Democrats gave themselves a little wiggle room this November thanks to holding crucial seats in deep-red Montana and West Virginia, as well as picking off GOP-held Nevada and Arizona, even as they slumped to a two-seat loss due to four defeats in Trump-won territory – Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. This realignment in the U.S.’s upper legislative chamber leaves Republicans with an expanded 53-47 majority, meaning Democrats must net three seats in 2020 should they win the presidency, or four seats if Trump wins re-election as Vice President Mike Pence would have the casting vote in a 50-50 tie. How likely is this to happen, and how can Democrats wrestle back control of the chamber from the GOP for the first time in six years?
Democrats are faced with a much more favourable map than 2018, although it’s too early to tell which way the political headwinds will be blowing in 2020
Although faced with a more favourable map this time around, the 2020 map for Democrats is nowhere near as good as the 2016 map was – or the 2022 map will be – for the party. In 2020, Republicans are on the defence in most – but not all – competitive races, although the GOP has many seats in the Great Plains and the South which are unlikely to fall to the Democrats – even in a good year for the party in a presidential year. Republicans are defending 22 seats, including the Arizona special election for the late Sen. John McCain’s seat, whereas Democrats are playing defensive in just 12. On paper, they should pick up seats and have some great opportunities to do so, but it’s too early to rule out Republicans actually netting seats instead.
Democrats are targeting two Clinton-won states with Republican incumbents – Colorado and Maine
Two of the Democrats’ best chances come from two states which were won twice by Obama and by Clinton two years ago – Colorado and Maine. Neither state will be easy to win, but Colorado, a state which has long been trending Democratic and with a freshman Republican Senator, looks more likely to flip to the Democrats than Maine – long a bastion of moderate Republican Senators.
In 2014 in Colorado, Sen. Cory Gardner toppled Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Udall by two points to win a first term, and has risen in the GOP hierarchy to become chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). Colorado, like its mountain neighbours to the west and south in Nevada and New Mexico, has been shifting more Democratic in recent years, with the Democrats’ capturing the legislature in Denver and holding the governorship to establish full legislative control in the state from January 2019. So far, no big-name Democrat has announced a challenge to Gardner, although term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper is rumoured to be eyeing a run, should he pass on a presidential one. Gardner will be hoping for a lift from President Trump on the ballot in 2020, even though Colorado voters backed Clinton by five points two years and fellow Western blue-state Republican Senator Dean Heller lost re-election in Nevada last month. By no means a sure-fire pick up for Democrats even in a presidential year, Gardner is Republicans’ most vulnerable Senator by far in 2020.
Long a bastion of moderate “Rockefeller” Republicanism that once dominated the Northeast, Maine had two Senators built in this mold as recently as 2013 and has not elected a Democratic Senator since 1988. Collins, a steady-handed centrist Republican who – along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. John McCain of Arizona – bucked her national party on repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, was heavily favoured for re-election despite her state’s blue tinge until she backed Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court a few months ago. Liberals, angry at her betrayal of the pro-choice cause she had long championed for, raised $3 million within days for a future opponent, regardless of who that might be. A host of Democratic challengers will surely await Collins, including former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and incumbent Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sarah Gideon, although very early polling shows Collins with a comfortable lead thanks to her high approval ratings and name recognition in the state.
Republicans’ best chances are in states where Trump won in 2016 – and in Dixie
Two Democrats represent states which Trump carried two years ago, and these represent two of the GOP’s best chances at padding out their majority and holding onto the Senate. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama won election to the upper chamber last year after a campaign that was mired by sexual assault allegations against the Republican nominee, Roy Moore. Jones eked out a narrow win in a deeply conservative state to fill the remainder of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ term, who was appointed Attorney General by President Trump, and expires in 2021. Since his election a year ago, Jones has been in the GOP’s crosshairs, and a slew of Republican Alabamians are likely to throw their hat into the ring to oust Jones in 2020, including potentially Sessions himself.
The GOP’s other half chance are in Michigan and New Hampshire, two states that narrowly went in opposite directions in 2016, but which are regularly competitive on the state and federal level as of late.
Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan is a two-term incumbent who has kept a relatively low profile in the Senate, despite his state’s rightward drift thanks to blue collar workers’ changing allegiances in the Midwest (although this could be up for grabs again in 2020). A whopping 39 percent of his constituents held no opinion of him in October this year – astounding for a two-term Senator. Peters’ Democratic home state colleague Sen. Debbie Stabenow won re-election in November by six points – closer than any of her previous re-election campaigns – even as the state elected a Democratic governor by double digits. Her opponent, businessman John James could try and win a Senate seat again, particularly as outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder has declined to run due to low approval ratings.
In the Granite State, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is seeking a third term in the Senate after close but decisive wins in 2008 and 2014. With decent approval ratings in such a politically polarized state as New Hampshire, Shaheen is favoured to win re-election, but may run into difficulties should a few well-known GOP New Hampshirites throw their hats in the ring. Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte lost re-election by just a few thousand votes in 2016, and is rumoured to be targeting 2020 and her state’s other Senate seat. Although he has so far dismissed rumours of running, incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu would be a formidable foe who has shown he can be elected by voters across the political spectrum.
To take back the Senate, Democrats will need to defeat freshman Senators in Republican territory
Although the advantage of incumbency is declining – arguably more so in the House than the Senate – it’s still tough to defeat a sitting Senator. However, Democrats will have to do so if they have any hope of wrestling back the chamber from the GOP.
Their most obvious pick up is in the special election in Arizona to fill the rest of Sen. John McCain’s term, who died in August this year. Sen. Jon Kyl, who represented the Grand Canyon State until retiring in 2012, was appointed to fill his seat but immediately announced he would step down at the end of the year. Two weeks ago, newly re-elected Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Rep. Martha McSally to fill the seat until 2020, a surprising move given that McSally lost a race for Arizona’s other Senate seat to Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema by three points just last month. McSally, who will become the state’s junior Senator and sworn in on the same day as her home state colleague who beat her, has announced her intention to run for re-election for a full term in 2020, but could face another heated primary challenge for the Republican nomination from Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County and 2018 Senate candidate, and Fife Symington, former Governor of Arizona. Democrats, emboldened by their Arizona Senate seat pick up, will likely nominate another strong candidate to take on McSally again, with a host of Democrats looking to vie for the nomination, including Rep. Ruben Gallego, or Mark Kelly, retired astronaut and husband to former Rep. Gabby Giffords.
North Carolina is fond of ousting its Senators after a solitary term – it’s done it to the two previous occupants of Sen. Thom Tillis’ seat, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in 2014 and Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole in 2008. Democrats are hoping history will repeat itself as they seek to oust Tillis, who defeated Hagan in 2014 by just a point in a shock victory for the GOP. A perpetually purple state, North Carolina simultaneously voted for a Republican president and a Democratic governor in 2016, and both parties fancy their chances for this Senate seat in 2020. Tillis has mediocre approval ratings, and in such a polarized state, victory will surely come down to which side can turn out their voters more – and no doubt who will be heading the Democratic presidential ticket. No major candidates have announced their intention to run on the Democratic side yet, but Attorney General Josh Stein and former Mayor of Charlotte Anthony Foxx are both rumoured to be contemplating it.
Sen. Joni Ernst flipped longtime Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat in Iowa into the Republican column with a big victory for the GOP in 2014. The former farmer is straight-taking, and relatively popular in a state which, until 2016, was reliably Democratic at a presidential level. Her approval ratings are decent, but she will face a competitive race from local Democrats who are emboldened by their two-seat pickup in Iowa House seats – Democrats now control three out of four, and came shockingly close to a clean sweep – last month. Former Govs. Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver, as well as Rep.-elect Cindy Axne would be strong Democratic nominees and could cause the freshman Republican problems on Election Day if Iowa is again looking competitive in the presidential race.
Democrats have come agonizingly close several times to winning federal elections in Georgia, but in one of the country’s most inelastic states, swing voters are scarce and results come down to base turnouts. Republicans will hope Sen. David Perdue, first elected in 2014, will be another victory for them but he will likely face tough Democratic opposition, with Stacey Abrams, the 2018 gubernatorial candidate, and Jon Ossoff mulling a run. The Peach State is trending purple, and will almost certainly be on the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate’s radar… but could the party pick up its first Senate seat in the state this century?
Republicans can still play offence elsewhere, but their options are limited
On paper, Republicans should have chances in several states where Trump kept Clinton’s wins in the single digits. Virginia’s Sen. Mark Warner narrowly avoided potentially 2014’s biggest upset when he won re-election by just one point ahead of Ed Gillespie, Republicans’ losing candidate for Governor last year. Gillespie could run for the seat again, but the bench is running thin in Virginia due to the state’s leftward drift since Obama first won the state ten years ago. Barring a catastrophe or a very weak Democratic presidential candidate, Warner should cruise to a third term.
The only other realistic half-chance for Republicans is in a state which is trending their way, but simultaneously the bastion of Democratic politics for the last half century – Minnesota. Sen. Tina Smith, appointed in January 2017 following former Sen. Al Franken’s resignation, won the special election to finish his term by 10 points last month – as her Democratic colleague Sen. Amy Klobuchar won by 25 – a solid result nevertheless in a state which Trump only lost by two points. The GOP have few quality candidates to run, but former Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty are rumored to be contemplating running.
If Democrats are having a good night, a whole host of states could open up to them
If the political headwinds are blowing in the Democrats’ direction in 2020 and they nominate good candidates, more red states could be in play, although the losses of red state Democratic incumbents (Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota) and disappointing results for moderates in dark red territory (Tennessee, Mississippi) do not bode well for the party.
Kansas just elected a Democratic governor, and combined with Sen. Pat Roberts facing tough competition in both his primary and general elections in 2014, could be a race to watch in 2020, if he decides to run for re-election. Independent Greg Orman or former Gov. Kathleen Sibelius could make this competitive should they wish to run. To the north, Montana re-elected Sen. Jon Tester despite the state’s red hue, and two former Govs. are weighing up their options before deciding on a presidential or senatorial bid. Should Steve Bullock or Brian Schweitzer – both very popular two-term Governors – decide to run for the Senate, freshman Sen. Steve Daines could face a tough race, as Democrats have shown they can win – and win repeatedly – in the Big Sky State.
Democrats came tantalizingly close to winning a Texas Senate seat for the first time in decades as Rep. Beto O’Rourke lost to Sen. Ted Cruz by just two points, posting over four million votes in the process. The state’s other Senate seat is up in 2020, but Sen. John Cornyn is much more establishment and much less controversial than Cruz, and will likely be a much tougher race, especially in a presidential year. O’Rourke could run again (if he chooses not to battle for the presidency), or brothers Joaquin and Julian Castro could help aid the revival of the dormant state Democratic Party by running. Elsewhere in the South, Louisiana looks set to re-elect Sen. Bill Cassidy, who defeated former Sen. Mary Landrieu in 2014 in that cycle’s last race to be decided, even though Louisiana voters could re-elect Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in 2019. The cycle’s first retirement, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee theoretically helps Democrats, but their dream candidate, popular, moderate former Gov. Phil Bredesen lost by double digits for the state’s other seat this year, probably rendering the state too red for any Democrat in the foreseeable future. Likewise, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky seat has enticed Democrats in the past, and although Democrats fancy their chances in 2019’s governor’s race, only former Gov. Steve Beshear would likely make this seat competitive in 2020 as McConnell will try to ensure he defeats his opponent by starting his ground game early.
Both parties have safe bets on re-election, with few surprises
Arkansas, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming are sure to remain in Republican hands after 2020, despite a somewhat close election in this year’s special election in Mississippi, and close gubernatorial contests in Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island are almost certain to remain in the Democratic column too, despite a closer than usual Senate contest in New Jersey, and Republican strength in Oregon and Rhode Island’s governor races.
Democrats have lost seats in three out of the last five election cycles – 2010, 2014, 2018 – narrowly gaining seats in 2012 and 2016. At the moment 2020 looks like it will continue the contrasting trend, but it’s too early to tell whether Democrats can reach that crucial three- or four-seat gain they need to retake the chamber. It’ll be a tough cycle for both parties.