Rating changes: Democratic control of Senate more likely because of Trump

Alaska, South Carolina seats in play; McSally an underdog

With President Donald Trump underperforming in many states he won in 2016, the roster of Republican senators with competitive races expands to include Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, right and Dan Sullivan of Alaska  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
With President Donald Trump underperforming in many states he won in 2016, the roster of Republican senators with competitive races expands to include Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, right and Dan Sullivan of Alaska (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 11, 2020 at 11:29am

ANALYSIS — After Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, there’s a temptation to avoid making political projections. But one election result shouldn’t cause us to ignore the data. And right now, the preponderance of data points to a great election for Democrats, including taking control of the Senate. 

As Joe Biden has grown a significant lead over Trump in the race for the White House, the Senate battleground has improved for Democrats down the ballot, including Inside Elections rating changes in eight races. 

Some states, such as Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina, have been competitive for the entire cycle. But previously lower-tier contests in Iowa, Montana and Georgia are now hosting neck-and-neck Senate races. And Kansas, Texas, and even Alaska and South Carolina can’t be considered solid for Republicans anymore. That gives Democrats more than one legitimate path.

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Democratic challengers continue to raise money at astounding rates, but arguably the biggest factor in boosting Democratic chances is the president underperforming his 2016 totals by 8-12 points or more. For example, Trump won Montana by 20 points four years ago, but the presidential race is likely within the margin of error today.

Net gain of 3 seats needed if Biden wins

It’s not that a large number of Democratic candidates are going to win Trump states, it’s that Trump is on pace to win fewer states than four years ago. That’s a significant factor considering that the presidential result and the Senate outcome matched up in every state four years ago. 

Republicans currently control the Senate 53-47, with two independents caucusing with the Democrats. So Democrats need a net gain of four seats for a majority, but can control the Senate by gaining three seats and winning the White House (since the vice president breaks tied Senate votes). 

With less than four months to go before Election Day, the most likely outcome is a Democratic net gain of three to five Senate seats. Since Biden has a clear advantage in the presidential race, that means Democrats are more likely than not to win control of the Senate.

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Looking at the big picture, multiple Republican incumbents are either already trailing or hovering in the low 40s against their challengers. Of course, the races aren’t over, and these vulnerable senators can win, particularly when tens of millions of dollars in television ads are still yet to be aired. But to say those senators have a significant advantage is overstating their prospects.

McSally joins Gardner as underdog

Specifically, the Arizona Senate race rating moves to Tilt Democratic from Toss-up as Martha McSally joins Colorado’s Cory Gardner as the two Republican senators in races where Democrats currently have the advantage. Maine’s Susan Collins probably isn’t too far behind them. 

GOP Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Steve Daines of Montana join Collins and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis in the Toss-up category as they are in tight races with their challengers and the presidential race is close at the top of the ballot. Similarly, as Georgia takes shape as a legitimate presidential battleground, the Senate races look more vulnerable for Republicans, with Sen. David Perdue’s reelection shifting to Tilt Republican and the other GOP seat, currently held by appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler, moving to Lean Republican. 

As Trump struggles in Texas with multiple growing suburban areas, GOP Sen. John Cornyn can’t take anything for granted. The Senate race in the Lone Star State is now rated Lean Republican, from Likely Republican. And both Sens. Dan Sullivan of Alaska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are in competitive races, with rating shifts from Solid Republican to Likely Republican. It’s increasingly difficult to rate Kentucky as Solid Republican when GOP outside groups need to spend $15 million or more defending Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but that rating remains unchanged for now, like Collins’ race in Maine.

12 GOP seats in play

With those changes, the overall Senate battlefield tilts even more in favor of Democrats, with a dozen vulnerable GOP seats and just two vulnerable Democratic ones — Gary Peters’ in Michigan, which remains Lean Democratic, and Doug Jones’ in Alabama, which stays Lean Republican. That means Democrats just need to win five of the 14 competitive seats to control the Senate if Biden’s vice president can cast tiebreaking votes. 

Of course, “anything can happen” and “four months is an eternity in politics,” but that shouldn’t be used as a crutch to ignore national and state-level polling. It seems unlikely that there would be a news event that would dramatically improve the president’s standing and thus boost GOP prospects. Trump and Republicans need the economy to improve, but that looks difficult as coronavirus cases rise in large swaths of the country. And the president’s instinct to fight cultural issues is suppressing his and the GOP candidates’ ability to attract voters with a college degree. 

Even if things do get better for Trump, it would only shift the fight for the Senate back to an even battle. 

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.