Four Days Out: The Race for the Senate

All right, so far this week I’ve taken a look at the race for the House and the presidency (and the presidential tie-breaker!). Now it’s time for the Senate.

As I noted earlier, I’ve ordered this week’s predictions from most to least confident, and I reserve the right to update them on Tuesday morning. As of now, however, I’m very confident that the House remains Democratic, whereas I’m just barely confident Joe Biden, though he almost certainly will win the popular vote, wins the presidency.

When it comes to the Senate, however, PPFA is just a rapidly typing shrug emoji. I’m hoping researching and writing this post will help clarify a muddled Senate map.

Here goes.

The Senate

Current Composition: Republicans 53, Democrats 47 (45 + 2 Independents)

Number needed for majority: 51 OR 50 + the VP (depending on presidential election)

Seats up for re-election: 35 (Republicans 23, Democrats 12)

The breakdown: Though 35 seats are up for re-election, we can expedite our analysis by focusing on just the ones that might flip. As always, the Cook Report helps us narrow the field.

It finds that of the 12 Democratic seats up for re-election, the party is almost assured of winning at least ten back:

Though I don’t quite agree that Tina Smith’s seat in Minnesota is “Solid,” I do think we can narrow the most competitive Democratic seats to Gary Peters in Michigan and Doug Jones in Alabama.

As for the 23 Republican-held seats up for re-election, our analytical scope widens considerably:

Here, there are nine “Solid” seats for the incumbent party. Together with the 10 “Solid” Democratic seats, that’s 19 seats of the 35 up for re-election we don’t have to worry about. There is therefore “only” 16 seats to consider.

From here on out, the most helpful way to frame the race to the majority is to show a running tally of total seats each party has, adding their baseline seats (seats that are not up for re-election) to Solid seats (seats that are up for re-election but look comfortable for the incumbent party), before then adding seats during our analyses. Here’s where we start:

  • Republicans: 30 seats not up for re-election + 9 safe seats = 39
  • Democrats: 35 seats not up for re-election + 10 safe seats = 45

Republicans are hoping to win at least 12 of the remaining 16 seats to keep the Senate majority (though 11 would do it if Trump/Pence wins), while Democrats are hoping to win at least 6 (though 5 would do it if Biden/Harris wins).

Okay? Okay. Let’s take a look.

The “Easiest” to Call

“Easy” is relative. These aren’t locks, exactly, but of the 16 seats not identified by the Cook Report as Safe, these are the ones I feel pretty darn good about.

Doug Jones (D) will lose his seat in Alabama. It’s Alabama, after all. It took a uniquely absurd candidate — accused pedophile Roy Moore — to earn Democrats a seat out of the state. Now with Republicans nominating Tommy Tuberville, a former football coach — which, if you’re scoring at home, is orders of magnitude better than pedophile — normalcy should return in Alabama. Doug Jones has done little to distance himself from the Democratic Party, a party generally despised in Alabama, which likely means he cares less about winning re-election and more about becoming a part of a potential Biden Administration. Democrats 45, Republicans: 40

Cindy-Hyde Smith (R) keeps her seat in Mississippi. Remember everything I said about Alabama? Just replace it with Mississippi and take out all my jokes about pedophiles and football coaches. (Insert Penn State joke here.) Democrats 45, Republicans 41

Mitch McConnell (R) holds off Amy McGrath (D) in Kentucky. Nothing would please Democrats more than to banish McConnell from the Senate, as it’s McConnell who has every step of the way outmaneuvered the Democratic Party to pack the federal courts with conservative justices. But it just ain’t happening. Though McConnell looked vulnerable in the summer, he now looks to be up double digits. Democrats 45, Republicans 42

John Cornyn (R) prevails in Texas. A Democrat hasn’t won a statewide race in Texas since 1994, the longest losing streak for a party in any state. It’s one reason why Beto O’Rourke’s gallant run at Ted Cruz was so impressive in 2018, but even the perfect storm (Democratic wave + energetic young Congressman + Ted Cruz’s face) couldn’t push Democrats over the top then, and I wouldn’t bet on the streak ending now. Cornyn has never had a polling lead smaller than 5 points, and it’s often twice that. Democrats 45, Republicans 43

Kind of Easy, Thanks to Fundamentals

In order of confidence:

  • Alaska re-elects Dan Sullivan (R)
  • Roger Marshall (R) keeps Kansas’s open seat for the GOP
  • Michigan Democrats keep Gary Peters (D).
  • South Carolina says welcome back Lindsay Graham (R)

Polls are competitive in all four states, but all have a heavy infrastructural bend toward one party and have for some time.

I don’t see why any of them would flip sides this year. There aren’t particularly great Democratic challengers in Alaska and Kansas. Though Michigan has a nice Republican nominee in John James and South Carolina Democrats have caught lightning in a bottle with Jaime Harrison, I don’t either will flip enough partisan voters. Democrats add one to get to 46, Republicans add three to also get to 46

Tied up with eight races to go!

Democrats’ Best Chances at Flips

John Hickenlooper (D) takes the Senate seat of Cory Gardner (R).

Colorado is Democrats’ best chance at flipping a seat to nullify Doug Jones’s likely loss in Alabama. It’s been trending bluer for a while. Even in Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss she carried Colorado by five points, and Democrat Michael Bennet carried the Senate seat by more than that. Democrats nominating the moderate Hickenlooper, Colorado’s former governor, was quite the coup. Hickenlooper has comfortably led every poll dating back months. Democrats 47, Republicans 46

Challenger Mark Kelly (D) reinforces that Arizona does not want Martha McSally (R) to be its Senator. McSally lost in the 2018 midterms to Kristen Sinema, then became an Arizona Senator anyway as an appointment to the late John McCain’s vacant seat after Jon Kyl briefly kept it warm. Now she’s headed for the ignominious distinction of having lost in two consecutive Senate elections. Kelly has led every poll but one, usually by decent margins. Still, the lead has narrowed, and that one poll led by McSally was recent. Democrats are not as confident as they once were, but it’s still looking like a flip. Democrats 48, Republicans 46

The Big Six

We’re now left with just six seats to determine. All are currently Republican held, so they represent only opportunities for Democrats to add to their current numbers in the Senate, while Republicans have to play defense in all six. (This is the opposite of 2018, where Democrats had to play much more defense than Republicans did.) So far, Democrats have already added a seat in our calculations; they lost an Alabama seat but won two in Colorado and Arizona. However, it’ll only truly be seen as a victory for them if they get to a majority.

With Democrats at 48 and Republicans at 46, here are the six races I find too close to call (in alphabetical order):

  1. Georgia normal election
  2. Georgia special election (to fill the vacancy left by Senator Johnny Isakson)
  3. Iowa
  4. Maine
  5. Montana
  6. North Carolina

Democrats only need to win half of them to clinch the overall majority, but that’s a lot of Republican country to win over.

So who will win the Senate? It’s anybody’s game!

I’ve gone on too long for a Friday. Get back to your lives. Tomorrow you get a Saturday Senate Special when I break down each of these tough races.

See you then.


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