The Democratic presidential primary race is over. Former vice president Joe Biden is set to square off against President Trump. Now attention shifts to the other major battle this fall: which party will control the US Senate.
With less than 200 days before the general election and with the latest fund-raising reports in last week, a Globe analysis of key Senate races around the country finds both parties have reasons to feel good and be concerned.
Structurally, Republicans have an advantage. There are 35 Senate seats up this fall and Republicans currently control 22 of them. This shows these states have voted Republican before and many of their candidates this year have the power of incumbency.
Democrats, meanwhile, have momentum. They did a good job convincing their top-tier recruits to run in key races. Democratic challengers are doing well in recent polling. They have also raised more money than Republican incumbents for the first three months of 2020 in Arizona, Maine, South Carolina, Montana, Colorado, North Carolina, and even bested Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky.
In the scheme of national politics the Senate matters a great deal. Even Republicans concede that the House of Representatives will likely stay in Democratic control and while Biden is currently leading Trump nationally and in key swing states, it is anyone’s guess on how that shakes out.
This means if the Democrats take the Senate, they have the chance to run all three parts of national lawmaking. If, however, Republicans retain the Senate then it will either serve as a bulwark against full Democratic control or, if Trump is reelected, the chance to further create further impact on the federal court system for a generation or more.
Because of the role the vice president plays in casting a tie breaking vote in the Senate, Democrats need to either flip three seats if Biden wins the White House or four seats should Trump win reelection.
If you follow all of the non-partisan analysts who track Senate elections there is a case that 15 of the 35 are remotely interesting enough to track. But in reality there are 10 that certainly demand attention.
Here is how to think of those races:
Tit for tat
Of the crucial three or four flips for Democrats, one is certainly going their way: Arizona. While this race features a Republican incumbent in a Republican-leaning state, the reality is that Senator Martha McSally actually lost her last race for Senate in 2018. She was appointed to the job by a Republican governor to fill the seat held by John McCain, who died in office.
Democrats recruited Mark Kelly, an astronaut and husband to former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot during a constituent town hall near Tucson in 2011. The pair have led a national organization for gun safety in the wake of Giffords’ recovery.
Kelly has led McSally in polls since the fall. He nearly doubled her fund-raising amount in the first three months of 2020.
While Democrats can feel like they have one their pocket, Republicans point to Alabama and say they have a pickup opportunity of their own.
There Democratic incumbent Doug Jones won a wild race just two years ago against Roy Moore, who was accused of sexually assaulting teenagers when he was in his 30s. Alabama, of course, is GOP country. It is also college football country. Former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville faces former US attorney general Jeff Sessions (a one-time holder of this seat) in a July Republican primary run-off. Either way, recent polling found that both would easily beat Jones.
Where the action is the most intense
There are four states where all of the action is right now, and all have Republican incumbents: Maine, North Carolina, Colorado, and Georgia. Georgia is so bananas it gets its own category below.
The main takeaway from the first three states is that the Democrats got their top recruits. They are moderate. They are well funded. And they all are reasonable alternatives to the Republican incumbents should voters decide to be open to scrapping the incumbent.
In North Carolina, the Senate Democrats’ preferred candidate, Cal Cunningham, a former state legislator and veteran, made it through the primary against a more liberal challenger. The most recent poll has Cunningham up seven points over Republican incumbent Thom Tillis, but other polls generally have Tillis up in a very tight contest.
Maine features a race that will easily be the most expensive in state history. No Republican has suffered more in their home state under the Trump administration than Senator Susan Collins. She went from one of the most beloved senators to one of the most underperforming, at least in terms of polling. Democrats recruited state House Speaker Sara Gideon, who has raised $7.1 million in the first quarter, outpacing Collins, who raised $2.4 million. (Collins had a head start and has more cash on hand, but that gap is closing.) This will easily by the marquee race in New England in November and there is scant polling, but Gideon seems to lead just outside of the margin of error.
As for Colorado, the fact that Democrats convinced former governor John Hickenlooper to drop his presidential bid and run for US Senate was a big coup. The state has been leaning Democratic for some time. Republican incumbent Cory Gardner won in 2014, a solid Republican year where he ousted Democrat Mark Udall. But in 2016, the state voted for Hillary Clinton by five points and in 2018 went for a Democrat in an open governor’s race by 11 points. Hickenlooper, a one-time geologist, brewpub owner, and Denver mayor, has been elected statewide twice.
Overall, Republicans have winners on the ballot, but they are also on the defensive.
Other places on the radar
Given that so few Democrats are even up for reelection this year, there is only one place that isn’t really on the radar, but where they should be nervous: Michigan. First-term Democratic incumbent Gary Peters has led every poll against Republican John James, a Black businessman and war veteran. Yet, the race is still a little too close for comfort in a state that Trump will focus on.
In the same way, Republicans have to be fretting a little about Iowa’s Joni Ernst. She came out of nowhere to win in 2014 and since then Iowa has only become more Republican. But her main Democratic rival Theresa Greenfield, a former real estate executive and former Democratic congressional nominee, nearly out-raised Ernst in the first quarter of the year. And polls there show the race is getting tighter.
In Kansas, there is an open seat and Republicans weren’t able to recruit US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to run. They appear to be stuck with lighting-rod Kris Kobach as their nominee. He was the Republican who lost to a Democrat in the governor’s race in the Republican-friendly state two years ago. Democrats recruited State Senator Barbara Bollier to run for the seat. Bollier was elected to the state house and Senate as a Republican, but changed parties in 2018. While Trump being on the ticket should help Republicans there, polling in this race is all over the place.
Two other races deserve at least a glance. Texas will have a Senate contest where Republican incumbent John Cornyn faces off against Democat M.J. Hagar, whose life story in the military is like a Hollywood movie. Another female military veteran Democrat, Amy McGrath, is taking on Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Both Hagar and McGrath lost congressional races against Republican incumbents in 2018.
Georgia, Georgia should be on all of our minds
To recap, Arizona and Alabama’s Senate races could cancel themselves out. If Democrats keep Michigan as they should, then they will need to pick up three or four seats from the above mentioned nine seats. Some are bigger reaches than others.
That all raises the prospect of a 50-50 Senate. And that means Georgia is on everyone’s mind.
It’s not that Georgia is super interesting. It is. But it’s the timing that matters. It is not fantasy-land to see an equally split US Senate sworn in on Jan. 3 and waiting to see what happens in a Georgia run-off two days later, on Jan. 5, to decide majority control.
And by the Georgia race, we should clarify because there are actually TWO Senate seats up in Georgia this year. The first is likely to be won by incumbent David Perdue.
The one in question is currently held by Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, who was just appointed to the job. She is very wealthy and married to the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. That’s why it was scandalous when she decided to dump stock holdings after she received a briefing on the threats the coronavirus could pose, including its ability to potentially crash markets.
She has a primary against US Representative Doug Collins, a conservative firebrand. There are three Democrats running, including former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman’s son, but the official Senate Democratic political action committee is backing a black pastor.
Because this is filling the seat of senator who stepped down, the November election is a “jungle primary” with all candidates of all parties. If one person gets 50 percent of the vote, they are elected. If not, the top two, regardless of party, advance to the Jan. 5 run-off. That could be Loeffler and Collins or a Republican and a Democrat.
If this sounds bananas, it is.
Bottom line: while the presidential race will likely consume whatever political discussion there beyond the coronavirus this year, underneath it all is a very intense battle for the US Senate. At this point, it is anyone’s guess how that will turn out.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct a mischaracterization of Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst’s fundraising. She out-raised Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield in the first three months of 2020.
James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.