Op/Ed

Eric Davis: Election could flip the U.S. Senate

Several developments this past week emphasize the importance of this year’s elections for the U.S. Senate, where Republicans now hold a 53 to 47 majority. To control the chamber, Democrats would need a net gain of three seats if a Democrat were elected vice president, and a net gain of four seats if there were a Republican vice president.
Most Democratic candidates for the Senate in competitive states are pleased that Joe Biden appears more likely than Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Democrats in states such as Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina do not want a socialist at the top of the Democratic ticket. In all of those states, Biden would do better than Sanders against President Trump.
Democrats’ chances of retaking the Senate became more difficult because of the results of the Alabama Republican primary. Roy Moore, who incumbent Democrat Doug Jones defeated in a special election in 2018, did not make it through to the primary runoff. The GOP candidate against Jones will be either former Attorney General and U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions or former Auburn football coach Tom Tuberville. Jones will face a very difficult re-election campaign against either Sessions or Tuberville.
The Democratic challenger who appears most likely to defeat an incumbent Republican senator is Mark Kelly in Arizona. Kelly, a former astronaut and the spouse of former House member Gabby Giffords, is leading Sen. Martha McSally in most polls of Arizona voters. McSally was appointed to the Senate at the end of 2018 to fill out the remainder of John McCain’s term after his death. She has already lost one Senate race, to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018, and may lose again to Kelly in November.
Another promising Democratic challenger is John Hickenlooper in Colorado. Hickenlooper served as Denver’s mayor, and as Colorado’s governor, for two terms each. After a brief stint as a presidential candidate, he decided to run for the Senate. Hickenlooper, a centrist, is likely to win the Democratic primary in June and would face incumbent Republican Cory Gardner in November. Gardner is one of only two Republican senators running for re-election in a state that President Trump lost in 2016.
The other Senate Republican running for re-election in a state that Trump lost is Susan Collins in Maine. The Maine contest could end up being the most competitive Senate race in the nation. In previous elections, Collins has demonstrated crossover appeal to Democratic and independent voters. In 2020, she will need to depend much more on Republican support, largely because of her votes to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and to acquit President Trump in the impeachment trial.
The most likely winner of the June Democratic primary to face Collins is Sara Gideon, now Speaker of the House in Maine. Recent polls show that Gideon leads Collins by a few percentage points, and, more importantly, that Collins is viewed unfavorably by 52 percent of Maine voters. Political Action Committees affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will do all they can to re-elect Collins. Total spending on this campaign could exceed $50 million, the highest in the nation on a per-voter basis.
In last week’s North Carolina Democratic Senate primary, moderate Cal Cunningham defeated progressive Erica Smith to take on incumbent Republican Thom Tillis. Cunningham is seen as a stronger Senate candidate than Smith in November, which explains why McConnell-affiliated groups funded a last-minute campaign of misleading ads trying to convince North Carolina Democrats that Smith was “one of us.”
Another state was added to the list of potential competitive Senate contests this week, when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, briefly a presidential candidate, announced that he would run against incumbent Republican Steve Daines. Although Trump won Montana by 20 points, the state has a strong labor tradition, and Bullock has won three statewide elections, one for attorney general and two for governor.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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