Races to Watch

While the 2020 presidential race is capturing widespread attention, the outcome of Senate and Congressional campaigns could have a larger impact on key policy issues and on advocacy across industries.

With Joe Biden leading in polls, Democrats are hoping his coattails can help them pick up the four seats they need to take control of the U.S. Senate. But to get there, they will have to win some states that lean Republican. 

Republicans, for their part, need 20 seats to regain control of the House of Representatives. Most analysts expect Democrats to retain control of the House, which they won in 2018. But strong, targeted Republican campaigns in swing districts could chip away at their majority. 

The action will be in the Senate.

Which policy issues will turn on this year’s election? Read our series. 

The Senate Math 

Republicans currently hold the Senate with a 53-47 majority. Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take the chamber, but the math gets more complicated. 

For starters, there are 35 Senate seats up for grabs in November, which includes two vacancies (Arizona and Georgia). Among those, 23 are held by Republican senators, meaning Republicans are, at least in theory, more vulnerable. 

While some seats up for election are “safe,” meaning they are not likely to change party control, there are many states where seats are in play. Ultimately, there are some 12 opportunities for Democrats to flip Senate seats, and only about two for Republicans.

Biden is strongly positioned in at least four states with incumbent Republican senators: North Carolina, Maine, Arizona and Colorado. Democrats have also broadened their reach so that Georgia, Iowa and Montana are potential targets. However, the Senate seat viewed by analysts as among the most likely to change hands is Alabama, and it leans Republican. 

The bottom line: Democrats will have to pick up four senate seats—and perhaps a fifth to compensate for a loss in Alabama—to take control of the chamber. Here are some of the key Senate races in play:

Most Likely to Flip: AL, AZ and CO

In Alabama, Democratic Senator Doug Jones is considered the most vulnerable among Senate incumbents. Alabama is one of the most pro-Trump states in the country, and Jones voted to convict Trump in his impeachment trial. Jones won the seat in a 2017 special election, beating a Republican opponent with a controversial history as a judge and who faced allegations of sexual misconduct during the campaign.

Arizona is home to one of the Democrats’ strongest candidates of the election, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut. He is a gun-control activist, married to former Rep. Gabby Gifford, who was shot and nearly killed in 2011 in an assassination attempt. Throughout the entire race, Kelly has outraised incumbent Sen. Martha McSally. McSally lost a Senate race in 2018 but was appointed a year later by the Arizona governor to fill the seat held by the late John McCain. Still, while polls show the presidential race in Arizona to be close, the state has not voted for a Democratic president in a decade. Kelly would only be the second Democratic senator from the state in 25 years. 

In Colorado, Democrats are in a strong position to unseat Republican Senator Cory Gardner after they convinced popular former Governor John Hickenlooper to run after his unsuccessful 2020 presidential bid. The state leans left, and polls show Hickenlooper with a solid lead.

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Toss-up States: NC, ME, IA, GA and MT

In Maine, Republican Senator Susan Collins, who has been in office for more than 20 years, is in some ways a member of an endangered species. She is the last remaining New England moderate Republican in the Senate. A majority of voters in her state have not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988, but several Republicans have won statewide elections since then.

Of all the states in the toss-up category, Maine is the most Democratic-leaning. Several recent polls show Collins trailing her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon. Outside money has flooded the state for this race, and experts say Collins is in the fight of her life. Her “brand” as an independent has been hurt by Democrats attacking her pro-Trump votes, such as her support for his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, and her vote to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial.

In North Carolina, Republican Senator Thom Tillis barely won in his first term six years ago. He is now running in a state in which Democrats are making big gains. North Carolina is also considered one of the biggest swing states on the presidential level. Polls show him behind his challenger, Democrat Cal Cunningham, an Iraq war veteran. Some believe Cunningham’s attacks on Tillis for not expanding Medicaid are resonating.

In Iowa, first-term Republican senator Joni Ernst faces a competitive race, in part because the presidential race is competitive in the state. Trump won the state in 2016 by 10 points, but he is not far ahead of Biden this time. 

Georgia is also suddenly competitive at the presidential level, which gives Democrats hope they can oust Republican Senator David Perdue, even though he is leading in polls against Democratic opponent Jon Ossoff. Of the various senate races that are in play, this one may be tough for Democrats. Ossoff is young—at 33, he is seven years younger than the youngest U.S. senator—and has marched for Black Lives Matter, an issue that could help or hurt him in November.

Montana also makes the toss-up list as popular two-term Democrat Steve Bullock, who won re-election in 2016, even with Trump winning the state by 20 points, is running for Senate. His profile was raised by his 2020 presidential bid, and he is trying to oust a first-term Republican, Senator Steve Daines.

More Senate Races to Watch

In addition to the Senate seats in play, there are several high-profile senate races that merit attention.

In Michigan, Republicans may have an opportunity. Democratic Senator Gary Peters is running even in some polls with Republican challenger John James, a Black businessman and Iraq war veteran who has shown strong fundraising. Trump carried Michigan in 2016, but by less than one percentage point. Biden is expected to perform better than Hillary Clinton did in the state, which could tip that equation.  

In Kentucky, Democrat Amy McGrath is mounting a longshot bid to unseat Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader. McGrath has been one of the top Democratic Senate fundraisers this election. But she is struggling to not offend Trump voters in her state. Democrats would love to beat McConnell for the symbolic value of unseating a Republican who has been central to advancing the conservative agenda and blocking Democratic goals.

In South Carolina, Democrat Jaime Harrison has raised millions of dollars in his bid to unseat Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee and a Trump ally. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the two candidates tied, which is remarkable, given that Graham is a long-time incumbent. Harrison has raised millions and Trump’s numbers could be dragging on Graham. But it is still an uphill battle for Democrats.     

House Races

Democrats had a major victory two years ago when they won back control of the House, winning even in Republican districts where they were not expecting to succeed. Now, Republicans are strategizing to win some of those seats back. 

Every seat in the House is up for election. Democrats hold the House 232 to 198, with one seat held by a Libertarian and four vacancies. There are roughly 30 Trump-friendly districts held by Democrats. Here are some of the most competitive House races:

  • New York 11. Democratic Representative Max Rose, an Afghanistan war veteran, beat a Republican in the last election for the state’s 11th District, a district Trump won by 10 points. 
  • Utah 4. In the last election, Democrat Representative Ben McAdams barely won this seat in one of the most Republican states in the country. 
  • South Carolina 1. Representative Joe Cunningham was the first Democrat to win South Carolina’s 1st District in almost 30 years. He won this seat after Republicans used their primary to defeat controversial former Governor and Representative Mark Sanford in favor of a more pro-Trump candidate.
  • Oklahoma 5. One of the biggest upsets in 2018 was Democrat Kendra Horn’s victory in Oklahoma’s 5th District. She is the third woman the state has elected to Congress. Trump won this district by 13.5 points. 
  • Texas 23. This district was held by William Hurd, the only Black Republican in the House, who is retiring. This makes it an open seat in a district that includes a portion of the Texas border. The district, which is majority Latino, voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The Democratic candidate, Gina Ortiz Jones, is an Iraq war veteran who almost beat Hurd in the least election. The Republican candidate is Tony Gonzalez, a 20-year U.S. Navy veteran.


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