Swing State Pres

Saturday, May 9, 2020

BTRTN 2020 Senate Snapshot: Dems Now Have a Greater-Than-50% Chance of Winning the Senate

Tom with a BTRTN update of the 2020 Senate races...remember, not a prediction, just a snapshot of where the races stand right now, and how they might turn out if Election Day were today. 

THE LEAD

·        It is early, to be sure; relatively few primaries have been held to determine the final Senate pairings, and of course, we are nearly six months away from Election Day, in the midst of the monumentally unpredictable coronavirus epidemic

·        But at this point, according to our BTRTN model,  if the elections were held today, Democrats would have a 55% chance of taking control of the    Senate.

·        To win the Senate, the Dems need to win +3 net seats if Joe Biden wins (to get to 50), +4 net    seats if Donald Trump wins reelection (as 51    would be needed).

·        Democrats are in good position to flip Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, while the GOP appears likely, as of today, to flip back Alabama.

·        And the GOP may be vulnerable in several other states, most notably Iowa, but also others

·        We may not know who controls the Senate for certain until early January, when Georgia may have to hold a run-off election if the open (“jungle”) primary on Election Day fails to produce a majority winner


BACKGROUND

Currently the GOP holds 53 seats, and the Democratic caucus, inclusive of two Independent senators who sit with them, holds 47.  This means that the Democrats need to win +3 net seats to control the Senate under a Biden administration, when Biden’s VP would control the tie-breaking vote, or +4, to get to a 51-seat majority if Trump wins (recognizing that if Trump wins the presidency, it likely speaks to an electoral mood where the odds of the Dems flipping seats lowers significantly).

Up to now, the odds have seemed long.  The Dems won a deep red seat in Alabama in 2018 under special circumstances, and that seat is at risk.  And it seemed that only three other seats could be “flippable,” in Maine, Colorado and Arizona.  Thus the best the Dems could hope to achieve was a net +2, to get to 49 seats.

But the picture has become far more favorable for the Democrats, and the takeover dream is far more realistic.  This is based on a number of factors: early polling across many states favoring Dem challengers, Dem fundraising capability, and a darkening national mood, troubled by both the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus and GOP governors hastening to reopen their states.

The Dems appear to hold commanding leads in several of the flip target states; two more states are clearly in play, North Carolina and Iowa; and several other states do not appear to be the GOP-locks they once looked to be. 

It is early.  Only a handful of states have held primaries, so we do not even know, in the vast majority of races, who will head the tickets.  The world is on fire with the coronavirus, and no one can predict the state of play come November.  No one can even predict the form of the elections (in-person? mail only?), or how that balance will influence the outcomes (which party benefits from a more mail-driven electorate?).  And even in normal times, six months is a lifetime for political campaigns.  Just ask Joe Biden, who went from frontrunner to also ran to formidable presumed nominee in less than a month earlier this year.


THE ANSWER

At this early juncture, if the election were held today, we peg the odds of the Democrats winning control at 55%.  This is based on a seat-by-seat assessment of the Dems’ probability of winning, based on plling, fundraising, other factors, and judgment -- as well as an assessment of the odds of Trump winning.

Senate
% chance D takeover
55%
D/R split
50/50
Dem gain
D + 3 net seats


THE SET-UP

Every two years, essentially one-third of the Senate is up for election; the winners are granted six year terms.  There are thus 35 elections this year.  Of the 65 seats not up for reelection, the Dems hold 35 and the GOP holds 30.

The following chart gives our BTRTN breakdown as of now.  The Dems have six seats they will surely win, while the GOP has twelve.  That gives the Dems 41 “solid” seats and the GOP 42, with 17 races that have at least some chance of being competitive.  It is the fate of those 17 seats that will determine control of the Senate.  We said the Dems need to flip a net of +3 seats (to get to 50), and, as of now, we see them accomplishing that by flipping four and giving back one.  And we think Biden holds the edge over Trump as of now (the subject of another article coming soon.)

BTRTN SENATE SNAPSHOT
BTRTN Rating
Seats
Flips
DEM TOTAL
50
4
Dem Holdover
35
0
Dem Solid
6
0
Dem Lean
8
3
Dem Toss-up
1
1
GOP Toss-up
2
1
GOP Lean
6
0
GOP Solid
12
0
GOP Holdover
30
0
GOP TOTAL
50
1


Let’s look at the most critical races in turn.

We have the Democrats flipping four seats as of now:  Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine.  

·        Colorado.  Democrats have coveted Cory Gardner’s seat since the first-term Republican unseated incumbent Mark Udall in 2014 (by a narrow 48/46 margin).  Hillary Clinton carried the state in 2016 and the race to challenge Gardner began.  When popular former Governor John Hickenlooper dropped his presidential bid and threw his hat instead into the senate race, this transformed the odds for a flip here considerably.  Hickenlooper leads in two very recent polls by +18 and +17 points.

·        North Carolina.  Thom Tillis is a first-term Republican who flipped the seat in 2014 by beating Democratic incumbent (and first-termer) Kay Hagan.  Tillis, initially thought to be a more moderate Republican, has basically pushed all his chips in on Trump, voting with him 93% of the time.  Cal Cunningham is a former State Senator who won the Democratic primary rather easily, and he leads Tillis by +9 points in each of two recent polls.

·        Arizona.  This is a special election created by the death of John McCain in August, 2018.  The seat has had quite a history since then.  Governor Rob Ducey first named former Senator John Kyl to the seat, but Kyl resigned at the end of 2018, leading Ducey to turn to Martha McSally, who had just lost (in November, 2018) to Arizona’s Democratic Senator, Kyrsten Sinema.  (Still with me?)  The Dems have long had their eye on flipping this seat, not only because McSally is obviously vulnerable, never having won on her own, but because they believe they have the perfect presumed candidate, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who also happens to be the husband of gunshot victim (and former U.S. representative) Gabby Giffords.  Recent polling has Kelly up by +8 points.

·        Maine.  Susan Collins’ popularity in Maine has taken a beating after her votes in favor of naming Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court and acquitting Trump on impeachment charges.  This was a 1-2 punch in a blue state.  The four-term senator is now burdened with a 37% approval rating (well underwater, with 52% disapproval), and is being challenged by the very credible Sara Gideon, the Maine House Speaker.  Gideon leads in the latest polls by +4 and +1, reversing a steep deficit as of last summer.  This one truly is a toss-up.

The GOP is currently in position to flip one state as well, Alabama.

·        Alabama.  The Dems pulled off a bit of a fluke win in this deep red state in 2018, when Doug Jones beat the badly compromised Roy Moore in the special election to replace Jeff Sessions.  This was after Sessions had been named Attorney General, which seems like centuries ago.  And now Sessions is back, running for his old seat, and he will square off against former Auburn head football coach Tommy Tuberville in a runoff election on July 14.  The two were quite even in the original primary, Tuberville edging Sessions 33/32, with the two leading the field (which included Moore) to qualify for the runoff.  Trump, not surprisingly, has endorsed Tuberville.  Doug Jones is still reasonably popular -- +6 in net approval – but both candidates lead Jones in recent head-to-head polling, each by low double digits. 



There are several other Republican-held seats that may be vulnerable:

·        Iowa.  Iowa is a flat-out toss-up at this point, though we still have it leaning to incumbent GOP first-termer Senator Jodi Ernst.  A new poll last week shows Ernst running neck and neck with potential Democratic nominee Theresa Greenfield.  The primary is on June 2.

·       Kansas.  Kansas should not be a problem state for the GOP, and maybe it won’t be.  But you never know when Kris Kobach is in the mix.  Incumbent Pat Roberts is retiring, and Kobach, the Trumpster who headed a commission that tried (unsuccessfully) to find evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election, is among those vying for the seat.  A recent poll has Kobach trailing (by 2 points) State Senator Barbara Bollier, a leading Democrat contender.  The primary is on August 4.

·        Montana.  As in Colorado, the Democrats have come up with a popular former governor (also a former presidential candidate), Steve Bullock, to challenge a GOP incumbent, first-termer Steve Daines.  And Bullock leads Daines in the most recent poll, in mid-April, by +7 points.

·        Kentucky.  Can Mitch McConnell really be toppled by presumed challenger Amy McGrath?  Three polls, from last August to this February, each show McConnell leading McGrath by +4 points or less.  And his approval/disapproval is down to 37/50 in Kentucky, among the lowest, as of last December.  This is not a lay-up for McConnell.

·        South Carolina.  And is Lindsey Graham on the hot seat as well?  The Trump sounding board seemed to be riding high in the early part of the year, with a +12 net approval and ahead in the polls, over leading Dem challenger Jaime Harrison, by double digits.  But in an April poll, Harrison, a DNC official and former head of the South Carolina DNC (and the only Democrat running in the June primary), had cut the margin to -4.

·        Georgia.  First term Republican David Perdue holds a +6 point lead over potential challenger Jon Ossoff in Georgia’s regular election; Perdue won by +7 in 2014.  While Ossoff would be a strong challenger – he nearly pulled off a special election win in a high profile race for Georgia’s 6th District in 2017 – Perdue must be relieved that Stacey Abrams chose to sit this one out, hoping for a phone call from Joe Biden in the veepstakes.  Perdue does not appear to be in any trouble, as he sports a +23 net approval rating as of last December.  But if Abrams does become Biden’s pick for VP, that could energize the Dem electorate with down-ballot consequences.

·        Georgia’s special election.  This is the crazy one – hold on tight as we go through this one.  When veteran Senator Johnny Isakson decided to retire last year, Governor Brian Kemp (the poster governor of reopening) appointed Kelly Loeffler, a businesswoman, to the seat.  Within a month, however, Representative Doug Collins, who achieved some fame with his zealous defense of Trump in the impeachment hearings, announced he would challenge Loeffler for the seat in 2020.  That was probably poor form in its own right, bucking the governor, but given the primary structure in Georgia, it could be problematic for the GOP. 
There will be no normal primary to settle on a single GOP candidate.  Instead, there will be a “jungle primary” on Election Day, November 3rd, when Loeffler, Collins and a raft of others from all parties will appear on the ballot.  It seems unlikely either of them could reach 50% and win outright; but it also seems unlikely any Democrat will either (the Dems seem split between former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s son, Matt, and Reverend Ralph Warnock).  But if a Democrat received the most votes in the jungle primary, it could set them up for an upset in the runoff, especially if Trump lost.  That runoff is not until January 5, 2021, and control of the Senate may hang in the balance until then.  And if so, that race will be the most prominent Senate race of the century.

The Democrats have some potentially vulnerable seats, too, but, unlike in the GOP states, there is no polling as of yet that demonstrates any true weakness. 

·        New Hampshire.  Second-term Senator Jeanne Shaheen won by only +3 in 2014, but she is popular (+15 net approval) and, in hypothetical polling versus potentially strong opponents (Governor Chris Sununu and former Senator Kelly Ayotte, who are not even running), she beats them both.

·        Virginia.  Like New Hampshire, Virginia features a popular incumbent, second-termer Mark Warner (+19 net approval) who won a close race in 2014 to Ed Gillespie.  But the current GOP contenders do not have the stature of Gillespie, and Warner, like Shaheen, appears pretty safe.

·        Michigan.  Incumbent Gary Peters is looking strong in the polls, with two recent polls showing him ahead by +10 and +9.

·        Minnesota.  Tina Smith was appointed to the seat in early 2018, replacing Al Franken when he resigned.  She then won the primary and general election, by +11 points over Republican Karen Housley, in 2018 to fill out Franken’s term.  Now she is running for reelection and a full six-year term.  She has a net approval of +13.  There is no polling as yet and no clear opposition frontrunner, pending the August 11 primary.

·        New Mexico.  Two-term Senator Tom Udall is stepping down, and Representative Ben Ray Lujan is stepping up to try to replace him, the only Democrat on the ballot for the June 2 primary.  An early January poll, the most recent one, had Lujan well ahead (+19) of Republican Gavin Clarkson, a former Trump administration official in the Department of Interior, who is among those seeking the GOP nomination.

Apart from the polls, the Democrats are doing well in fundraising.  Mark Kelly has been an amazing fundraiser, and many others in the closest races are doing well versus their opposition, including Gideon and Cunningham. Hickenlooper is making up fundraising ground fast, and Bullock is relatively new to the race and should do well in fundraising as well.

The rest of the races are solid for either the Democrats (six of them: Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon and Rhode Island) or Republican (twelve of them:  Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming).

Here is a summary chart of all the races, with relevant data.

SENATE SNAPSHOT
State
Incum.. Party
Dem nominee
GOP nominee
2014 Margin
2016 Pres Margin
Primary Date
Recent Polls Avg
BTRTN Rating
RI
D
Reed
(Waters)
D + 41
D + 16
9/8
n/a
D Solid
MASS
D
Markey
tbd
D + 24
D + 27
9/1
n/a
D Solid
NJ
D
Booker
tbd
D + 16
D + 14
7/7
D + 24
D Solid
ILL
D
Durbin
Curran
D + 11
D + 17
held
n/a
D Solid
ORE
D
Merkeley
tbd
D + 19
D + 11
5/19
n/a
D Solid
DEL
D
Coons
tbd
D + 14
D + 11
9/15
n/a
D Solid
NMEX
D
(Lujan)
tbd
D + 11
D + 8
6/2
D + 19
D Lean
MINN
D
Smith
tbd
D + 11*
D + 2
8/11
n/a
D Lean
MICH
D
Peters
(James)
D + 13
R + 0.2
8/4
D + 10
D Lean
VA
D
Warner
tbd
D + 1
D + 5
6/23
n/a
D Lean
NH
D
Shaheen
tbd
D + 3
D + 0.4
9/8
n/a
D Lean
COL
R
(Hickenlooper)
Gardner
R + 2
D + 5
6/30
D + 10
D Lean Flip
ARI
R
(Kelly)
McSally
D + 2*
R + 3
8/4
D + 8
D Lean Flip
NC
R
Cunningham
Tillis
R + 2
R + 4
held
D + 9
D Lean Flip
MAINE
R
(Gideon)
Collins
R + 37
D + 3
7/14
D + 4
D TU Flip
IOWA
R
tbd
Ernst
R + 8
R + 10
6/2
R + 1
R Toss Up
ALA
D
Jones
Sessions/Tuber.
D +2*
R + 28
7/14 ro
R + 11
R TU Flip
KAN
R
(Marshall/Kobach)
(Bollier)
R + 11
R + 21
8/4
D + 2
R Lean
MON
R
(Bullock)
Daines
R + 18
R + 20
6/2
D + 4
R Lean
KEN
R
(McGrath)
McConnell
R + 15
R + 30
6/23
R + 2
R Lean
SC
R
Harrison
Graham
R + 15
R + 14
6/9
R + 4
R Lean
GA
R
(Ossoff)
Perdue
R + 8
R + 5
6/9
R + 6
R Lean
GA (sp)
R
open primary 11/3; run off 1/5/21
R+14*
R + 5
none
R + 10
R Lean
TEX
R
Hegar/West
Cornyn
R + 28
R + 9
7/14 ro
R + 12
R Solid
TENN
R
tbd
tbd
R + 30
R + 26
8/6
R + 16
R Solid
MISSP
R
Espy
Hyde-Smith
R + 22
R + 18
held
R + 9
R Solid
ALASKA
R
tbd
Sullivan
R + 2
R + 15
8/18
n/a
R Solid
LOUIS
R
open primary 11/3; run off 1/5/21
R + 16
R + 20
12/5 ro
n/a
R Solid
ARK
R
(No D in primary)
Cotton
R + 17
R + 27
held
n/a
R Solid
SD
R
tbd
Rounds
R + 21
R + 30
6/2
n/a
R Solid
NEB
R
tbd
Sasse
R + 33
R + 21
5/12
n/a
R Solid
IDAHO
R
tbd
Risch
R + 31
R + 32
6/2
n/a
R Solid
WV
R
tbd
Caputo
R + 27
R + 42
6/9
n/a
R Solid
OKL
R
tbd
Inhofe
R + 39
R + 36
6/30
R + 26
R Solid
WYO
R
tbd
tbd
R + 57
R + 46
8/18
n/a
R Solid
* Arizona margin from 2018 election (Sinema beat McSally; McSally was appointed after McCain's death); Alabama from 2017 special election; Minnesota from 2018 special election.



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