The Presidential election is drawing all the attention this year, but the elections for the U.S. Senate are equally important.
In what seems like it might be a good year for Democratic candidates, Joe Biden seems to be comfortably ahead in Presidential polling, and the Democratic Party seems poised to maintain their majority in the House. The biggest unknown is in the Senate.
If the Democratic Party can capture a majority in the Senate along with the White House, then they will hold both houses of the legislative branch and the executive branch – and with the Senate’s role in confirming federal judges, a chance to shape the future of the judiciary branch. If, on the other hand, Republicans retain their majority, we could be looking at another two years of one branch of our government blocking absolutely everything the other branches try to do.
So which will it be?
Welcome to my first-ever Senate election forecast. I’ll present the results on a modified version of the same Senate map I showed last week, see below. Senate terms are six years but elections are every two years, so once every two years one-third of the Senate comes up for re-election. Normally that means that there are 33 seats up for a vote, but this year there are also special elections to fill out the terms of the late John McCain (R-AZ) and the retiring Johnny Isakson (R-GA), bringing the total to 35.
In the map below, the pink, light blue, and light purple hexagons represent the 65 Senators that are NOT up for election this year (Republican, Democratic, and Independent respectively). The others, with darker shades of red and blue, ARE up for election (red for Republican, blue for Democratic). The color of each hexagon is the color of the party that I predict will win that seat. Labels are as follows.
Boring regular text (e.g. Sullivan) shows incumbent Senators that are likely to be re-elected with ease. Bold text (e.g. Hagerty) shows brand-new incoming Senators, replacing exiting Senators of the same party. All-caps bold text (e.g. CUNNINGHAM) shows new Senators of a different party; these are the races to watch because they could potentially shift the balance of power in the Senate. A separate scale shows how close I expect the races to be. Larger font sizes with asterisks (*) mean races that are likely to be close, possibly within 5 percent. Even larger font sizes with double asterisks (**) mean races that are likely to be very close, possibly within 2 percent.
I’ll review each race below, starting with the most boring and moving up to the most stressful, and then I’ll issue an overall prediction of which party will control the Senate.
The Boring Ones
- Arkansas: Tom Cotton (R-AR) will easily win re-election, especially since his main opponent dropped out of the race
- Rhode Island: Jack Reed (D-RI) will easily win re-election
- Wyoming: Cynthia Lummis will easily hold the seat for the Republican Party, replacing retiring Sen. Mike Enzi
- Massachusetts: Ed Markey (D-MA) will easily win re-election
- Nebraska: Ben Sasse (D-NE) will easily win re-election
Delaware: Chris Coons (D-DE) will easily win re-election
West Virginia: Shelly Moore Capito (R-WV) will easily win re-election. Which is a shame, because her opponent is Paula Jean Swearingin, and we would get headlines saying, “Swearingin swearing-in set for January 20th”
- South Dakota: Mike Rounds (R-SD) will easily win re-election
- Illinois: Dick Durbin (D-IL) will easily win re-election
- Tennessee: Bill Hagerty will easily retain the seat for the Republican party, replacing Lamar Alexander, who is retiring after a long and distinguished public service career
- Idaho: Jim Risch (R-ID) will easily win re-election
- New Jersey: Cory Booker (D-NJ) will easily win re-election
- Oklahoma: James Inhofe (R-OK) will easily win re-election
- Oregon: Jeff Merkley (D-OR) will easily win re-election
- East Virginia: Mark Warner (D-VA) will easily win re-election
- New Hampshire: Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) will easily win re-election
The More Interesting Ones
Here’s where things get interesting.
Louisiana: is weird because multiple names appear on the ballot, regardless of party. If any candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, that candidate is elected Senator. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two finishers face each other in a runoff election in January. The most likely outcome is that incumbent Bill Cassidy (R-LA) will win re-election.
- Kentucky: Democrats were desperately wishing to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, but Kentucky is not a wish-granting factory. McConnell will defeat Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath to win re-election.
Mississippi: Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) will win re-election against Mike Espy, but the fact that we’re even talking about a Republican incumbent maybe losing in Mississippi is a sign of how good a year this might be for the Democratic party.
Alaska: Dan Sullivan (R-AK) will win re-election against Dr. Al Gross. Again, it would seem to be a worrying sign that an incumbent Republican in Alaska might lose, but all it takes is 50% and a seat is a seat.
The Stressful Ones
Including all the seats not up for election and all the fairly confident predictions above, the Senate count stands at 43 Republican, 43 Democratic – as well as the 2 Democratic-leaning Independents, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Angus King (I-ME), who tend to vote with the Democratic Senators. That leaves 12 seats remaining on which the future of the Senate will be decided. These are the seats that will keep us, and our blood pressure, up on Election Night.
Thus, the best-case scenario for the Republican Party in the Senate would be to hold 55 seats (and thus the Democratic Party would hold 45). Conversely, the best case for the Democratic Party would be 55+2 seats, with the Republican Party holding 43. Neither of those best-case (or worst-case, depending on your perspective) scenarios is especially likely. What is most likely?
Here are my predictions for the most stressful (interesting?) races this time, one by one, followed by a prediction of the overall composition of the Senate in the 117th United States Congress.
- Michigan: Incumbent Gary Peters (D-MI) is likely to hold off his challenger, Army veteran John James, to win re-election. If James wins the seat, it could be a tough night for the Democratic Party. And even though more than 99% of the population of Michigan lives in the Eastern Time Zone, we’ll still have to wait an extra hour for the results. Thanks, UP.
- Georgia (regular election): like Louisiana, Senate elections in Georgia are weird. Multiple candidates appear on the ballot, and if any of them gets a majority of the vote, that candidate wins. If no candidate gets a majority, the top two finishers face in a January runoff. A runoff is less likely in this election than in the Georgia special election (see below), because the two most popular candidates by far are incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) and one of the rising stars of the Democratic Party, Jon Ossoff. Polls have been back-and-forth, but I give the edge to Perdue winning on the first ballot.
- Kansas: Incumbent Senator Pat Roberts is retiring, and his successor is a choice between two doctors-turned-public-servants, Representative Roger Marshall (R-KS-1) and State Senator Barbara Bollier, who represents the Kansas City suburb of Mission Hills in the Kansas State Senate. Marshall is the likely winner, holding the seat for the Republican Party.
- Colorado: Incumbent Cory Gardner faces former Denver mayor and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper is significantly ahead in most polls, and he is my pick to provide the first party switch in this list and win a seat for the Democratic Party. If you’re card-counting, that’s a one-seat swing in their favor.
- South Carolina: It’s a shocker that this one is even on the Stress List, since Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has already served three terms and has become one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate. Nevertheless, he faces Jaime Harrison, former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party a respected long-time member of the political community in the state. Donations have come in for Harrison at record-shattering levels, and polls are close, but I predict that the incumbency effect will prevail and Graham will be narrowly re-elected.
- Alabama: This is the best chance Republicans have to poach a seat. Incumbent Doug Jones (D-AL) narrowly won a special election to replace Jeff Sessions in 2018, and the seat has cycled back around to a regular election. Republicans have nominated former college football coach Tommy Tuberville. It’s hard to imagine a candidate more well-suited to become a Senator from Alabama than a football coach, and I predict that it will be enough to overcome incumbency and send Tuberville to Washington. If you’re still card-counting, we’re back to even.
- Montana: Montana has long been the most Democratic-friendly state in the Mountain West, and this seat is a reasonable possibility for a Democratic pickup. Popular incumbent Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) is in a Steve-off with popular former Governor Steve Bullock. Daines is the incumbent but Bullock has better name recognition. I predict Daines will prevail in a close race.
- Georgia Special Election: to fill the remaining term of Senator Johnny Isakson, who retired in December 2019 due to poor health (and I wish him well). Georgia’s governor appointed Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) to temporarily fill the seat pending a special election, which is happening now. Again, Georgia is weird. This one will certainly NOT be decided on Election Day, because the Republican vote will be split between Loeffler and current Representative Doug Collins (R-GA-9). The top vote-getter on Election Day will be Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock, Pastor of the same Baptist church where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor. But he won’t get 50% of the vote, so the race will go to a runoff on January 5, 2021, where Republican voters will unite behind whichever candidate finishes second on Election Day. That leads to the weird prediction that the seat will be held by a Republican, even though I have no idea which Republican it will be.
- Arizona Special Election: to fill the remaining seat of the late John McCain, who I deeply miss. Arizona’s Governor appointed Martha McSally to fill the seat pending a special election. McSally has been wildly unpopular and faces a major challenge from former Navy aviator and NASA astronaut Mark Kelly. Kelly has been consistently far ahead in the polls, and I predict he will win and poach another seat for the Democratic Party. Amazingly enough, if elected, he will be America’s fifth astronaut senator. If you’re card counting, we’re back up to Democratic +1.
- North Carolina: Incumbent Thom Tillis (R-NC) is running against veteran, businessman, and former representative Cal Cunningham in the rapidly blueifying state of North Carolina. Cunningham has been ahead in the polls but the race was tightening – and then Tillis managed to catch COVID-19 at the worst possible time. Cunningham is ahead in the polling and I predict he will come out the winner. Democratic +2.
- Iowa: First-term incumbent Joni Ernst (R-IA) is in a very close race with Des Moines businesswoman Theresa Greenfield. Polling is incredibly close and I have no idea who will win this one. Iowa will likely be the closest Senate race (if not the most eagerly-anticipated, see below), and there’s a very good chance it could come down to a recount with the Senate majority hanging in the balance, with all the drama that will entail. I’ll go with the incumbent on this one for now. Which leaves us with…
- Maine: Everyone’s favorite indecision factory, Susan Collins (R-ME) is up against Sara Gideon, currently speaker of the Maine State House of Representatives. Gideon has been steadily gaining in the polls, and is now ahead, but is by no means a sure thing. I predict Gideon will win, for another seat swap in favor of the Democratic Party, now +3 on your scoresheets. Which means…
If all my predictions above hold true, then next January, the Senate will be perfectly split – 50 Republican Senators and 50 Democratic + Democratic-voting Independent Senators. That means that any fully-party-line vote will be perfectly split and the Vice President will cast the deciding vote. Since I’m currently predicting that Vice President to be Kamala Harris, that would mean a de facto Democratic majority. Of course, it the Vice President ends up being Mike Pence, the fly will be on the other wall and it will be a de facto Republican majority.
And of course that assumes that everyone votes perfectly along party lines. Remember that if these predictions come true, Sara Gideon will represent the same independent-minded voters of Maine that Susan Collins now represents – and thus she could be susceptible to the same partisan push-and-pull that Collins now is. Whether you are praising Collins’s independence or wishing she would fall in line with her party, or vice versa, you may be saying the exact inverse next year about Sara Gideon.
And you know what’s even more fun? The other Senator from Maine, Angus King, is an Independent who currently votes with the Democratic Party, but isn’t bound by the party and could conceivably change his mind for the right ideology or the right incentive. It’s happened before. One thing is certain:
Get your Maine puns ready now, because the Maine event is coming on November 3rd.