State of the Left

Democrat paths to power: The Senate

28 October 2020

The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the US supreme court demonstrates the huge power vested in Congress. But how can Democrats win the Senate?

Josh Newlove
Aaron of L.A. Photography / Shutterstock.com

Democrats find themselves with a growing number of viable paths to power in the United States presidential and congressional elections. Ending the menace of Donald Trump’s presidency is the glaring priority but winning both chambers of Congress is no less important.

The problems currently faced in the US are not just the product of Mr Trump’s recklessness and deceit, but also the product of Republicans in Congress who have all too willingly rode his coattails and acted duplicitously and without dignity for four years. Most recently is the denial of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dying wish that her replacement should be nominated by the victor of this November’s presidential election. The eventual, partisan confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett by GOP senators is controversial and unedifying to say the least.

That supreme court confirmation is a perfect example of just how important it is for Democrats to gain control of Congress and to utilise its power to affect progressive change. The presidency alone is not enough. The supreme court is now stacked 6-3 to conservatives. Whilst the House of Representatives is almost certain to remain blue, the Senate remains a prize to be won. It has never been easy for Democrats to win this chamber due to its rural bias – the result of allotting each state with two senators regardless of population, resulting in a Republican lean. But the Democrats’ promising midterm results in 2018, ability to remain united, and this particular election cycle all point towards a big opportunity in 2020.

So here’s the prediction:



52-48 (+5) to Democrats (and independents who caucus with Democrats)

Senate Rep-Dem flips

6: Colorado, Arizona (special), Georgia (special), North Carolina, Maine, Iowa

Senate Dem-Rep flips

1: Alabama


Colorado +1

Cory Gardner is one of just two GOP senators to hold a seat in a state won by the Clinton campaign in the 2016 presidential election. The numbers suggest he is rowing against the tide – so much so even the Republican pollsters have given up on him – in purple Colorado.

I say purple, but the Centennial state’s shifting demographics have made it almost solidly blue. Along with New Mexico and potentially now Arizona, it is part of an expanding Democratic wedge cutting into the sun belt and mountain states on the electoral map, at least in presidential elections. Gardner’s Democratic opponent, former state governor John W. Hickenlooper, is popular in Denver and suburban Colorado and is enjoying double-digit poll margins.


Arizona (special) +1

Martha McSally has not impressed voters in Arizona. She has stood for Senate in Arizona previously, in 2018, but lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. However, McSally was appointed senator later that year following the resignation of John Kyl (himself replacing John McCain after his death).

If polls are to be believed, she is significantly behind Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and husband of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who has performed lightyears better in fundraising efforts. It probably didn’t help McSally to have asked supporters to give up meals to donate to her campaign. Bye bye Martha.


Georgia (special) +1

One word describes this campaign: chaos. As a special election, there was no primaries which led to 20 candidates being in the running. Incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler was only appointed in January following the resignation of the former senator, but now finds herself with six Democratic challengers… and five Republican ones. One fellow GOP challenger, Doug Collins, has been fierce in his attacks of Loeffler. He is avidly pro-Trump and probably has a lot to do with Loeffler’s recent embracing of Marjorie Taylor Greene, a House candidate in Georgia and prominent supporter of toxic right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon. Raphael Warnock is the main Democratic hopeful and is senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta (where Martin Luther King preached for a number of years). He has a good chance of cutting through the mess to win here.

It is worth adding that both Georgia’s Senate seats are up for election this year. Although unlikely, it is not unfathomable that Republican incumbent David Perdue could be swept with the blue tide and lose to challenger Jon Ossoff. Note: Georgia uses a run-off system should no candidate receive more than 50 per cent of the vote.


North Carolina +1

Democrat Cal Cunningham’s chances of winning in North Carolina have remained steady, though close, throughout the past few months. He faces one-term incumbent Thom Tillis in a state which will serve as an important addition to Joe Biden’s electoral college tally should he win here too. But a few bumps have arisen in both of the campaigns – with Tillis being diagnosed with Coronavirus around the same time as Trump, and Cunningham admitting to sending romantic texts to a California woman who is not his wife.

Allegiances at the presidential level could undo Tillis, who may struggle to convince independents with a dislike for Trump. Though Biden has not had more than a few points lead in North Carolina over the past month. It is anticipated this Senate race will post the biggest spend (possibly ever): the two campaigns and outside groups have spent nearly $182 million so far.


Maine +1

The other of only two GOP senators to serve in a state Hillary Clinton won in 2016 is Susan Collins in Maine. Her crucial support for Brett Kavanaugh’s supreme court nomination in 2018 has not gone down well in the Pine Tree State, and she has been paying the price in poll ratings since. It comes as no big surprise that Collins was the only Senate Republican to vote against the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the supreme court.

Unfortunately for her, it may be too little, too late as Democrat Sara Gideon looks to capitalise. It makes you wonder if Republicans have just accepted inevitable losses, mere collateral damage for the prize of a 6-3 majority on the court. Dragging up issues like Roe v Wade and the Affordable Care Act smack bang before an election is a bold move when the public do not seem to support their overturning.


Iowa +1

Iowa could well be the narrowest Democratic gain. If Theresa Greenfield manages to defeat incumbent GOP senator Joni Ernst here, it could signify a landslide for Joe Biden should a blue wave give him the state’s electoral college votes as well. I seriously think Iowa may be the narrowest Democratic win in the presidential election.

The Senate race is practically a dead heat as it stands. This is a very white, rural state. Ernst is a solid supporter of Trump and tows the line in Congress. But Greenfield’s focus on healthcare and the economy is resonating and Ernst’s ties to Trump could still drag her down. The president is eight points down on Biden nationally and tied in state-level polls. There are only four days to go and well over 70 million ballots already cast.


Alabama -1

This makes the list because incumbent Doug Jones is highly likely to be a Democratic loss. In 2018 Jones became the first Democrat senator in Alabama for 20 years. He is a former lawyer who prosecuted Ku Klux Klan members for a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham and won in a special election in 2018 to replace the then-incoming US attorney general Jeff Sessions.

His win was helped significantly by his rival, Roy Moore, a former judge who was removed from office twice and had numerous allegations of sexual harassment against him from women who said he pursued them when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers.


Wildcard bet: South Carolina

This one is unlikely, but incumbent Republican senator Lindsay Graham hasn’t done himself any favours of late. In 2016 when Barack Obama sought to fill a vacancy on the supreme court, he now-infamously used the Republican majority to set a precedent of not confirming nominees in an election year… to then go and do the exact opposite just four years later. You know, when it suited him and his party. While Democrat Jaime Harrison would do extremely well to win, it’s not completely off the cards.