The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Control of the Chamber—and hence control over the legislative agenda of the next Congress—is very much in play. The stakes are high for feminists. (John Brighenti / Flickr)

The summer months are bringing the heat in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate. The coronavirus pandemic and the civil unrest over systemic racism—catalyzed by George Floyd’s murder by police—has scrambled the race in ways few could have predicted even four months ago.

Republicans currently control the Senate 53 to 47. Democrats would need to pick up a net of four seats to win control away from the GOP (a net of three seats if Democrats win the White House).

A year ago, election forecasters anticipated Republicans holding onto their majority. But with President Donald Trump falling in the polls, once-safe incumbents are finding themselves on the defensive.

Whereas only one Democratic incumbent, Alabama’s Sen. Doug Jones, is viewed as vulnerable, Republicans are defending nine seats rated tossup or very competitive.

Control of the Chamber—and hence control over the legislative agenda of the next Congress—is very much in play. The stakes are high for feminists.

At the moment, Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has refused to schedule a vote on the House’s bill to eliminate the ERA’s ratification timeline—at the same time, he has focused most Senate business on confirming conservative judges to the federal courts.

Here then is a quick overview of the nine Senate seats forecasters see as competitive. (All ratings are from the Cook Political Report’s most recent analysis of June 19.)

Strong Odds of a Flip in Two States

Senate elections in presidential election years tend to track closely with a state’s partisanship—and even more so in our hyper-polarized era.

Two incumbent senators, one Democrat and one Republican, are up for reelection in states with marked partisan leans in favor of the opposing party. Most analysts see these as the most likely to change party hands.

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Seats held by Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) [left] and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) are the most likely to change party hands.

1. ALABAMA: Sen. Doug Jones (D) v. Tommy Tuberville (R)

Rating: LIKELY REPUBLICAN

Trump won Alabama by 28 points in 2016, and that state remains one of the most pro-Trump. With Trump on the ballot, few think incumbent Democratic Senator Doug Jones can survive.

The GOP Senate primary, however, was full of drama—in a way that could have shaped the general election face-off between Jones and former college football coach Tommy Tuberville.

Jeff Sessions, who held the seat before becoming Trump’s first attorney general, attempted to return to the Senate, but lost Tuesday’s runoff. Trump has seethed about Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation, and the president made significant efforts to defeat his one-time ally and boost Tuberville. A victory by Sessions might have complicated GOP ambitions to flip the seat.

Jones has a reputation as a strong campaigner and is relatively popular in Alabama—but Tuberville’s victory improves the odds of a GOP pickup in the pro-Trump state.

2. COLORADO: Sen. Cory Gardner (R) v. former governor John Hickenlooper (D)

Rating: TOSSUP

Once swingy and purple, Colorado has shifted over the past several presidential cycles to a reliably blue state. Hillary Clinton won the state by nearly five points. Expecting a Biden win among the state’s voters, neither party is targeting resources in Colorado’s presidential race.

The Democratic Senate candidate, John Hickenlooper, served as governor and remains popular. Although he ran as an economic centrist in his brief presidential run, he has a record of progressive action on social issues such as LGBTQ rights, reproductive health care access and gun violence prevention.

The state’s incumbent Republican senator, Cory Gardner, has tried to navigate Coloradans’ drift away from the GOP with a few acts of bipartisan moderation. But his closeness to Trump—Gardner has endorsed Trump and shared the stage with him—will likely be more salient to the state’s  Democratic-leaning voters come November.

Hickenlooper has a double-digit lead over Gardner in recent polls and many analysts see it as the most likely Democratic pickup.


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As Trump’s Approval Falls, Vulnerability of GOP Incumbents Rises

Back in March 2019, as the new Democratic-controlled House settled into work and attention started to turn to the 2020 battle for the Senate, election forecasters projected that it was likely Republicans who would hold onto their majority.

At the time, they typically identified only one tossup race (the most competitive category, in which either party has a good chance of winning): Alabama’s Democratic senator Jones. All other GOP incumbents seemed safe or only moderately in danger of defeat.

Now, less than 110 days from Election Day, in addition to Gardner, four more Republican incumbents who were once favored to win, find themselves in tossup races, facing some of the most difficult elections of their political lives.

MAINE: Sen. Susan Collins (R) v. Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon (D)

Rating: TOSSUP

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) [right] faces a well-funded and experienced challenger in Sara Gideon (D), Maine House Speaker.

Four term Republican senator Susan Collins won her last election in 2014 with 69 percent of the vote.

But the Trump years have been rough on Collins. One survey taken during the January impeachment trial found her to be the most unpopular senator in the nation.

The fundamentals of the election also tilt against her. Maine consistently votes Democratic in presidential elections. The state’s tourism-dependent economy has been hammered by COVID-19. Trump’s net approval in Maine has dropped 14 points since he took office.

Adding to Collins’s woes, she faces a well-funded and experienced challenger in Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, the winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Gideon has raised $23 million thus far, more than Collins $16 million—although the two have roughly the same amount of cash on hand heading into the general election.

Gideon currently holds a small lead over Collins in polling. But that could change quickly now that the focus is squarely on the general election contest.

ARIZONA: Sen. Martha McSally (R) v. Mark Kelly (D)

RATING: TOSSUP

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Republican Sen. Martha McSally [left] and likely Democratic challenger Mark Kelly are in a tight race for McSally’s seat. (Facebook Photos)

Arizona has become one of the key battlegrounds in the presidential race, as demographic changes and anti-Trump sentiment is making the one-time bastion of conservatism a swing state. With 11 electoral votes (one more than Wisconsin’s), both parties see Arizona as a potential tipping point state and are investing enormous resources.

In Arizona’s special Senate election, astronaut and former U.S. Navy combat pilot Mark Kelly is the likely Democratic nominee to take on the GOP incumbent, Sen. Martha McSally. (Kelly is also the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, former congresswoman and gun violence prevention leader.)

Like Kelly, McSally is a veteran and former combat pilot. In the 2014 election cycle, McSally’s inspiring story—she was the nation’s first female fighter pilot—and her presentation as a moderate Republican helped her win a competitive House race by just 167 votes. In 2016, she refused to endorse Trump and won reelection handily.

In 2018, she ran for Arizona’s open U.S. Senate seat and was defeated by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. But a month after that election, Arizona’s Republican governor appointed McSally to complete the late Sen. John McCain’s term for Arizona’s other Senate seat.

By two key campaign metrics, McSally is at risk. First, Kelly has crushed her in fundraising. In April, he already had nearly $20 million cash on hand; he continues to be one of top fundraisers in the Democratic Senate field. And second, he is comfortably ahead of McSally in all recent polls.

NORTH CAROLINA: Sen. Thom Tillis (R) v. Cal Cunningham (D)

RATING: TOSSUP

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
In North Carolina, former Democratic state senator Cal Cunningham [left] has pulled ahead of Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis.

With 15 electoral votes, a Democratic governor up for reelection, and a polarized and closely divided electorate, North Carolina will be a key battleground in November. Both parties, as well as progressive and conservative outside groups, are poised to spend enormous resources in the state. Like Arizona, North Carolina is considered a potential tipping point state in the presidential race.

Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran and former Democratic state senator Cal Cunningham has pulled ahead of Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, one of Trump’s close Senate allies. Tillis touts his role in “lead[ing] the charge to confirm 200 President Trump judges.” Cunningham has been endorsed by a wide range of feminist, environmental and progressive organizations. 

MONTANA: Sen. Steve Daines (R) v. Gov. Steve Bullock (D)

Rating: TOSSUP

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
The seat currently held by Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mo.) [left] is at risk from Gov. Steve Bullock (D).

Montana was once considered a safe state for Trump and Republicans in the presidential contest. But the state’s strong unions, its independent streak, and its Western brand of conservatism often provides an opening to Democrats. The state currently has one Democratic senator (Jon Tester) and a Democratic governor, Steve Bullock.

Forced out by term limits, Bullock threw his hat into the Senate race, putting what was until recently a safe GOP incumbent, Senator Steve Daines, at risk.

Both candidates are running centrist campaigns pitched to Montanans and trying to steer clear of making the election a referendum on Trump. Polls show the contest essentially tied.

GOP Favored but on the Defensive in Three Red States

2020’s cascading crises, from impeachment to the pandemic, economic collapse, and widespread and massive demonstrations for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, have combined to depress Trump’s approval and put additional Senate seats in play in three states that Trump won easily in 2016.

IOWA: Sen. Joni Ernst (R) v. Theresa Greenfield (D)

Rating: LEAN REPUBLICAN

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) [left] faces off against businesswoman and first-time candidate, Theresa Greenfield (D).

A year ago, Iowa’s Senate race was rated solid Republican, as Iowa has moved from swing state to Republican leaning in recent years. Joni Ernst, the incumbent Republican senator, first won in 2014 with Tea Party backing and a Sarah Palin endorsement in a strong Republican year.

In her first election as an incumbent, always a difficult race for any candidate in a competitive seat, she faces headwinds. Trump’s trade policies against China and the pandemic have battered Iowa’s economy.

The Democratic nominee is businesswoman and first-time candidate, Theresa Greenfield. (Greenfield briefly entered the field for a House seat in 2018 but withdrew before the primary.)

Both Ernst and Greenfield have deep local roots and backgrounds that appeal in the predominantly rural and white state. Both grew up in farming families. Ernst is a veteran. Greenfield hails from a union family.

Polls taken since Greenfield won the June 2 Democratic primary show a close race with Greenfield slightly ahead. In recent weeks, Biden has also moved ahead in Iowa and now ties Trump. Party operatives on both sides now see Iowa in play in the presidential race, though it remains in the Lean Republican column.

KANSAS: TBD (R) v. Barbara Bollier (D)

Rating: LEAN REPUBLICAN

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Current state senator Barbara Bollier (D-Kan.), a former Republican who says her party left her, is leaning into her medical expertise as she runs for U.S. Senate.

Kansas has an open Senate seat following the retirement of long-time Republican Senator Pat Roberts.

In the August primary, three Republican men are vying for the nomination: self-funding businessman Bob Hamilton: U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall, who describes himself as a pro-life OB/GYN; and Kris Kobach, the Republican’s 2018 gubernatorial candidate and one-time head of Trump’s disbanded Commission on Voter Fraud.

The GOP primary has turned expensive and ugly, with the candidates and various super PACs spending millions on harsh negative ads against their fellow Republicans.

On the Democratic side, physician and state Senator Barbara Bollier faces no significant opponent in the August primary. Bollier, a former Republican who says her party left her, is running a centrist campaign and is leaning into her medical expertise as she makes health care a top issue. She has received a lot of recent media attention, as analysts see the race becoming more competitive because of her strong fundraising and the state GOP’s disarray.

GEORGIA:  Sen. David Perdue (R) v. Jon Ossoff (D)

Rating: LEAN REPUBLICAN

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Republican incumbent Senator David Perdue (R) [right] faces Jon Ossoff (D).

Polls in the presidential race show Georgia to be in play. With two Senate seats up for grabs in 2020, expect both parties to dedicate money and ground troops to the state.

In Georgia’s regular Senate election, Republican incumbent Senator David Perdue is facing his first Senate reelection contest. The race has recently been moved into the competitive column by two of the leading forecasters, the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

The Democratic nominee is Jon Ossoff, who parlayed his name recognition from a marquee 2017 House race into a definitive victory in the 2020 Georgia Democratic Senate primary.

Since 2016, the suburbs of Georgia have been shifting toward Democrats, propelled by college-educated women’s disdain for Trump. At the same time, 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams mobilized new and infrequent voters, particularly among the state’s large Black population, to rebuild Democratic voting strength in the state.

Democrats are wagering that Perdue’s close ties with Trump will motivate these two key blocs to carry Ossoff to victory. Republicans feel confident they can hold the state and Perdue’s senate seat. This race will likely track closely with Georgia’s presidential vote.

GEORGIA SPECIAL ELECTION: November 3, all-party jungle primary

Rating: LEAN REPUBLICAN

The 2020 Battle for Control of the U.S. Senate Heats Up
Republican Kelly Loeffler will be facing her first race ever in a special election to complete the remainder of her predecessor’s, Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, term.

The incumbent in Georgia’s other Senate seat is Republican Kelly Loeffler, a wealthy businesswoman, who was appointed to the Senate in late 2019 by Georgia Governor Brian Kemp to fill the seat left vacant by the early retirement of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson.

On November 3, she will be facing her first race ever in a special election to complete the remainder of her predecessor’s term.

The election is an all-party jungle primary; the top two finishers, regardless of party, will advance to a January 5 runoff for the seat. On one hand, Loeffler faces at least one strong GOP opponent and is in no way assured of surviving the primary. On the other, two Republicans could come out on top and face each other in the runoff, and she would likely be one of them.

On the crowded Democratic side, several viable men have filed for the race. Raphael Warnock, a civil rights leader and senior pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, has been endorsed by Stacey Abrams. Matt Lieberman, son of former Senator Joe Lieberman, and Ed Tarver, who served as a U.S. attorney during the Obama years, are two other strong Democrats in the field. To this date, Warnock has been the most successful fundraiser in the Democratic field.


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About

Nancy L. Cohen is an editor-at-large for Ms. She is the author of four books, including Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America and Breakthrough: The Making of America’s First Woman President. She has appeared as a guest on MSNBC and her writing has been published in the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @nancylcohen.