scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Democrats probably need four seats to win the Senate. Can they do it?

Democratic challenger Sara Gideon (left) has outraised Maine Senator Susan Collins and has led in the polls for months.Brianna Soukup/Associated Press

Back in January, Jessica Taylor, a political analyst with the respected Cook Political Report, chatted up sources, studied the polls, and figured that Republicans had a slight edge in the battle over which party would emerge from the 2020 elections with control of the Senate.

That was before the pandemic struck. Before the economy shattered. Before George Floyd died under the knee of a white police officer. Before the protests. Before Democrats’ rage-fueled small-dollar donations poured into races around the country at roughly the rate of water surging over Niagara Falls.

Those dynamics have helped Democrats dramatically expand the number of states in which their candidate is competitive, increasing the routes by which the party may wrest back control of the Senate and forcing Republicans to spend time and money in states they had thought would be easy wins.


Now, Republicans look vulnerable in up to a dozen races. The polling is such that analysts, including Taylor, are starting to believe this could be a wave election that carries Democrats to big gains in the Senate, beyond the handful of seats they need to regain control.

Why the dramatic turnaround? “It’s President Trump, and that these Republican incumbents are inextricably linked to him,” said Taylor. “We’ve seen a hesitancy up until very, very recently to even slightly criticize him or distance themselves from him.”

Republican operatives agree that the president has made the job of keeping the Senate in GOP hands harder. “It is incredibly challenging for a lot of Republicans to navigate,” said one GOP official.

Trump’s antics also enflame Democrats, sending them online to give again and again to candidates around the country, money that those candidates “then turn around and use to bludgeon Republicans on the airwaves," the GOP official said.

Former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign seems to be doing its part, too. The Democratic standard-bearer and his running mate are spending time in key Senate battleground states in the final stretch, including Georgia, Texas, and Iowa — states they don’t necessarily need to win the White House.


Of course, if 2016 taught anyone anything, it is that American politics is incredibly unpredictable. This election is unfolding in the middle of a devastating pandemic, while also sparking what could be historic turnout, all of which injects uncertainty. And there are still a few days until Election Day, plenty of time for unexpected twists. (Indeed, at this time in 2016, the Globe wrote a story about how Democrats looked poised to win control of the Senate, which did not happen. Oops.)

Republican anxieties about Trump’s drag on down-ballot races was salved somewhat, for instance, by the president’s more restrained debate performance last week.

And while Republican Senate candidates have been almost universally outraised by their Democratic counterparts, outside GOP groups, especially the Senate Leadership Fund — a super PAC affiliated with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — have been pouring millions into key races to defend embattled incumbents.

All of which is to say, even with an expanded map, winning enough seats to take the Senate is no slam dunk. Big gains, even less so.

Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. Democrats are almost certain to lose the seat held by Alabama’s Doug Jones, who won an improbable victory in the deep-red state in a 2017 special election, after news reports that his GOP opponent, Roy Moore, made sexual advances on young women decades earlier.


That means Democrats need to keep all the other seats they hold, plus win four more to reach a 50-50 split with Republicans. If Biden wins the White House, that would give Democrats control because Kamala Harris, as vice president, would cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate.

So how do Democrats get there?

Analysts say the party is on pace to win Colorado and Arizona, adding two of the four seats.

In Colorado, part of the challenge for GOP incumbent Cory Gardner is the shifting demographics of the state, which leaves a minority of voters inclined to support Republicans and young voters energized to vote by the killing of Floyd and by climate change, said David Flaherty, a pollster in Colorado for the Republican-leaning Magellan Strategies.

“Can Cory Gardner pull an upset? . . . What we’ve seen right now, we think that’s unlikely," he said.

In Arizona, former astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to former representative Gabby Giffords, who resigned after being shot at a constituent event in 2011, has outpaced Republican Martha McSally. She was appointed after the death of Senator John McCain.

The next most likely Democratic pickup, analysts say, is in Maine, where GOP Senator Susan Collins is waging the fight of her political life. Her Democratic challenger, Sara Gideon, the speaker of Maine’s House of Representatives, has raised tens of millions more campaign cash than the four-term incumbent, and has narrowly led Collins in polls for months.


Plus, analysts say Gideon is likely to benefit from Maine’s ranked-choice voting system, in which voters can rank all the candidates for a seat in order of preference.

Either North Carolina or Iowa could be the next best chance for Democrats to flip a seat, and either one could be the tipping point that provides Democrats the 50th seat.

Democrat Cal Cunningham in North Carolina looked like a strong contender to oust Republican Senator Thom Tillis until news broke that Cunningham had engaged in an extramarital affair during the campaign.

Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham (left) and US Senator Thom Tillis greet each other after a televised debate on Oct. 1.Gerry Broome/Pool

Tillis and outside Republican groups have used the revelations to attack Cunningham as untrustworthy. Polls have narrowed, and Republicans say they feel good about the race, especially as they believe more revelations about Cunningham’s sex life could drop before Election Day. Still, some analysts still believe Cunningham has a slight edge because polling hasn’t shifted dramatically since the scandal broke and because of the national anti-Trump mood.

Iowa has emerged as something of a surprise opportunity for a Democratic pickup. The race between incumbent Senator Joni Ernst and her Democratic challenger, businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, appears to be a dead heat, according to polls.

Beyond those five races, Democrats face much longer odds despite having waged competitive races in up to seven states that analysts didn’t expect them to have any shot at winning earlier in the cycle.


Those include the astoundingly tight race in deep-red South Carolina, where Democrat Jamie Harrison appears to be within striking distance of ousting Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham, who has resorted to asking for campaign donations in TV interviews, so robust has his challenger’s fund-raising been. Harrison pulled in $57 million in the third quarter of this year, setting a new record for a Senate candidate in one three-month period.

Other stretch races for Democrats include Montana, Kansas, Texas, Alaska, and Georgia — where there are not one but two Senate races underway, both tight, all while polling suggests the presidential race in the once-reliably Republican state is deadlocked.

Amid all these tough races for Republicans, Democrats have found themselves playing defense on one blue seat, held by incumbent Senator Gary Peters of Michigan. Republicans have directed resources to the race, seeing it as their best pickup opportunity, aside from Alabama, powered by a strong candidate, 39-year-old John James, who is a Black Iraq War veteran with punchy TV ads.

But even some Republican operatives acknowledge that Trump most likely needs to improve his own poll numbers in Michigan for James to win, even though James has outperformed the president in polls.

Handicapping analysts still rate the seat as leaning toward Democrats, but the tight polling has forced Democrats to spend more time and money defending the seat than they’d like.

Just how many seats Democrats win, if they do manage to claw their way to a Senate majority, could ultimately rest with how well Biden performs.

“If this really is looking like the type of wave election that some national pollsters are forecasting, if Biden ends up winning the popular vote by 10 points, I could see [some] of the states we have as leans Republican — an Alaska, a Kansas, races like that — end up flipping,” said J. Miles Coleman, an elections analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Historically, races that the Cook Political Report has rated as “toss up" overwhelmingly break together for one party, typically reflecting the broader political mood in the country, said Taylor. In 2014, when Republicans won back the Senate, the GOP also won eight of the nine races in the “toss up” category.

Likewise, in 2008, Democrats won eight of the 10 tossup Senate races that year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the party that handicapping experts rate the Michigan Senate seat as leaning toward. The seat is rated as leaning toward Democrats.

Victoria McGrane can be reached at Follow her @vgmac.