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The battle for Senate control looks more volatile than the presidential race

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Martha McSally and President Donald Trump
Martha McSally and President Donald Trump arrive at a "Make America Great" rally in Mesa, Arizona on Oct. 19, 2018.Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The outcome of the presidential contest is looking more and more apparent — unless you believe we’re headed for a bigger polling error than in 2016.

But with four days to go until Election Day, the outcome for control of the U.S. Senate looks less certain.

Yes, Democrats are the favorites to net the three to four seats needed to retake the chamber, as the Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor writes.

But the realistic possibilities range from the Dems netting just two seats (Colorado/Arizona) and falling short, to them flipping seven or eight seats (Colorado/Arizona/Maine/North Carolina/Iowa/Montana/both Georgia seats) and having a sizable majority next year, to anywhere in between (which would give Dems a bare majority).

Three other important points to make about the Senate map:

One, North Carolina looks like the tipping point for Democrats get to a majority, while Iowa might be the true 50-50 race of the night.

Two, how the presidential race goes could be determinative everywhere from Arizona and North Carolina, to Iowa and Georgia.

Three, we might not know for days who wins in Arizona (it took almost a week in 2018), Maine (due to the ranked-choice voting) and Montana. And remember that in Georgia, both races go to a January runoff if no one clears 50 percent.

The good news is that both North Carolina and Iowa should be able to count pretty quickly, so we should have a good idea of those important races on Tuesday night.

Our final list of top Senate takeovers

As for the actual Senate map, here’s our final list of the top Senate seats likely to change parties — with No. 1 being the race most likely to flip. The number in parenthesis is our ranking from earlier this month, and the party listed is the one that currently holds the seat.

  1. Alabama D: After Dem Sen. Doug Jones' narrow victory over Roy Moore in 2017, both sides expect this seat to revert to its normal GOP tilt with Jones’ ouster by Republican Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn football coach. (1)
  2. Colorado R: Former Dem Gov. John Hickenlooper has consistently run ahead of Sen. Cory Gardner, who hasn’t been able to shake his links to Trump and Mitch McConnell in a state where both are widely disliked. (2)
  3. Arizona R: If appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally wins, it will be because both she and Trump defied expectations in a state Democrats feel is in a good place for their team. (3)
  4. Maine R: Sen. Susan Collins will have to significantly outperform Trump to stay in the hunt, and Maine’s ranked-choice voting system may end up being the boost Democrats need to push state House Speaker Sara Gideon over the finish line. (4)
  5. North Carolina R: Republicans thought they’d caught a huge break when the race was rocked by allegations that Dem challenger Cal Cunningham had exchanged romantic text messages with a woman who isn’t his wife. But both public and private polling has shown that the scandal didn’t dent the Democrat’s lead as much as the GOP hoped. (5)
  6. Iowa R: This contest – between incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst and challenger Theresa Greenfield – might ultimately be the closest race on this list. (6)
  7. Montana R: Dem Steve Bullock, the state’s governor, was a recruiting coup for Democrats in a state that went for Trump by 20 points. Still, he’ll have to outrun Biden by a wide margin to have a shot at ousting incumbent Daines. (8)
  8. Georgia/Perdue seat R: Both sides think it’s likely that this race goes to a January 5 runoff, with neither candidate appearing poised to break 50 percent. But a Biden win in Georgia could give Dem Jon Ossoff a shot to cross that threshold. (7)
  9. Georgia/Loeffler seat R: No one is expected to surpass 50 percent, and the main question is which Republican – incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler or Rep. Doug Collins -- makes it into a Top-2 runoff against Dem Raphael Warnock. (10)
  10. South Carolina R: Dem Jaime Harrison’s stunning fundraising (he raised over $100 million this cycle) has kept this race competitive. But can he win over enough Trump voters -- or keep them from voting for Sen. Lindsey Graham? (9)
  11. Michigan D (11 tie)
  12. Kansas R (11 tie)
  13. Texas R (14)
  14. Alaska R (13)
  15. Mississippi R (15)
  16. Minnesota D (17)
  17. New Mexico D (16)
  18. Kentucky R (18)

The 2020 campaign is still closing on the coronavirus

On Monday, we wrote about how the coronavirus was dominating the final days of this presidential election.

And this Friday — with four days to go — it’s still the case.

  • The U.S. on Thursday recorded more than 90,000 coronavirus cases, an all-time high;
  • Clemson star Trevor Lawrence was one of them, and he’ll miss Saturday’s game;
  • There were approximately 1,000 coronavirus fatalities yesterday, and there are some 45,000 in the hospital.

And the messages from the two presidential candidates couldn’t have been more different as they campaigned yesterday in Florida.

Here was Biden: "I know it's hard. Over the past few months there’s been so much pain, so much suffering, so much loss… Millions of people out there are out of work, on the edge, can’t see the light of the end of the tunnel, and Donald Trump has given up."

And here was Trump: "You know the bottom line, though?" You're gonna get better. You're gonna get better,” he said. "If I can get better, anybody can get better. And I got better fast.”

For Trump to pull off the upset on Tuesday, he’ll need more voters to side with that message over Biden’s.

Data Download: The numbers you need to know today

9,031,493: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the United States, per the most recent data from NBC News and health officials. (That’s 98,317 more than yesterday morning.)

229,934: The number of deaths in the United States from the virus so far. (That’s 1,074 more than yesterday morning.)

142.67 million: The number of coronavirus tests that have been administered in the United States so far, according to researchers at The COVID Tracking Project.

46,095: The number of people currently hospitalized for Covid-19 in the U.S., per the Covid Tracking Project.

79,569,964: The number of people who have voted early, either by mail or in person, according to NBC and TargetSmart.

42 percent: The share of first-class mail in Philadelphia taking longer than 5 days to be delivered

On the campaign trail today

The action moves to the Midwest: Joe Biden stumps in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. President Trump hits Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Mike Pence is in Arizona. And Kamala Harris travels through Texas.

Tweet of the day: Four days to go

Ad Watch from Ben Kamisar

There’s been a lot of talk about the Sunshine State this week, the crucial battleground where both Trump and Biden visited yesterday, and where a new NBC/Marist poll yesterday found Biden with a slim lead (within the poll’s margin of error).

Ad spending this cycle has reached an unprecedented level, with Florida serving as a prime example. Florida TV/radio presidential ad spending in the general election alone is expected to eclipse $300 million, according to our friends at Advertising Analytics. By comparison, there was just (just?!) $111 million spent on the airwaves there in the 2016 race.

Through Thursday, Biden’s camp had spent just about $100 million, with Trump coming in at $58 million.

The Lid: Commercial break

Don’t miss the pod from yesterday, when we looked at the different ways the campaigns are targeting Black voters in ads.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

An appeals court ruled that mail ballots received late in Minneapolis must be kept separate from other ballots in case they are later invalidated.

Mike Bloomberg is keeping up his spending for Biden in Florida.

Both campaigns are turning their attention to Latino voters in the final days of the election.

It sounds like Trump is no longer planning an election night event at the Trump hotel in DC.

Here’s what Stephen Miller would do in a second Trump administration.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien is also jockeying for position if the president is re-elected.

A 64-page document about Hunter Biden that was disseminated by some Trump allies turns out to have been the product of a fake “intelligence firm.”