Yesterday, I admitted that of all three pieces of government up for grabs — the House, the Senate, and the presidency — it was the Senate I found most difficult to predict. I give Democrats the big edge in the House, and Biden a small edge in the presidential, but the Senate looks like a toss-up.
To work though the prediction process, I narrowed down the field so I could more closely examine the most swingable races. I was able to piece together 94 of our 100 Senate seats, leaving six seats to analyze:
- Democrats: 35 seats not up for re-election + 10 safe seats + 3 battleground seats I felt comfortable predicting: 48
- Republicans: 30 seats not up for re-election + 10 safe seats + 6 battleground seats I felt comfortable predicting: 46
- Six seats left in play:
- Georgia normal election
- Georgia special election
- North Carolina
Most of those seats are in traditionally Republican areas, so although the Democrats are only two or three seats away from a majority (depending on the presidential race), it’s still an uphill climb. Let’s see if the GOP can hold them off…
The Fate of the Senate
Although they’re all technically toss-ups, I’ll order them from least to most unconfident.
Battleground #1: Montana
Candidates: Senator Steve Daines (R) v. Governor Steve Bullock (D)
The polls (from Real Clear Politics):
Analysis: Bullock is Montana’s term-limited Governor, and surely Democrats’ best chance at winning the state. He knows Montana well, and he hopes to make the election about Montana, not the President or national politics.
I don’t like his chances to do so. Take a look at the three polling firms who show up twice in 2020: PPP, Emerson, and New York Times/Siena. That should control for any house effects across time. When each of them came back, Senator Daines looked stronger.
So I say Daines, despite trailing in the most recent poll by a single point, is still the favorite. Although it looks like a competitive seat, I can’t imagine an incumbent Republican will lose a late lead in such a nationally polarized environment. Not in Big Sky Country.
Three Days Out: Daines for the win, bringing us to Democrats 48, Republicans 47.
Battleground #2: Maine
Candidates: Senator Susan Collins (R) v. Sara Gideon (D)
Analysis: Sooo, Gideon then?
RCP offers no average because we have only one poll taken in the last three weeks, but we see that Senator Collins may have lost control of her state. She had long been an impressive political survivor, with a record too liberal for most Republicans and too conservative for most Democrats — perfect for a quirky, moderate state. Maine is rural but near liberal bastions Canada and Massachusetts, giving it a small government culture with a blue tinge. Collins has seemed to know how a Republican should behave in such a state.
Recently, however, it appears she has lost her feel for the state. Liberals have mounted a huge campaign against the supposedly moderate Senator who always “has concerns” about President Trump but supports him anyway. Voting against Amy Coney Barrett was a last ditch effort to win back independents and centrist Democrats, but I suspect it’ll instead alienate Republicans she needed to turn out.
Three Days Out: As of today, I’m going Gideon, bringing us to Democrats 49, Republicans 47. Democrats need two more, or just one more plus Vice President Kamala Harris. Can they get there?
Battleground #3: Iowa
Candidates: Senator Joni Ernst (R) v. Theresa Greenfield (D)
Analysis: Man, the polls are NOT making it easy on us, are they? Iowa now hosts the second most expensive Senate race in the country, a testament to its importance in the heartland. The Hawkeye state voted Obama twice then Trump in 2016, so although we see it as a mostly Republican state, it can swing. The polls certainly suggest as much. Ernst’s recent swing-and-miss on the break-even price of soybeans for Iowa farmers, after Greenfield nailed the break-even price on corn, drew a lot of attention. It could paint the Senator as out of touch.
What the above Real Clear Politics average fails to reflect was that Greenfield led eight consecutive polls — including one by 12 and a few more by 4 or 5 — before Ernst won three of the last four, albeit narrowly. If we again consider a polling outfit that has twice polled the state, Quinnipiac is the most instructive. It conducted a survey early in October and found Greenfield up 5 points. Now we see it has Senator Ernst up 2, a swing of 7 points at the perfect time. Notably, the second poll occurred completely after Soybeangate.
Three Days Out: It’s looking like Ernst barely hangs on to her seat, bringing us to Democrats 49, Republicans 48.
Battleground #4: North Carolina
Candidates: Senator Thom Tillis (R) v. Cal Cunningham (D)
Analysis: Remember how Iowa was the second most expensive Senate race? Welcome to North Carolina, the leader in the clubhouse.
Whereas it had once looked like the Thom Tillis should have had an early start packing his Senate office into a cardboard box, he has come roaring back in the last few weeks. The shift coincides with news from early October that Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham had been sexting outside of marriage. Cunningham to that point had emphasized qualities that made for great crossover appeal: he was a home-grown veteran and a family values candidate. So much for the latter.
Tillis’s surge appears to have come up short, however. Likely a result of the scandal, both he and Cunningham dipped in support according to the high quality New York Times/Siena poll, but our wide-angle lens reveals that Tillis has only led one poll of the last 21 in the state. The most recent poll, one from Rasmussen, had the Democrat up 3. If Rasmussen has the Democrat up 3, it’s probably 5 or 6, three days out anyway.
Three Days Out: Low low confidence in Cunningham here, but I may update this one on Tuesday morning if there’s more data. As of now: Democrats 50, Republicans 48. Democrats get to 50. If that turns out to happen, all they would need is a Biden-Harris victory for narrow control of the Senate. They’d much rather have 51, of course, so let’s continue.
Battleground #5: Georgia normal election
Candidates: Senator David Perdue (R) v. Jon Ossoff (D)
Analysis: Whoa! Here comes Jon Ossoff! Just as Biden has made surprising gains in Georgia polling, so, too, has Ossoff. After a summer of Ossoff polling about five points behind, he’s in the midst of a big push.
Of course, Ossoff has Lucy’d the football before. In the most expensive House race ever, Ossoff used a nationalized special election to attract $30 million in donations, considerably outspending his opponent. Then he lost anyway.
Three Days Out: It’s not only too close to call, but as of now it looks like neither candidate is getting to 50%. (Libertarian Shane Hazel and a handful of independent candidates are peeling off 5-10%.) Georgia has run-off rules, so if neither candidate earns a majority of the vote, we’ll see a run-off between the two on January 5. As of now, that’s my pick.
Battleground #6: Georgia special election
Candidates: Senator Kelly Loeffler (R) v. Congressman Doug Collins (R) v. Raphael Warnock (D)
Reminder: It’s Georgia! If no candidate gets to 50%, the top two candidates advance to a run-off scheduled for January 5.
Analysis: Looks can be deceiving here. Though it looks like Warnock has a big lead, it doesn’t appear likely he’ll reach 50%. He’ll certainly advance to the run-off against either Senator Loeffler or Congressman Collins, but at that point the Republican vote would unify. If Warnock can’t get to 50% under these circumstances, I doubt he wins a run-off. Then again, there would be two months of fundraising and national attention, and he would presumably soak up support from fourth-place Matt Lieberman.
Three Days Out: It’s looking like a run-off but ultimately a Republican seat.
Sorry, dear readers. Thanks to Georgia, I couldn’t get you quite there. Here’s where things stand:
- Democrats 50
- Republicans 48
- Run-offs: 2 (Georgia normal, Georgia special)
I’ll surely get some wrong. If I’m overestimating Democrats by a seat, it could not be more dramatic moving forward. Because 2020 is what it has been, it feels like we’re careening toward not knowing who’s in the majority without Georgia. We’d then have to survive two months of attention on the race before the run-off or two is held in the first week of 2021, when we may finally have certainty back in our lives. If there are two run-offs, we’d likely see both races tilt in the same direction, so we’d see a party gain two Senate seats on January 5.
But we’ll cross that rickety bridge if we get to it. First things first. I’ll be sure to check back in on the Senate race on Tuesday when I venture all my final predictions.
What is PPFA planning on writing about before then? You’ll just have to be patient. See you soon.