With their six-year terms, U.S. Senators are often subject to election trends, and even counter-trends, that most politicians are not. In order to understand the 2020 Senate races, it is necessary to go back to 2014. After losing the Presidency, the Senate, and the House in 2008, Republicans rode the Tea Party backlash to 2010 success, retaking the House and closing the then 60-40 gap in the Senate by 7. Despite Republican successes though, Republican voters had chosen extremist candidates in swing states such as Delaware, Colorado, and Nevada. All of those candidates lost, forcing Republicans to spend another two years in the minority.
Republicans had high hopes in 2012 but, again, Republican voters had different ideas. Missouri Republicans nominated a candidate so extreme that the Democratic nominee paid for advertisements in the Republican Party touting his desirability to Republicans. And Indiana Republicans—the same that elected Mike Pence—defeated a six-term incumbent to nominate another crazed right-winger. Both campaigns collapsed and lost by double digits, while Democrats gained two seats and strengthened their majority.
2014 was Obama’s “six-year itch” cycle, the name bestowed on the phenomenon where voters turn on the incumbent president’s party in the middle of the second term. But having already blown two opportunities to capture the Senate, Republicans were leaving nothing to chance. Instead, the party handpicked its candidates and supported them through the primary process, knowing that its strongest pickup opportunities were in competitive states such as Colorado, Iowa, Georgia, and North Carolina.
This strategy paid off. Republicans captured nine seats, and 24 of the 36 seats up for the cycle. They re-took the Senate for the first time since 2004 and, as they say, the rest is history.
Six years later, the Republican Party has 24 seats up for re-election, and to say that things have changed vastly understates the situation. 2014’s Republican candidates were chosen largely because they were boring, establishment conservatives. They joined other boring, establishment conservatives that won re-election so that they could do boring, establishment things.
As you know, Donald Trump came along and the plan changed. Republican voters effectively rebelled against their own party, suggesting that they were actually very happy with the extremist candidates they had nominated in 2010 and 2012. Now the 2014 Senate class is running for re-election by trying to tap into the extremist vein they were hand-selected to push back against. As you might imagine, this is going poorly in a cycle where Republicans have an uphill battle.
Take, for instance, Susan Collins of Maine, a four-term incumbent Republican and one of the last true-blue Bush-machine loyalists left in the party. Unlike other modern New England Republicans, Collins has always had the kind of record suggesting she was more conservative than her trending-blue state, but had managed a series of relatively uneventful re-elections. But Trump has cut her off from her center-left flank, and she is a poor candidate to attract the fire-bombing right wing. As such, she is likely to fall to her challenger, Democrat Sara Gideon.
The same is true in Colorado, where incumbent Republican Corey Gardner was one of the prize recruits of the 2014 Senate cycle. Gardner was a GOP candidate from central casting. On the young side, relatively non-threatening, winner of a suburban Denver house seat in the 2010 wave—Gardner was able to marry enough of that suburban vote to the hardcore GOP rural vote to win. But even if Trump pulls off a miracle on Tuesday, he will not find it in Denver’s suburbs, which were already trending blue before Trump started hate-bombing suburban voters. Like Collins, Gardner’s base has been cut out from under him, and Democrats cleared the field for popular former two-term Governor John Hickenlooper. Gardner loses.
Republicans probably expected to contest John McCain’s Arizona senate seat in 2020 with a new candidate, but probably had no idea what to expect when McCain was re-elected in 2014. Republicans could not have foreseen that Trump would denigrate McCain’s military service or PoW status, that McCain would come down with an inoperable brain tumor, or that McCain would dramatically enter the Senate chamber with said tumor and kill the GOP’s fake replacement for Obamacare. When McCain died, Governor Doug Ducey appointed former Rep. Martha McSally, famous for having lost Arizona’s other seat to Senator Krysten Sinema just days before. McSally’s position has not improved since her first statewide loss—she was reduced at one point to begging constituents to fast and donate the money they saved to her campaign. Hopefully, they saved it in lieu of federal pandemic aid instead. McSally will lose to former astronaut and husband of former Rep, and gunshot victim Gabrielle Giffords, Mark Kelly.
In North Carolina, incumbent one-term Senator Thom Tillis had been losing to Democrat Cal Cunningham for the better part of the year when the race was rattled by the revelation that Cunningham had sent some—uh—flirtatious texts to a California political consultant. When the dust settled, Cunningham’s poll standing was…unchanged. Whatever Cunningham’s alleged indiscretions, the party of Trump is in no position to capitalize on them. Tillis loses.
In Iowa, first-term Senator Joni Ernst was the perfect recruit against somewhat self-important Harvard Law grad and former Rep. Bruce Braley. She also received the support of the well-heeled Koch machine, which poured millions into her campaign. She burst on to the scene with a viral advertisement suggesting that her experience with castrating hogs had prepared her for Washington life. The premise is perhaps not as metaphorical now as it seemed at the time.
In any event, Ernst has a somewhat opposite problem as most of the other Republicans discussed here: She would probably be a MAGA radical if left to her own devices, but was carefully groomed in 2014 to look otherwise, and in a swing state to boot. And as she attempted to walk that line from the other side, she was unable to quote the price of soybeans in her last debate with her opponent, Democrat Theresa Greenfield. Ernst’s polling has been slightly better than her colleagues’ above, but you have to know the price of soybeans to represent Iowa. She probably loses.
Those five Republican Senators are enough to flip the Senate, even when incumbent Alabama Senator Doug Jones (D)—who deserves a lifetime Senate pass just for keeping Roy Moore out—loses to former football coach Tommy Tuberville. But the GOP’s collapse has put half-a-dozen more seats than expected.
The GOP’s peril among second-tier targets is greatest in Georgia, where both seats are up for grabs after GOP Senator Johnny Isakson’s resignation. His replacement, Kelly Loeffler, was appointed by Governor Brian Kemp over Trump’s objections to appeal to “suburban housewives.” But this just in—they’re all Democrats now. So she and her campaign have morphed into equal parts 30 Rock parody and WWF grudge match, performatively embracing every virulent racist and cult element of the Republican Party. Poor Doug Collins—Trump’s preferred appointee and the race’s actual right-wing, Q-embracing extremist—has been playing catch up since. Whichever one of them wins more votes in November will advance to a runoff with the Reverend Raphael Warnock, who will hopefully beat either one of them by 40 points, as God intends.1Yesterday, I wrote that “Trump, Loeffler, Collins, and Perdue are the John, Paul, George, and Ringo of right-wing dumpster fire politics–and while this is not a prediction piece, it would not be at all surprising to see a Democratic clean sweep.” Yep. Will be well-deserved.
Meanwhile, Georgia Republicans also have to worry about David Perdue, another first-term establishmentarian-cum-MAGA incumbent trying to establish his identity in the Party of Trump. Unfortunately, he tried to do it by going full MAGA racist with Kamala Harris’ first name. Then after Democrat Jon Ossoff destroyed Perdue in a debate, Purdue cancelled his last debate so he could appear with Trump—though it was at an earlier Trump rally that Perdue went full George Wallace. Ossoff will probably win this race now, and definitely should win it.
For a couple of weeks, it felt like our family were singlehandedly funding Jaime Harrison’s challenge to South Carolina Senator and John McCain betrayer Lindsay Graham. It turns out we were not alone—to the tune of $80 million. The polls are close. Harrison has more than enough money to compete, but needs ticket-splitters since Trump will carry the state.
The situation is probably the opposite in Texas, where incumbent Senator John Cornyn faces once long-shot Democrat MJ Hegar. Republican problems in Texas start from the top down, which means Cornyn may manage to win ticket-splitters opposed to Trump’s quasi-fascism but more comfortable with Cornyn’s crony capitalism.
Republicans almost opened up the door to an easy win when racist, anti-immigration zealot Kris Kobach mounted a primary run in Kansas for the open seat being vacated by exceedingly boring Republican Pat Roberts. But Rep. Roger Marshall managed to beat Kobach (helped by whoever managed to convince Trump not to endorse Kobach), shifting the race marginally back to Republican advantage. But the Democratic challenger, Dr. Barbara Bollier, is a former Republican who defected after becoming fed up—like many Kansans—with the extreme tilt of the Kansas GOP. The governor is a Democrat (after thumping Kobach). Democrats won a House seat in 2018 they will easily hold, and are making another run at a second. It’s close, but the last Kansas Democrat to win a Senate election was George McGill in, um, [checks notes] 1932. But the Cubs won a World Series, so…
In Montana, first-term incumbent Steve Daines (R) faces off against former two-term governor Steve Bullock. Daines was another central-casting 2014 establishment candidate, and it looked like he would easily win re-election until Bullock jumped in the race. Like the situation in Texas, Bullock will probably need a number of Trump ticket-splitters to win, and they may be hard to come by. But Montana’s other Senate seat is held by a Democrat, Jon Tester, and Bullock himself is a popular and well-regarded two-time statewide winner. This one will be close.
And then there’s Alaska, which didn’t figure to be on many interest lists, but Independent candidate Dr. Al Gross has been giving first-termer Dan Sullivan fits by appealing to Alaskans’ independent streak. Democrat Mark Begich held this exact seat for a term until Sullivan narrowly beat him in 2014, and Gross is trying to put together the same coalition. Again, a close race, albeit Sullivan remains a slight favorite.
A few races warrant capsule summaries. Two-time Republican candidate John James is giving incumbent Democrat Gary Peters a run in Michigan, but the state seems to be slipping away from the GOP. Nevertheless, if James is running 4-5 points ahead of Trump, his race could be one to watch on Election Night. Republicans keep claiming they can make their race against Tina Smith, Al Franken’s appointed replacement in Minnesota, a live one. I mean, I guess anything’s possible.
Meanwhile, there are still a few statewide Republican candidates who benefit from hyper-polarization—Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell is one of them. So is Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith, who can best be described as a sincere version of Kelly Loeffler. Nebraska’s Ben Sasse is one of the few Republicans to beat Trump at his own game. Sasse sucked up to Trump just long enough to (1) win Trump’s endorsement and (2) watch his opponent’s campaign explode over a sexual harassment scandal, then unloaded on Trump when he was no longer needed. Classy is not the word, but he’ll have until 2026.
New Jersey’s Cory Booker has little to worry about, but the potential re-election of an African-American senator likely drives Trump to distraction, and thus is notable. In tangentially related news, Arkansas’ Tom Cotton (R-Berchtesgaden) has no Democratic challenger. Too bad. The Oregon and Delaware GOP, meanwhile, nominated Q cultists as their candidates. Of course, most Republicans are Q cultists, but in those states the GOP nominated candidates willing to admit it.
Predictions? I hate ‘em. But Democrats win Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, Iowa, both Georgia seats. South Carolina (where Trump’s relative underperformance becomes an Election Night story in itself), and Montana. Republicans win Alabama, which serves as both justice and existential metaphor. Republicans hold on in Texas, Kansas, and Alaska. Democrats net eight seats to go up 55-45 in the chamber.
And if that isn’t enough, Republicans currently hold 22 of the 34 seats up for re-election, including a Pennsylvania seat Pat Toomey has already announced he is relinquishing. Forget court-packing. Soon enough Republicans will have to start accusing Democrats of Senate-packing.