Democrats have 47 seats and are widely projected to lose a seat in deep-red Alabama that they managed to capture in 2017. That means they’ll need to pick up five seats to win a majority — or four to secure control if Joe Biden captures the presidency. About a dozen Republican-held seats are considered potential pickups for Democrats.
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The stakes are high. The party that controls the Senate will have power over the next president’s legislative agenda, Cabinet officials and judicial appointments.
Here are five races that are likely to decide which party holds that power.
First-term Republican Sen. Cory Gardner rode a red wave to victory by 2½ points in 2014. But now he’s facing a daunting political climate in a state that has trended away from his party in recent years. He has struggled to cultivate a brand separate from an unpopular President Donald Trump and the national party, for whom Gardner has mostly been a reliable ally.
Gardner is running against moderate Democrat John Hickenlooper, 68, who left office last year after two terms as governor and ran unsuccessfully for president. Hickenlooper’s early missteps kept Gardner, 46, in the hunt for part of the campaign, but Cook Political Report rates it “lean Democratic.” This is a must-win state for Democrats in the battle for the Senate.
Arizona has emerged as a bright spot for Democrats. Biden is polling ahead of Trump in the historically red state, and GOP Sen. Martha McSally trails former astronaut Mark Kelly for the seat.
McSally, who lost a Senate race in 2018 and was soon appointed to fill an open seat, is facing similar problems now: a difficult political climate, a moderate Democratic opponent and an alliance with Trump that is alienating the state’s growing suburban and Latino populations. And she has made some similar missteps this time around, such as misleading statements about her health care record.
A victory would brighten the GOP’s hopes of retaining control. A defeat would give McSally the distinction of having lost two Senate seats held by her party in back-to-back election cycles.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins has served for 24 years and won her last three elections by double digits, in friendly and unfriendly years for her party. But 2020 is different: Collins’ popularity at home has plummeted, and her reputation as an independent voice has taken a beating in the hyperpolarized Trump era. She now faces the fight of her political life against Democrat Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine state House, who narrowly leads in polls.
Collins, who is running as a pragmatic legislator, has come under fire for failing to stand up to Trump and voting most of the time with a president who is unpopular in Maine, including on high-stakes questions such as his impeachment and the Supreme Court nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She has broken with Trump on some issues, like filling a Supreme Court vacancy on the eve of the election, and she was recently slammed by him on Twitter for it.
Collins faces an acute version of a dilemma vexing many Republicans: They have no path to victory without the votes of Trump's followers — but aligning with him alienates crucial independent voters.
It’s a race roiled by scandal. But do voters care? Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, a married father of two, confessed to sending romantic text messages to a woman who isn’t his wife. And he still leads Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in the latest polling averages of the purple state, although the margin has narrowed. Tillis has sought to exploit the affair while Cunningham tries to stay focused on issues like health care.
Some forecasters see the North Carolina race as a bellwether for Senate control. It may also be a bellwether for whether old-fashioned sex scandals still matter in an age in which a thrice-married Republican president who was once a New York City tabloid fixture, and who has been linked to extramarital affairs and dalliances with adult film stars, is beloved by white evangelical Christians.
Republicans felt good about holding the seat of first-term Sen. Joni Ernst after Trump won by 10 points in 2016. But it has become one of the most competitive races in the country with Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield turning it into a dead heat. In fitting fashion, the race is between two women who grew up on farms.
Greenfield accuses Ernst of breaking her promises in 2014 to take on powerful interests in Washington and “cut pork” from the federal budget, saying she has instead enabled lobbyists. Ernst was also forced to apologize after she questioned the validity of Covid-19 death statistics. Ernst has portrayed Greenfield as a proxy for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and has sought to tie her to the more left-leaning proposals in her party.
A red surprise in Michigan remains a possibility. Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is being challenged by John James, 39, an Iraq War veteran hoping to become just the second Black Republican senator in a state where Democrats’ hopes hinge on high African American turnout. Peters is favored, but he hasn’t put it away yet — he leads by mid-single digits in poll averages.
If the bottom falls out for Republicans, Democrats can snatch seats in some historically red states where GOP incumbents face headwinds. They include Georgia’s David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, Montana’s Steve Daines and Texas’ John Cornyn. There’s even an open seat in Kansas that polls show to be competitive.
In Georgia, if neither race produces an outright majority winner on Election Day, one or both contests could move to a runoff on Jan. 5, potentially leaving the Senate's ultimate balance of power unclear until 2021.