The 8 Senate Races Likely to Determine Control of the Chamber

The fight for the Senate starts off with only a handful of seats at risk. And that’s being generous.

A few other states are worth your attention because of their competitiveness or questions about President Donald Trump’s impact, but almost two-thirds of Senate contests this cycle start as “safe” for the incumbent party and are likely to remain that way.

Of course, a retirement or a public scandal could create a contest where one should not exist, and an implosion of the Trump presidency could create an opportunity or two for Democrats.

But the nation’s polarization and intense partisan divide, combined with the fundamentals of the 34 states that will have a Senate race next year, suggest that only a few states — and a few voters — will decide which party runs the chamber in 2021.

The Senate now stands at 53 Republicans and 47 in the Democratic Conference. So Democrats need a net gain of three or four seats to win control, depending on who wins the White House (since the vice president, as president of the Senate, casts tie-breaking votes).

Seven of the dozen Democratic seats up this cycle are in strongly Democratic states and not competitive: Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon and Rhode Island. Even Sen. Tom Udall’s retirement does not put New Mexico into play.

Among battleground states with Democratic incumbents, Virginia has been moving toward the Democrats as the Washington, D.C., and Richmond suburbs have grown. And Hillary Clinton’s 5-point victory in the state in 2016, combined with the following year’s gubernatorial result, suggests Trump is likely to be an albatross around the neck of the eventual GOP Senate nominee in the Old Dominion.

Minnesota and New Hampshire are competitive states that Democrats cannot afford to lose. (Clinton carried each narrowly.) Both states bear watching, though Democratic incumbents Tina Smith of Minnesota and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire start off with clear advantages.

In Michigan, a state surprisingly carried by Trump in 2016, freshman Democrat Gary Peters starts off with the advantage but must also prove his mettle. Again, his seat is a “must hold” for Democrats.

On the GOP side, 15 of the party’s 22 seats up next year are in states Trump won handily in 2016.

All are both Republican enough and conservative enough to not likely be competitive next year: Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The eight key races

That leaves eight Senate races for 2020 worth mentioning — two in states won by Clinton (Colorado and Maine) and six in states that backed Trump (Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina and Texas).

Alabama, won by Trump by 28 points in 2016, is all but lost for Democrats.

Alabama Republicans would have to nominate Judge Roy Moore again to have any chance of losing this race, and while that’s possible, it’s unlikely.

Losing Alabama means Democrats will need to swipe four Republican Senate seats and win the presidency to regain control of the Senate. That’s a challenging task, but far from impossible.

Colorado and Arizona remain the Democrats’ top two targets.

In 2014, I repeatedly noted what a strong candidate Cory Gardner was and what a perfect race he ran, but 2020 is likely to produce a very different political environment in Colorado.

Gardner was an outsider who ran as a pragmatic conservative. He benefited heavily from Democratic incumbent Mark Udall’s ill-advised campaign, including his focus on reproductive rights.

Gardner ended up winning by just under 2 points. But two years later, Trump lost Colorado by 5 points, and the state’s growing suburbs clearly are not advantageous territory for him, as evidenced by former GOP Rep. Mike Coffman’s double-digit loss and Democrat Jared Polis’s double-digit gubernatorial victory in last year’s midterm elections.

Democrats look headed for a primary, but Gardner has not done enough to demonstrate his political independence.

While handicapping websites like Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, The Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball all start Gardner’s race off as a Toss-up next year, the Colorado Republican is really more of an underdog in his bid to win a second term. (Check out my March 5, 2019, column about his prospects.)

Trump carried Arizona by only 4 points in 2016. The GOP retained the governorship last year, but Republican nominee Martha McSally narrowly lost her Senate bid, and she is likely to be her party’s nominee again next year.

Democrats have come up with an interesting and potentially formidable candidate in former astronaut Mark Kelly, whose wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords, was shot during a campaign event in 2011.

Kelly isn’t a politician by trade, and he’ll need to prove that he has the candidate skills necessary to win. But he has a great story, and Giffords’ presence on the trail should be a huge asset.

North Carolina looks like the Democrats’ next best shot at a takeover. Trump carried the state by 4 points, a similar margin to Arizona. But that was a stunning disappointment for Democrats, since most Tar Heel State polls conducted between mid-September and late October showed Hillary Clinton ahead by at least a couple of points, sometimes as much as by 6 or 8 points.

The incumbent, Thom Tillis, is a generic Republican who has generic Republican appeal. That should be good enough if Trump carries the state, but North Carolina could well be a presidential battleground.

Tillis unseated Democrat Kay Hagan 49 percent to 47 percent in 2014 (Barack Obama’s second midterm election), so he doesn’t have much margin for error.

The GOP’s fourth headache is Maine, where Republican Susan Collins has survived difficult challengers and hostile political environments.

She has built up personal relationships over the years, and she’ll point to instances where she has split from her party to show her independence.

But can Collins survive again after her vote supporting Brett Kavanaugh? We will have to see.

Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon clearly is interested, but others have also been mentioned. Democrats must make the 2020 Senate race in Maine about Trump, Kavanaugh and control of the Senate, while Collins will try to make it about herself.

Democrats may well need to defeat Collins to have a chance of taking over the Senate, so this is one of the top races to watch.

Longer shots

Meanwhile, Democrats cite three long shots to watch: Texas, Georgia and Iowa.

Trump won Texas and Iowa by 9 points, and Georgia by just 5 points.

Democrats will need a big Hispanic turnout in Texas and a continuation of the anti-Trump trend in Georgia’s suburbs to put those Senate contests in play.

They’ll probably need a rural revolt against Trump and the GOP, and a blue-collar swing back to the Democrats, to put Iowa in play.

And Democrats need to defeat Trump to have a chance at flipping the Senate. That would require strong Democratic turnout and possibly some additional defections from the GOP.

If the president loses re-election, the fight for the Senate is likely to come down to North Carolina and Maine. The Senate is broadly “in play,” but Democrats need things to break just right to flip the chamber.

Note: This column appeared initially in the June 4, 2019 issue of Roll Call.

Susan Collins Has a 2020 Problem

If Sen. Susan Collins runs for a fifth term, she ought to expect a very different race than in the past. Forget coasting to victory, no matter the opponent or even the nature of the election cycle.

Collins will start off as vulnerable — a top Democratic target in a state carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Maine Republican’s great strength over the years has been her moderation and thoughtfulness. She mulls over issues extensively, almost always looking for middle ground.

She supports abortion rights and LGBT issues, and she has broken with her party on topics ranging from the environment to taxes to the Affordable Care Act.

But Collins’ vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court gives Democrats an opportunity to retire her next year — as does the fact that her contest could determine which party controls the Senate.

A remarkable politician

Collins has had an extensive career of public service. She has also proven to be a savvy campaigner and able vote-getter, and she fits the mold of moderate Maine Republicans like former Sen. William Cohen, former Gov. John McKernan, former Sen. Olympia Snowe and, of course, the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith.

Collins served as a congressional staffer (for Cohen), as commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation (in McKernan’s cabinet), as regional director of the Small Business Administration, and as the deputy state treasurer of Massachusetts before making an unsuccessful run for governor in 1994. (Independent Angus King won that race, and Collins finished a somewhat distant third, behind former Democratic Rep. Joseph Brennan, who had served two terms as governor previously. Her showing did not suggest she had much of a political future.)

Two years after that gubernatorial loss, Collins ran for Cohen’s open seat. In the fall, she defeated Brennan by just over five points, 49.2 percent to 43.9 percent.

Collins’ showing was noteworthy since President Bill Clinton was carrying Maine comfortably at the same time.

Six years later, in 2002, Collins faced a serious challenger in former Maine Senate Majority Leader Chellie Pingree, now a congresswoman. But the year was a good one for incumbents, and Collins won re-election comfortably, 58 percent to 42 percent.

In 2008, Collins was challenged by 1st District Democratic Rep. Tom Allen, who on paper certainly looked like a serious threat. Elected to Congress six times, he represented half the state in the House.

With an unpopular outgoing Republican president in George W. Bush and a dynamic Democratic presidential nominee in Barack Obama, Collins clearly was swimming against a strong current.

Republican presidential nominee John McCain drew only 40 percent of the vote in Maine, winning just one of the state’s 16 counties.

Nationally, the GOP lost 21 House seats. But even in that inhospitable political environment, Collins clobbered Allen 61.3 percent to 38.6 percent – winning every county in the state.

Six years later, in Obama’s second midterm election, Collins cruised to re-election with over 68 percent of the vote against a weak Democratic challenger, Shenna Bellows.


In politics, as well as investing, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” That is particularly true of Collins next year, since her support of Kavanaugh will likely generate a well-funded Democratic challenger.

Democrats will surely argue that Kavanaugh’s confirmation puts abortion rights and LGBT equality at risk, and they will note that re-electing Collins all but guarantees continued Republican control the Senate, which will translate into more conservative judges and more power for the GOP’s right wing.

That argument, if successful, would make the Maine Senate race less about Collins and her service to the state and more about President Donald Trump and continued Republican control of the Senate.

That narrative would not be ideal for Collins, since Democrats now control the state’s governorship and both chambers of the Maine Legislature.

But unlike 1994, 2006, 2010 or even 2018, when midterm voters sent messages of dissatisfaction about the sitting president’s performance, 2020 is a presidential year.

Voters will have separate votes to cast for president and the Senate, which means that Maine voters can send separate messages about Trump and Collins, if they prefer.

Still, with American politics becoming more partisan and ticket-splitting less common, Collins will need to convince Maine voters that she is the same independent voice that many Mainers thought she was.

And she has ammunition to make her case, including her vote to save the Affordable Care Act and her Washington Post op-ed explaining why she could not vote for Trump for president.

A handful of interesting Democratic names are being floated as possible challengers to Collins, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, 1st District Rep. Pingree, former Maine House Speaker Hannah Pingree (Chellie’s daughter) and current Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Rice has not stopped speculation that she may be interested, but her lack of deep roots in the state would seem to be a serious liability in Maine.

The bottom line

Collins was underestimated politically for years, some of it because of a halting public speaking style. But her Kavanaugh vote — and her explanation shortly before she cast it — undermined a political brand that she has built over the years.

The question is how damaged she is, as well as who will carry the Democratic banner against her.

So, while it is too early to know whether she can win another term, one thing is certain: Susan Collins has a problem.

Note: This column initially appeared in Roll Call on January 15, 2019.