The fight for the Senate: A pinkie on the scale for Democrats?

Situation is chaotic, but there are more reasons for GOP to be nervous

The question of whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will continue to command a GOP majority next year is a toss-up, with a slight advantage to Democrats, Stu Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
The question of whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will continue to command a GOP majority next year is a toss-up, with a slight advantage to Democrats, Stu Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 20, 2020 at 5:53pm

ANALYSIS — Last September, I wrote in this space that small developments had given Democrats “some reason for optimism about next year’s fight for the Senate.” But I also noted that the party would “need an upset or two to win control of the chamber next November.”

More than seven months later, circumstances have changed.

Democrats no longer need an “upset or two” to win control of the Senate later this year. In fact, while the fight for Senate control in November is a toss-up, I’d probably put a pinkie on the scale for Democrats right now.

It’s not that Democrats have really widened the playing field, though they have. Those “extra” races on the board, in places like Montana and Georgia, aren’t the greatest of opportunities for them.

It’s simply that the Democrats’ initial top prospects have succeeded in proving their fundraising mettle and have taken advantage of Donald Trump’s GOP.

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Colorado

Republican hopes that a Democratic primary in Colorado might produce a weak — or at least weakened — nominee have faded.

Writing in The Colorado Sun last week, reporter John Frank noted that “the spread of the coronavirus quashed” former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff’s Democratic primary bid against former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Frank quotes veteran Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli and longtime state GOP strategist Dick Wadhams as saying that the fight for the Democratic nomination is over, with Hickenlooper the inevitable nominee.

Republicans, of course, have scenarios whereby incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner can win, and I have repeatedly noted that Gardner is a strong campaigner.

But being a Republican who has generally lined up with Trump is not an asset in Colorado this year. Remember, Hillary Clinton carried the state by 5 points in 2016.

While there has been little public polling, the combination of the state’s fundamentals, Hickenlooper’s popularity as governor and strategic positioning as a moderate businessman, and private polling showing a large Hickenlooper advantage leads to only one conclusion: Gardner is a heavy underdog.

Arizona

Democratic challenger Mark Kelly continues to raise unbelievable amounts of money in his bid to oust appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally. Public polls over the last few months have also shown Kelly with a lead.

While some of those margins seem exaggerated, private polling confirms that McSally is an underdog now, though not as desperate a one as Gardner.

While Trump carried Arizona by 3.5 points, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s 45,000-vote victory over McSally in the 2018 Senate race — combined with recent presidential polling there — suggests the Grand Canyon State is increasingly going to be a problem for Trump and his party.

Arizona remains competitive, but you’d much rather be Kelly than McSally right now.

North Carolina

Eighteen months ago, it wasn’t clear that Democrats would come up with a formidable nominee to challenge Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, even though his 1.6-point win in 2014 was a squeaker. But former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has emerged as a serious threat to the incumbent.

Tillis started off with a large fundraising advantage, but Cunningham raised an impressive $4.4 million in the first quarter of 2020. The very limited public polling is contradictory, but private numbers suggest the race is now about even.

Tillis’ big advantage is that Trump carried the state by 4 points, and it’s unclear whether there has been enough movement in suburban areas toward the Democrats (or a stronger minority turnout) to help their presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden — and Cunningham — flip the state. But Tillis, who embraces Trump whenever he can, finds himself in a Toss-up race.

Maine

Republican Susan Collins started off her bid for reelection well-liked, widely respected and with a reputation for political independence. But Trump has poisoned the water for Collins in Maine, though she didn’t help herself by expressing her confidence in the president at key times. Instead, it made her look foolish and partisan.

The result is that bipartisan support for Collins has weakened considerably, and both public and private polls now show her in a dead heat with Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, the Maine House speaker.

Hillary Clinton carried Maine by only 3 points in 2016, and Collins should run ahead of Trump this November. But any additional Trump weakness statewide makes it more difficult for her to swim against the tide.

The rest

Republicans are still likely to pick up Alabama in November (because of the state’s strong Republican bent and conservative views), but Democrats can win control of the Senate by winning the White House and picking up four GOP-held seats.

Already, Colorado and Arizona look like likely flips, with Maine and North Carolina no worse than even money for Democrats.

Political junkies will note I have not mentioned Montana or Iowa in this mix. Montana Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is well-liked, but as that race unfolds, the state’s Republican bent is likely to prove to be an increasing problem for the challenger. Montana backed Trump by more than 20 points.

Given that, even Democrats are cautious about Bullock’s chances. Still, the race merits watching because polling shows the contest is now competitive.

Iowa is also not yet really in the mix, and the same goes for states such as Texas, Georgia and Kentucky, where some Democrats are simply hoping for a miracle.

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Republicans remain enthusiastic about Michigan, where Democratic Sen. Gary Peters has a good, but not overwhelming, lead in early polling.

But the state is likely to be much tougher sledding for Trump in 2020 — and, because of that, for Republican Senate hopeful John James, who lost by 6.5 points in 2018 to Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

The most likely outcome in November is a Democratic gain of one to three seats. Obviously, it is impossible to know how the current chaotic situation will affect the president’s chances for reelection or affect individual Senate races.

But Democratic prospects have improved since last fall, and Republicans have much more reason to be nervous now than just seven months ago. That could change, of course, but for now, the Senate surely is a toss-up. And Democrats may just have the slightest of advantages.