The Democratic establishment breathed a collective sigh of relief on Super Tuesday after Joe Biden’s strong performance. Joe Biden’s success restored frontrunner status to the candidate seen as their best chance to defeat Donald Trump. Such a victory would help cement Democratic gains in the House and Senate on his coattails.
Democrats hope that Biden can deliver them the White House and the Senate while retaining their House majority. Strong fundraising even seems to have resigned Kevin McCarthy to defeat in the House, but what are the prospects of Democrats solidifying their majority while also taking the Senate in the event that Trump triumphs in his re-election bid? It’s increasingly plausible.
The standard wisdom of the campaign suggests that Democratic hopes of taking the Senate lie in Joe Biden winning. With Democrats almost certain to lose Doug Jones’ Alabama seat, they need to gain four seats if they win the Presidency (with Biden’s Vice President breaking the tie) or five seats if Trump wins. Biden winning the presidency is the path of least resistance.
On an electoral basis, Biden performing well with African-Americans, Hispanics and suburban women while maximizing performance with rural voters and ancestral Democrats will be essential to winning back tipping point seats; but what if he isn’t able to succeed?
Trump winning complicates matters hugely for Democrats. Long gone are the days when George W. Bush and a Democratic Senator could simultaneously win blowout victories in states like North Dakota and Nebraska. It seems, however that encouraging fundraising and polling in Arizona and Maine has made the Democratic effort to take the Senate more resilient to the results at the top of the ticket.
Where things stand
Given the states’ partisan lean and strong candidate recruitment for the challenging parties, we can assume that Alabama and Colorado are likely to go one-for-one regardless of the national picture. In Alabama, Doug Jones’ prospects of repeating his 2018 upset against scandal-dogged extremist Roy Moore are dim. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, meanwhile, has hitched his wagon to the Trump train in the hopes of maximizing Republican enthusiasm. In a rapidly diversifying state that has broken hard for Democrats since 2006 and elected Democrats up and down the ticket in 2018, Gardner seems toast. Popular ex-governor John Hickenlooper is the decided favorite in this race.
The crucial turning point for better Democratic prospects in the Senate have been encouraging signs in Maine and Arizona. Centrist Susan Collins has not lost a county in the state since 1996. She has remained resilient in a state that has held relatively steady in the Democratic column since 1990.
Her approvals, however, have seemingly cratered. Collins was, until 2018, one of the most popular Senators in the country. This was powered by sky-high approval among Republicans, Independents, and even Democrats. She has now topped Mitch McConnell as the least popular Senator in the country with a -10% net disapproval rating according to the latest Morning Consult quarterly ranking.
While public polling has been frustratingly scarce, it has shown Collins’ well funded opponent, State House Speaker Sara Gideon, slightly ahead. More worrying still, Collins remains well under 50% in a state that just enacted ranked choice voting. The results of the state’s second congressional district election in 2018 show how third party and independent voters can turn against the Republicans even if they receive a first round plurality.
Even if Trump can perform well nationwide, Biden will likely still win Maine. Given Collins’ poor numbers among Republicans, Democratic success in Maine may be robust against a strong Trump performance at the top of the ticket.
Arizona has offered almost nothing but positives for Democrats since 2016. This rapidly diversifying state with large swathes of suburbs seemingly represents the Democratic future of America. With the election of Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, Democrats finally broke the dominance of the GOP in the state of Goldwater and McCain. In 2020, the Democratic Party hopes to claim a second Senate seat for the first time since 1953
Early in the cycle, Democrats got the right candidate in former astronaut and husband of ex-Congresswomen Gabby Giffords, Mark Kelly. Kelly’s fundraising has been colossal and consistent throughout the nationwide primary.
As of February 11th, Kelly had taken in $20.2 million; such a sum would be enough to kickstart a Presidential campaign. Crucially for Kelly, this represents roughly $6 million more than his incumbent opponent Martha McSally. Kelly’s lead in the polls has also been remarkably robust, with most polls putting him ahead around 4-8%.
The extent of his personal performance has caused Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball to rate Arizona as “Lean D”. This is a remarkable achievement this early on in a swing state against an incumbent with the national picture still so volatile.
These signs seem to point to Kelly’s personal brand and ability to perform, even remaining resilient against a Republican national environment come 2020. That is before we even have considered the possibility of Biden performing better than Clinton in Arizona while also losing the election.
The Tar Heel tossup
If we accept that Maine and Arizona have ensured the Democratic Senate position against the top of the ticket, we are left with North Carolina. After an anaemic slate of elections in 2018, North Carolina has a number of statewide offices up for grabs. A new congressional map seems set to add two more seats to the Democratic House majority. It also appears highly likely to be a tipping point state in the race for the Presidency and Senate.
If Trump is to win again, it is unlikely that he will not produce a victory in North Carolina. The ability for Democrats to win the Senate race regardless lies in a repeat of the 2016 gubernatorial election. Trump won North Carolina by 3.5% in 2016 while Democrat Roy Cooper narrowly won the gubernatorial election against incumbent Pat McCrory. Cooper was able to do this in large part because McCrory was an unpopular and polarizing figure.
While the bygone era of hugely polarized ticket splitting are largely dead, swing states narrowly diverging remains common. Incumbent Thom Tillis has the potential to be a serous liability for McConnell and Senate Republicans with mediocre approval ratings.
In addition to this, fellow North Carolina Senator Richard Burr is being investigated for insider trading related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Moreover, the gubernatorial election is looking less competitive than expected. This may create an opening for Democrats to localize the race to the greatest possible extent. Due to the magnetic and unpredictable nature of President Trump, this may be out of their hands. Nonetheless, there is an opening given the weakness of Tillis and the state GOP going into November.
A divided nation
Even if Democrats can hold this new baseline of strength on the Senate map while producing a strong performance in North Carolina, it would still leave them in the minority if President Trump wins re-election. This is because a 50/50 split in the Senate would result in the Vice President breaking ties for Mitch McConnell.
If the President wins re-election, it is incredibly difficult to see where Democrats take the elusive 51st seat. On the one hand, they have recruited well in red states like Alaska, Kansas, and Montana. Conversely, Democratic recruitment has been poor in much more theoretically winnable Senate races like Iowa, Texas, and Georgia. In red states where recruitment has been solid, a Biden win may aid strong recruits. In the purple states, a strong Biden performance may help weaker candidates to perform well.
This backs up the cast-iron wisdom that the most passive and serene path for Democrats across the country is a strong win for Joe Biden. Even if he doesn’t, shoring up the their Senate baseline in key races allows them to allocate resources and focus their efforts on the races that look more difficult to win.
Counter-intuitive as it seems, their ability to do this may be helped by Trump being favored for re-election going into early voting and election day. In 2016, people expected Clinton to win the presidency. Consequently, suburban voters, many of whom had gone for Romney and/or Bush, split their tickets. This was essential for GOP Senators in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania who outran Trump.
The 2016 election was the first time since the passage of the 17th amendment that the Senate mirrored the Presidential result by state. In spite of Trump’s own unexpected over-performance, the margins of victory did make it likely that Senators Burr, Johnson, and Toomey would still have been victorious even if Clinton had won their states.
Trump’s approval ratings have hovered around the low 40s since March 2017. This means that, once again, his path to victory rests on people who do not like him. This means voters may provide a check on Trump as they believed they were doing for Clinton in 2016. This seems less likely to occur in 2020 with Biden’s early advantage in nationwide polling. Crucially, Biden performs far better than Clinton with those voters who have an unfavorable opinion of both candidates. Nonetheless, if Trump finds himself favoured going into election day, it may represent a good chance for Democrats to perform well in the Senate elections.
As the Senate becomes more friendly ground for the GOP, it is clear that Democrats would face an uphill battle to make gains if they lose the Presidential election. Winning across the nation is far easier if voters have invested the top of your party’s ticket with a mandate to govern.
The math looks tough for Democrats. However, strong polling, fundraising, and fundamentals on the Senate swing state map stand the Democrats in better stead to perform well in the Senate elections regardless of the outcome in the closely fought and unpredictable race for the White House.