers are polling ahead of their Republican counterparts. In Arizona, Senator Martha McSally is losing to former astronaut Mark Kelly by an average of more than six percentage points (CNN, FiveThirtyEight, and the Cook Political Report all project a victory for Kelly). Meanwhile in Colorado, former Governor John Hickenlooper is leading current Senator Cory Gardener by an average of more than five points. Finally, in Maine, current Senator Susan Collins is trailing Democrat Sara Gideon by roughly 3 points, and CNN is predicting a win for Gideon. Democrats are confident in these three races and believe that they can go on the offensive in other races as well in order to spread Republican resources thin. 

While Democrats would win control by picking up those three seats and the presidency, they are expanding their efforts into potential victories in other states. These races are decidedly less favorable for them as they are challengers. For example, Democratic candidates are trailing by a polling average of 2.5 points and 3 points in Georgia and Montana, respectively, while the race in Iowa appears to be a dead heat. In North Carolina, democratic nominee Cal Cunningham is ahead in the polls at the moment, but has just had intimate extramarital details released by his opponent, most likely decreasing his lead. Even though these races could increase Democratic chances of taking the Senate, they are prospective longshots and are more of a diversion than an actual contest. 

On the Republican side, the outlook is decidedly less positive. Of the 12 Democratic candidates up for reelection, all but two are relatively secure, as the other ten are beating their Republcan challengers by an average of more than 10 points. Currently, the two closest races are those in Michigan and Alabama, defended by Senators Gary Peters and Doug Jones respectively. Senator Peters is ahead by roughly 6.5 points and is projected to win by both CNN and FiveThirtyEight. In Alabama, Senator Jones is losing to Republican Tommy Tuberville by about 5.5 points and is predicted to lose. Democrats do not have faith in Jones, as he was elected in what was believed to be a fluke election due to his opponent having allegedly assaulted several underage girls. While the Alabama race appears to be a likely Republican victory, Senator Peters is extending his advantage, meaning Republicans are being forced to divert efforts away from crucial toss up races to reinforce his challenger. 

Does the variety of potential Democratic pick ups and lack of promising Republican races spell the end of their Senate majority? FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast gives the Democrats a 66% chance of gaining control of the senate, and Republicans a 34% chance. This should be accurate come election day, as Republicans must win all but three of the toss up and leaning democratic races, along with defeating Senator Jones. If Democrats can protect the Senator and win three of the other six races they are seriously contesting they will win control, giving them the advantage going into late October.