We’ve been writing for months that Democrats were the favorites to flip the Senate and, given the lopsided nature of the races with Republicans almost entirely on defense, virtually everything would have to go right for the GOP to retain their majority.
On Tuesday night, it did.
“I think that there is a surge that happened. When Trump goes out on the stump, he energizes people,” said one Republican involved in several Senate races who was not expecting such an outcome.
Thus, every single Toss Up race broke for Republicans, save for the two Georgia contests that are now headed to a January 5, 2021 runoff. Those twin races are now must-wins for Democrats if they want to get to a 50-50 tie. And that assumes a Biden/Harris victory — which returns currently point to.
Ultimately, the blue tsunami, a blue wave or even a blue tide didn’t materialize. Not even a green tsunami of cash could push Democrats across the finish line in the races they needed. Public and many Republican polls were off, but Democratic private polling was even more wrong. Some GOP polls showed several close races, but given the climate few strategists expected those races would ultimately break their way. Our final projection was a Democratic gain of between two and seven seats, but we expected it to be on the higher than the lower end. Instead, Democrats have only currently netted one seat, after flipping Colorado and Arizona — consistent with our Lean Democrat ratings —but also lost, as expected, Alabama.
Like 2016, surveys failed again to capture the Trump base that did show up on Election Day, while Democrats got their voters to cast ballots early or by mail. And with most polling stopping a week or so before Tuesday, that late surge may not have been captured fully, though some Republicans say there were some signs. Additionally, the millions of dollars the Senate Leadership Fund raised and spent in the final weeks of the race surely made a perhaps determinative difference.
So now, all eyes turn to Georgia. During counts on Thursday, Republican Sen. David Perdue fell below the 50 percent threshold as more absentee ballots were tallied, and he’ll again face off against Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff. As of midnight Thursday, Perdue led Ossoff by about 2 points. And in the special election, Democrat Raphael Warnock finished first in the 20 candidate field while appointed GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler bested Rep. Doug Collins to claim the second spot. Last month, we explored what those two runoffs could look like as strategists increasingly believed that’s where we were headed. Of course, Democrats thought — and most Republicans did too — that these races would determine the size of the Democratic majority, not simply whether or not they get one.
We’ll dig deeper into the new dynamics of those runoffs in the coming weeks, but it’s Republicans here who likely have the upper hand. If nothing else, they are now able to very explicitly make a check-and-balance argument and frame the vote as one of not giving Democrats unified control. That’s a message they could only largely subtly make in the race’s final weeks. However, Democrats are sure to be encouraged if Georgia, as expected, does go for Biden. And this would prove a test of whether or not Senate votes line up with the presidential results, though those are different markers in a runoff versus a race occurring on Election Day.
But we’ve seen that the Trump coalition isn’t necessarily fully transferable when he’s not on the ballot, à la the 2018 midterm elections, but he is able to deliver the massive turnout when he is, in 2016 and now in 2020. It was a similar phenomenon with President Obama, who won easy victories in 2008 and 2012 but saw his party lose the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 midterms. So it’s hard to tell which side may be more energized or depressed in a winter runoff just days after the holiday season. But these races will be nationalized to an extreme extent, and that could spell trouble for Democrats. The progressive pull of the party is something House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn bemoaned on a contentious party call Thursday. If “we are going to run on Medicare for All, defund the police, socialized medicine, we're not going to win” the Georgia runoffs, the South Carolina Democrat said, according to Politico.
In the regular races, we saw decided this week, it wasn’t just longer-shot races like Kansas and Texas in our Lean Republican column that ended up being easy GOP victories. (Alaska still has just over half of its votes tallied, but Sen. Dan Sullivan has a substantial lead. Neither party expects an upset). But even the races Democrats believed and Republicans feared would flip also went to the GOP — Maine, North Carolina and Iowa. (North Carolina also still has outstanding ballots to count, but both sides also expect Sen. Thom Tillis’s lead to hold).
Republicans and Democrats agree that the biggest surprise of the night was in Maine. While Republicans thought that longtime Sen. Susan Collins might be up in the count on Election Night, they worried that if no candidate got 50 percent and the state’s ranked-choice voting kicked in, that’s where Democrat Sara Gideon would overtake her. That didn’t have to happen, with Collins crushing Gideon in the state’s more rural areas. The Republican ran ahead of President Trump by about 7 points, and so far, hers is the only race where voters picked a different presidential and Senate result.
Republicans credit Collins’s independent record, bolstered in the final week as she was the only Republican to break ranks and oppose Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, along with her focus on local issues and a strong ground game. Even though Gideon outspent her by $12.4 million on TV — and outside groups came in to give Democrats a $22 million advantage on air, spending — Republicans believe that may have had diminishing returns and think ads like this one from the NRSC asking what out-of-state donors want in return for their donations hammered that home. Ultimately, even the furor that Collins appeared to have provoked when she voted two years ago to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh couldn’t trump her longtime ties to the state and the finger she has on the pulse of it. This is the state where Republicans and Democrats did see differently through most of the race, but even in the final days, RCV gave them worry.
In North Carolina, too, while polls last month showed that Democrat Cal Cunningham’s favorability numbers had taken a hit after he admitted to an extramarital affair, Tillis’s own numbers still remained dour. But it’s clear now that he had to take a hit, not least because of the evasive posture he took in answering questions from and avoiding local press. While there are still outstanding absentee ballots — and the state will accept ballots through next Thursday as long as they were postmarked by Election Day — Democrats don’t expect the Tar Heel State will break for them.
The other tipping point state we believed was Iowa. But veteran Hawkeye State pollster Ann Selzer’s final Des Moines Register survey that showed significant movement toward GOP Sen. Joni Ernst was on point, and she ended up besting Democrat Theresa Greenfield by about 6.6 points. Greenfield alone outspent Ernst on TV by $24.7 million, but again it wasn’t enough.
Finally, Republicans do believe that while at the beginning of October, there was a five-alarm fire on the heels of Trump’s poor debate performance and his COVID diagnosis that resulted in a precipitous drop in polls, they were seeing signs of a rebound in the final weeks. But it was hard to measure how much because it was hard to field a poll given how many people had already voted early. But they were beginning to see better trends in red states like Montana, Kansas, Alaska and South Carolina, and do believe that soft Republican voters did come home at the end, perhaps pushed by the Supreme Court confirmation or simply being scared enough about an impending Democratic Senate along with a likely Democratic president.
In the Palmetto State especially, we wrote before that Sen. Lindsey Graham needed a Hail Mary from chairing the Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing from Barrett, and he ended up very clearly getting that and easily bested his Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison by double digits — despite the former state party chairman’s record-breaking fundraising haul. However, SLF and others made up the difference and even outspent Democrats on the air in the final weeks, and this was a place where the race couldn’t afford to be nationalized, and it was. Still, while Republicans were feeling more confident about their chances in South Carolina, neither Republicans or Democrats anticipated such a large margin.
The same was true in Montana, our other final Toss Up race in the battle royale between term-limited Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican Sen. Steve Daines. While Republicans maintained consistent optimism that Daines would prevail, private polls showed it as a margin of error race for months. Instead, it was Daines who won by about 9 points as predictions that Trump’s margin would tighten there too were also wrong — his 20 point 2016 win only dropped to 15 points. Bullock still outperformed Biden, but that was far too much to overcome, and Daines easily won a second term.
In fact, Republicans saw tighter-than-expected races in other surprising places — especially in Michigan, which in the final week many GOP strategists argued should have been a Toss Up, and the final result did show it was razor-thin. Democratic Sen. Gary Peters beat Republican John James by about a point and a half, and James did about a point better than Trump did in the state. The polls showing a far larger polling lead for Biden gave us pause, but the race in the Wolverine State was much closer across the board. Still, Democrats in both races narrowly hang on.
But there were also other strong, surprising Republican candidate showings. In the open seat in New Mexico, Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Lujan only beat TV weatherman Mark Ronchetti by about 6 points. And in Minnesota, Democratic Sen. Tina Smith beat former Rep. Jason Smith by almost 8 points. Even in Virginia, Democratic Sen. Mark Warner beat Republican Daniel Gade by 11 points. All of those were closer margins than the two races we had in Likely Republican — in Kentucky, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell obliterated his cash-flush challenger Amy McGrath by 20 points. Even Mississippi was closer than Kentucky, but Democrat Mike Espy still lost his rematch by 13 points to Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith despite his massive spending advantage.
Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images