While most have been glued to the presidential race, I’ve long thought that the fight for control of the Senate might be the under-reported political story of the year—and I believe over the next five weeks it will get a lot more attention.
Something drastic will need to happen to change the trajectory of the presidential race for President Trump to be truly competitive again. Biden is averaging just over 50 percent of the vote, third-party and independent candidates seem on track to get about 3 percent of the vote, the undecideds make up another 3 percent, and Trump seems mired around 43 percent, 3 points below his 2016 performance. Of course, a Democrat probably needs to be ahead by 3 or 4 percentage points in the national popular vote to start feeling comfortable about prevailing in the Electoral College. (For more on this, see these great pieces by Nate Silver and Nate Cohn.)
If we learned anything from 2016, though, it was that the pattern of the popular-vote winner also taking the Electoral College, which has essentially existed since 1888, is not a given. Yes, in 2000, Al Gore prevailed in the former while George W. Bush took home the prize in the latter. But many forget that Gore only beat Bush by a half-percentage point, about a half-million votes nationally, with Bush carrying the tipping-point state of Florida by 537 votes. In other words, it was just barely popular/electoral vote inversion. Contrast that with four years ago, when Hillary Clinton won by 3 million votes, only to have the Electoral College deprive her of a win.
While most blame the polls for missing it, the RealClearPolitics final poll average had Hillary Clinton ahead 47 to 44 percent. When all the votes were counted, she won the popular vote by 48 to 46 percent—well within the margin of error. No national poll said anything about the electoral vote.
But it is the Senate that could be the photo finish that the previous presidential election was. Republicans started the cycle as the favorites to hold control of the chamber, but that edge gradually eroded over the winter and spring, then plunged in June and July when many independents who fled the president’s camp abandoned downballot Republicans as well.
But when Trump stabilized his descent around the time of the conventions, wouldn’t you know it, the similar plunge in the GOP’s Senate hopes appeared to level off as well. I still wouldn’t put Republicans’ odds of retaining the Senate as high as 50-50, but they’re climbing up from the 40-60 range where they had been. Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Cory Gardner in Colorado are still in uphill fights, as is Thom Tillis in North Carolina. But Susan Collins is hanging in there in Maine, as is Joni Ernst in Iowa. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina probably isn’t in quite as much danger as a recent Quinnipiac poll suggested, but he certainly is struggling.
The reality is that the Senate is going to be a close call, compounded by the fact that there will be at least one, if not two, Jan. 5 runoff elections for the seats in Georgia. The difference between the GOP losing just one or two seats and losing five or six may not be much. As GOP pollster Glen Bolger noted in a tweet this week, “Every Republican campaign should be focusing their messaging on Independents and soft GOPers. The GOP base is rock solid, but swing voters are, as in 2018, a big concern.