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Where the Fight for the Senate Stands Today

A breakdown of the races most worth watching.
October 20, 2020
Where the Fight for the Senate Stands Today

In two weeks, voters in a relative handful of states will determine which party controls the United States Senate.

The basic math is easy to do. Counting the two independents who caucus with them, Democrats hold 47 seats. A net gain of three would mean a 50-50 tie which, should Joe Biden win the presidency, would be broken by Vice President Kamala Harris. Should Biden lose, Democrats would require a net gain of four.

To assess where control of the Senate is headed, let’s look at the twelve seats that are truly in play, examining the variables peculiar to each. The hardest part is predicting the most probable paths to victory. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a shot.

The Foregone Flippers (Alabama, Arizona, and Colorado)

By the near-unanimous consensus of political observers, these three seats are changing hands.

The most doomed, it seems, is the gallant Democratic Senator Doug Jones. Granted that his opponent, Tommy Tuberville, is ignorant of public policy and encumbered by some financial misadventures. But Tommy is not only a conservative Republican and Trump acolyte in a state where that works, he’s also a former college football coach with an 85-40 record at Auburn—which, in Alabama, is tantamount to being George Patton reincarnated.

Arizona’s Republican Senator Martha McSally is an actual military figure of some note, a pioneering former Air Force pilot. But her opponent, Mark Kelly, is—for God’s sake—a retired astronaut. He’s also the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, and smartly positioned as a moderate.

McSally suffers not only by comparison to John McCain, the political maverick and military hero she was appointed to replace, but also from her perceived fealty to Donald Trump, the blustery draft dodger who disparaged McCain’s heroism. Polls consistently show her too far behind to catch up.

Senator Cory Gardner, Republican of Colorado, is a genuinely talented politician in a state that is turning from purple to blue. But his opponent, John Hickenlooper, is a moderate and popular former governor.

Polls show that, if anything, Gardner is in worse shape than McSally, and as in her case, it seems that his close association with Trump—who is lagging Joe Biden by more than a dozen points in the state—is the cause. “He’s been with Donald Trump 100 percent of the time,” Hickenlooper said of Gardner in their first debate. That renders Gardner 98 percent dead.

Bottom line: a net gain of one seat for the Democrats.

The Overhyped Four (Georgia’s two races, Texas, and Michigan)

Due to the resignation of an incumbent Republican, the GOP is defending two seats in Georgia.

The pedestrian one-term senator David Perdue has little appeal beyond his base. Most recently, he distinguished himself by pretending that he could not pronounce the name “Kamala,” although Harris has been his senatorial colleague for four years. While this kind of thing appeals to the troglodytes Perdue needs to turn out, it underscores his personal squalor.

Still, polls show him running a few points ahead of Jon Ossoff, who lost a closely contested congressional race but has never run statewide. Because Georgia is a markedly polarized state, and includes a large base of immutable Republican voters, it’s hard to see where Ossoff makes up the difference.

The other Georgia race is a special election to replace Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired from Congress last year because of Parkinson’s disease. There is no primary: Assuming no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the votes on election day, the two who received the most votes will face one another in a runoff in January.

The leading contenders in the first round are the spectacularly rich and empty Republican Kelly Loeffler, who has been serving as Isakson’s replacement since January, and the Democrat Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta—Martin Luther King’s church. Neither candidate has run in a statewide race before.

Apart from stridently attacking the Black Lives Matter movement and flirting with QAnon, the erstwhile society doyenne Loeffler has become such a slavish Trump supporter that she verges on parody. In Georgia that should ensure her emergence from the first round of voting, although recent polling makes clear that she is splitting the Republican vote with conservative congressman Doug Collins.

Now for the ugly part. Georgia includes a solid chunk of white voters driven by racial animus, and the state is competing with Texas as the leading GOP laboratory for race-based voter suppression.

In a better world, or even the better Georgia to come, Perdue and Loeffler would lose. But in 2020, both Republicans seem positioned to squeeze out narrow wins.

In Texas, the silver-haired Republican Senator John Cornyn walks that thin line between sober and self-satisfied. That works fine for the country-club crowd in Dallas and Houston, and well enough for the fiercely conservative GOP base. When was the last time a Texas Democrat won a major statewide office?

This won’t be the time. Running in 2018 against a Republican far more annoying than Cornyn, Ted Cruz, Beto O’Rourke fell 2 percent short. Perhaps O’Rourke declined to challenge Cornyn because he wanted to be president; perhaps, too, he realized how hard it would be to get that last 2 percent.

Cornyn’s female challenger, MJ Hegar, is a former Air Force pilot. But she’s no O’Rourke, and polls show her well behind.

While Biden is running better than expected in Texas, his campaign has been rightly reluctant to invest major resources. The shameless efforts of Texas governor Greg Abbott and his fellow Republicans to suppress Democratic voting will likely seal Hegar’s fate.

In Michigan, the GOP is recycling a charismatic candidate, John James, an Army veteran and an African American who lost a Senate race in 2018. This time around, he started with a better chance of displacing the low-key incumbent Gary Peters. But he isn’t closing the polling gap, and Peters is tying him to the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare.

Things are so bad for Trump in Michigan that his campaign is tacitly giving up on a state he won in 2016. There’s no way James survives Trump’s undertow.

Bottom line: no change—the incumbents hold all four seats.

The Five Deciders (Maine, North Carolina, Iowa, Montana, and South Carolina)

That leaves five races rated by the Cook Political Report as tossups.

Several overarching factors affect these races: How is Trump running in the state? Will Trump-averse Republicans and swing voters support the GOP candidate as a check on a prospective Biden administration? Are statewide rates of COVID-19 conspicuously spiking? And, finally, what is the impact of the imminent confirmation by the GOP’s Senate majority of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

The latter question is potentially decisive. Republicans view Ginsburg’s long-anticipated death as the gift that keeps on giving: Not only does it hand them the Supreme Court for generation, but in culturally conservative states like North Carolina, Iowa, Montana, and South Carolina it reminds wavering Republicans of the influential role played by their party’s Senate incumbents.

Optimistic Democrats imagine decisively winning outright control of the Senate. Perhaps a blue tsunami could actualize such dreams. But closer scrutiny of each pivotal state suggests that getting to 50 is challenging enough.


Throughout her four terms in the Senate, Republican Susan Collins has styled herself as a bipartisan moderate who represents the independent spirit of Maine’s electorate. But in the age of Trump that is no longer working.

Her statement that impeachment proceedings—which she opposed—would cause our sociopathic president to be “much more cautious in the future” has proven as fatuous as it sounded. But her leading offense in the mind of many constituents, especially women, was her intellectually, politically, and morally vacuous speech advocating that the Senate confirm Brett Kavanaugh.

Variously, she claimed that the ardently conservative Kavanaugh would protect Roe v. Wade; expressed her “fervent hope . . . that Brett Kavanaugh will work to lessen the divisions in the Supreme Court”; associated the many groups which opposed him with the odious ambulance-chaser Michael Avenatti; lionized Kavanaugh’s personal qualities while airily ignoring the intemperance and aggression he directed at female senators during his testimony; and suggested that Christine Blasey Ford had somehow mistaken who assaulted her. The writers at Saturday Night Live captured Collins’s position: “I think it’s important to believe women until it’s time to stop.”

Outraged Mainers crowdfunded a war chest for anyone who rose to oppose her. Previous supporters began noticing that she built her bipartisan image on casting supposedly courageous votes where Republicans didn’t need them to carry the Senate, and that she had no real influence with Trump or Mitch McConnell—who summarily ignored her feckless call to delay confirming Judge Barrett.

Her opponent, Sara Gideon, is the speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives. She’s running as a moderate, and avoids talking much about Kavanaugh—she hardly needs to. Trump will lose the statewide vote decisively, and the latest poll shows Gideon beating Collins by seven points.

Trailing, Collins has been reduced to casting Gideon as a newcomer from out of state, although she has lived in Maine for many years. But voters have seen Collins for even longer, and that may prove more than long enough.

North Carolina

Everyone knows the problem.

Democrat Cal Cunningham, a former state senator, was leading lackluster Republican Senator Thom Tillis until Cunningham got caught sexting a woman not his wife. A recent poll showed that his favorability ratings fell from about 46 to 40 percent, while his unfavorables rose from 29 to 41 percent. That may reflect an aesthetic judgment: The prose in Cunningham’s sexts, while mercifully non-explicit, was embarrassingly bad.

While Cunningham is holding a lead in the polls, the latest, from Emerson, shows him ahead by just one point. The problem for Tillis is Tillis—his deficits in the “honest and trustworthy” category closely match Cunningham’s. But polls show that 50 percent of North Carolina voters support the prompt confirmation of Judge Barrett, and Tillis is working the issue.

Three weeks ago, this race looked like a good bet for Democrats. Perhaps it still is. But the slide in Cunningham’s personal standing puts more pressure on Democrats to pick up a seat in, say, Iowa.


Incumbent Republican Senator Joni Ernst has slipped a good bit since 2016, when she beat a mediocre Democrat by nine points—partly on the strength of an indelible ad where she cast her girlhood immersion in castrating pigs as predicate for some figurative castration of swamp-dwelling Washingtonians. Ouch.

Six years later, the swamp is swampier, Iowa’s urban and suburban populace is growing, and voters are becoming weary enough of Trump that Biden has pulled within shouting distance.

Ernst’s job ratings are mediocre, and she is dragging her support for repealing Obamacare like an anvil. Then there’s her inexplicable embrace of a conspiracy theory asserting that the coronavirus death rate was greatly exaggerated—compelling repeated and embarrassing apologies. Too bad for her that new cases of COVID-19 are spiking in Iowa.

While Democrats are spending little in Iowa on the presidential campaign, they have expended millions to support Ernst’s less-known opponent, Theresa Greenfield. She, too, was a farm girl, and has positioned herself as a moderate dedicated to expanding healthcare across the state.

Like other embattled Republicans, Ernst has seized on the Barrett nomination. This included highlighting her participation in Barrett’s televised hearings before the Judiciary Committee—during which she distinguished herself by profusely and repeatedly thanking the nominee’s seven kids for showing up, doubtless touching the hearts of Iowa’s mothers.

But a tight race like this may turn on smaller things closer to home—like Ernst’s recent failure in a televised debate to recall the breakeven price of soybeans after Greenfield aced a similar question. With Greenfield leading the most recent polls, Ernst has reason to worry.


This race pits one-term Republican incumbent Steve Daines against the state’s personable and popular governor, Steve Bullock. Daines is a loyal Trump supporter; Bullock a center-left Democrat with a sure feel for Montana’s electorate which has helped him win three statewide races.

It may not help Bullock that he absented himself in 2019 to unsuccessfully run for president. But he’s gotten good marks for his handling of the coronavirus epidemic as governor, while Daines is riding the Barrett train, and counting on Trump’s anticipated margin in the state to bail him out.

Still, the polls are very close, and Bullock won re-election as governor in 2016 despite Trump’s near landslide in Montana. The question is whether a senatorial contest more tethered to Trump is different. This is a state where Trump may actually help a Republican.

South Carolina

Another such state is South Carolina, where Trump will best Biden comfortably.

That leaves the Democratic challenger for the Senate, Jaime Harrison, looking for crossover votes to defeat the exceedingly slippery and cynical Lindsey Graham. Harrison’s problem is that the critical voters annoyed by Graham include Trump loyalists to his right—whom Graham, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has done his damnedest to propitiate through accelerating Barrett’s confirmation.

Harrison is a talented and spirited candidate who hews to the center, and he’s raised a record amount of money from the small army of Americans repelled by Graham. But, unlike in neighboring North Carolina and Georgia, the demographics of bright-red South Carolina haven’t changed much.

The latest and most authoritative poll has Graham pulling ahead by six points. This race may be the 2020 version of the O’Rourke phenomena in Texas—compelling but, in the end, fated to disappoint.

Control of the Chamber

So where do these races leave us?

The Democrats’ hopes of controlling the Senate rest on defeating at least two of the three most endangered GOP incumbents: Collins in Maine, Tillis in North Carolina, and Ernst in Iowa. If Biden loses, Democrats would need all three—or, perhaps, two plus Bullock, as a Biden loss in North Carolina might well foreclose Cunningham’s chances.

Bottom line: If you can’t resist betting, go with a net gain of three for the Democrats—or four if you enjoy living dangerously. But don’t hazard anything you can’t stand to lose.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.