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Final 2020 Senate Overview: Democrats Remain Favorites to Take Senate, Mississippi Shifts to Likely Republican

Democrats remain the clear favorites to take back the Senate with just days to go until Election Day. A lack of tightening in the presidential race as President Trump continues to be a drag downballot is set to doom many Republican incumbents. At this point, many GOP strategists just hope to keep their losses to a minimum and prevent a blue tidal wave. 

When we posted our last rating changes on October 13, several Republican pollsters sounded downright apoplectic about their chances in the wake of a calamitous debate performance by Trump and his COVID diagnosis just days later. A few weeks later, some of that bleeding has stopped or at least slowed, and an adequate but not game-changing debate performance by Trump last week didn’t cause further five-alarm fires. So Republicans feel slightly more optimistic about their odds in traditionally red states like Kansas, Montana and South Carolina. But given that many of these races shouldn’t have been competitive in the first place — and still aren’t fully off the table for Democrats at all — it’s not too much to be joyful about, but Republicans are wise to take encouraging news where they can.  

“Things are slightly better than earlier this month, but I still think we end up on the short end of the stick,” said one GOP pollster. “Plus, it’s still possible for it to be a Democratic landslide.” 

And given that Trump now wants to completely turn the page on COVID even as cases and hospitalizations are spiking to record levels, the White House — and by extension Senate Republicans — still remain far out of step with what many Americans see as the most pressing issue this election. 

Ultimately, our ratings remain virtually unchanged from two weeks ago, at least in the core competitive universe. Barring any surprises in these last five days — even more doubtful given many voters have already cast their ballots but not unheard of given this unpredictable year— these will be our final ratings. Our competitive universe of races remains the same that is lopsided toward Democrats — 12 GOP-held seats in Lean or Toss Up, and just two for Democrats. Since January, we have moved ten races in Democrats’ favor, and only one toward Republicans. 

We are making just one shift: Mississippi moves from Solid to Likely Republican. While we had moved it toward the GOP earlier this year into solid, it’s now a race that now deserves to at least be on the radar come Tuesday given the vast spending disparity that Democratic challenger Mike Espy has built in his rematch with GOP Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, whose fundraising has been downright abysmal for any incumbent, even in a typically safe state. 

That addition showcases just how much Democrats have expanded the map while Republicans haven’t really taken many, if any, races completely off the table. More than half of all GOP seats up this cycle are in Lean or Toss Up right now, with an additional two, Kentucky and now Mississippi, in our Likely column. That’s a feat that even some Republicans are privately praising Democrats for while continuing to bemoan the predicament they’re finding themselves in for the closing days. 

Our estimate of gains remains anywhere from 2 to 7 seats for Democrats, and it’s only that lowest possible number in the range that would mean Republicans eke out saving their majority. Democrats still need to set three seats assuming Joe Biden wins the presidency, and four if he doesn’t. 


Our Final Analysis of the Senate Map 

Despite outspending GOP nominee Tommy Tuberville heavily and a lackluster campaign from the former Auburn football coach, Democrats are poised to lose Alabama Sen. Doug Jones. So that means they now need at least four seats to flip to reach a tie, with a Vice President Kamala Harris likely breaking a stalemate. 

Two of those seats are easy to see. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner is the most vulnerable Republican, and GOP strategists expect both him and Trump to lose in the rapidly changing state by double digits perhaps. And while some polls have shown a tightening contest in Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally’s image in the state remains underwater, and it’s hard to see a path to victory for her either. Both Colorado and Arizona remain in our Lean Democrat column. 

Maine is the most vulnerable of our Toss Up races. Despite Sen. Susan Collins’s vote as the lone GOP senator against confirming Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court this week, that decision to buck her party is unlikely to change the trajectory of the race. However, we may not know the outcome of this race for several weeks, given it’s likely to be decided by the state’s still nascent ranked-choice voting system. That’s where Republicans admit it’s hard for them to see a calculus of how Collins can outperform Democratic challenger Sara Gideon. A Colby College Poll (Oct. 21-25, 879 LV) released Wednesday showed Gideon with a 5 point lead over Collins, 47%-43%. But Maine Green Independent Party candidate Lisa Savage is getting 5% in that same poll, and she’s been actively encouraging her supporters to put Gideon down as their second-choice vote. This isn’t a race Republicans have a good feeling about in the final days. 

The two tipping point states then are North Carolina and Iowa. Despite Republicans being given a huge gift with Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham’s sex scandal that came out at the beginning of October, the former state senator still looks on pace to oust GOP Sen. Thom Tillis. While the barrage of ads hitting Cunningham’s character over the affair and his dodging of questions about his personal life have driven up his negatives, Tillis’s remain even worse ultimately. And it looks like voters in the Tar Heel State are ready to vote more on policies like healthcare and send a rebuke to Tillis and Republicans than to make it a referendum on Cunningham’s extramarital dalliances. Several polls have shown this race tightening, but Democrats long expected it to even before Cunningham’s scandal. Still, this is a race many Republicans privately don’t think will end up in their column at the end of the night. 

Not far behind is Iowa, a headache the GOP certainly didn’t expect to have at the beginning of the cycle or even the year. Despite being one of the stars of the 2014 class, Sen. Joni Ernst has seen her image drop in the state, and attacks on her as having “gone Washington” are breaking through, perhaps punctuated by a debate last week where she didn’t know the current price of soybeans. Meanwhile, Democrat Theresa Greenfield has been able to remain competitive in rural areas of the state. She’s been aided by a competitive presidential contest despite Trump winning the Hawkeye State by 9 points four years ago. This race is a true Toss Up, but one that is very winnable for Democrats and yet another one Republicans aren’t sounding optimistic about. 

Flipping those races alone would give Democrats a 51-49 majority, which many Republicans privately believe may be the best outcome they can hope for given the large defensive playing field. But there are still four other Toss Up races — Montana, South Carolina and two Georgia races likely headed to overtime — that could determine how large Democrats’ majority may end up being. And as we’ve pointed out before, those Toss Up races end up breaking disproportionately for one party, and usually the party who’s having the better Election Night. For example, in 2016, five of seven Toss Up races broke for the GOP. If that same statistic holds in what we expect to be a far better Democratic night than four years ago, Democrats would be looking at a 53-47 seat majority. If it’s more a night like 2008, where Democrats won 80% of these races, it could be a 54-46 seat majority for Democrats. 

But two of those races may not be known in November, beyond just the expected vote-counting delays due to the pandemic and increased mail-in votes. Nonetheless, both Georgia seats are the next best opportunity for Democrats, in another rapidly changing Sun Belt State that is a genuine opportunity for Biden at the presidential level. Democrats hope that high turnout next Tuesday could propel Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff to a win on Election Day over Sen. David Perdue. And given several recent polls not just showing Biden on the rise in the Peach State but Ossoff too, that could be within reach. 

A Monmouth University survey (Oct. 23-27, 504 LV) in a high turnout scenario showed Biden leading Trump 50%-46% and gave Ossoff a 49%-47% edge — a complete reversal from a September survey that showed Perdue leading by 5 points. Still, if no candidate gets a majority of the vote — something both Democrats and Republicans nonetheless think is more likely than not at this point — this race will go to a January 5, 2021 runoff. 

That would mean two runoff Senate races early next year, given that the special election is virtually guaranteed not to produce an Election Day winner. Democrat Raphael Warnock has surged into the lead of the 20 candidate field, while appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Rep. Doug Collins remain in a tight battle for the second runoff slot. But, as we wrote two weeks ago when we moved this race to Toss Up, their scorched-earth shift to the far right could well doom either candidate in a runoff in a changing state like Georgia. In that same Monmouth survey, Warnock is the clear leader with 41%, followed by Loeffler at 22% and Collins at 19%. While it looked like Loeffler was going to secure that second runoff slot even a few weeks ago, it’s now a jump ball again. 

In Montana, both public and private polls by both parties continue to show this as a margin of error race, and this is one where a close outcome could produce recounts and legal challenges. Republicans hope that Sen. Steve Daines has gotten a slight boost from the Barrett confirmation, but Democrats don’t see that. With tighter presidential numbers though, the margin Bullock has to outperform Biden by in the state isn’t as large and keeps this one firmly a Toss Up. And while all three major statewide races this year are in play — Senate, Governor and at-large House — the Senate seems the most likely one Democrats could win. 

South Carolina is still a Toss Up in our view, but it is the most challenging of the seven. While even a few weeks ago, Republicans were sounding the alarm and believed Sen. Lindsey Graham was headed to a possible defeat, spirits both nationally and in the Palmetto State about this race have improved. They think that Graham did get a boost as he handled Barrett’s confirmation. Vice President Pence held a rally for Graham in Greenville on Tuesday to try and shore up wavering conservatives, and Republicans in the state say they’ve seen some evidence of that. 

Of course, Harrison needs some of those voters to go to the third-party candidate Bill Bledsoe, who’s dropped out and endorsed Graham but remains on the ballot. Harrison is now running TV ads trying to prop up Bledsoe — and this isn’t a new tactic in politics at all. In fact, it’s helped Democrats win close races before, in South Dakota in 2002 between Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson and then-GOP challenger John Thune, as well as in Montana in 2012 between Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Rep. Denny Rehberg. But Graham has also now had to go up on air noting Bledsoe has endorsed him, simply further continuing to raise his name ID. Business Insider also reported Wednesday night that a mysterious new PAC, Liberty SC, likely linked to Democrats, is also trying to boost Bledsoe while bashing Graham as someone who “voted to confirm Obama’s pro-abortion judges” and tried to “give citizenship to illegals.” 

Democrats likely do need Bledsoe to get at least in the mid-single digits to win, but if there is higher African-American turnout in the state — which some early vote trends seem to suggest — that could lower that threshold. Harrison also probably needs to win just over a third of white college voters, which is also doable. Still, it depends on what share of the electorate those voters are or if higher percentages of white, rural non-college voters come out on Election Day. 

Of the races in our Lean Republican column, we’ve been keeping the closest eye on Kansas perhaps. Republicans very much sounded the alarm here even a few weeks ago, and while they are clearly going to have to drag Rep. Roger Marshall across the finish line, that may be enough. It still remains perhaps too much of a lift for Democrat Barbara Bollier in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1932, even though she’s run a stellar campaign. This one could be close still, but privately both Democrats and Republicans expect Marshall will be able to eke out a win. 

Two weeks ago, we moved both Alaska and Texas to Lean Republican, and they remain firmly in those columns with little movement. While the Lone Star State is looking increasingly competitive though for Biden, and we moved it to Toss Up in our Electoral College ratings yesterday, it’s GOP Sen. John Cornyn who still holds consistent leads in public polling, regularly outpacing Trump and suggesting there is a substantial bloc of Biden/Cornyn voters. If Biden does sweep the state, though, it’s a possibility he could bring Democrat M.J. Hegar with him, but the better money remains on Cornyn right now. 

The other race we did agonize over this week is in Michigan. Both parties are spending heavily here, and it’s partly chess moves. If Republicans can flip another Democratic-held seat, the once longer-shot possibility they could hold onto the majority becomes far easier. And in turn, Democrats have had to match their spending and can’t take their eyes off the Wolverine State. Plus, Sen. Gary Peters, the lone Democrat from the Class of 2014, has never fully put this challenge from Republican John James, by far the GOP’s best recruit this cycle. Peters often lags behind Biden at the top of the ticket, and just in the final weeks has he pulled into financial parity with James. But as impressive as James is, his biggest hurdle is Trump’s sagging performance in a state he won by just two-tenths of a point four years ago. The current FiveThirtyEight Michigan average shows Biden up 8.1 points, and two polls out Wednesday reinforce that stable margin we’ve seen for months — New York Times/Siena showed Biden up 8 while ABC News/Washington Post showed the former vice president leading Trump by 7; those same surveys showed the Peters leading in the Senate race by nearly identical margins (8 and 6, respectively). Republican polling shows this race closer, and GOP strategists believe that James could outrun Trump by 3 or 4 points at minimum. But the math isn’t showing that’s a possibility yet, and reputable public polling shows this one remaining stable. It also remains in Lean Democrat.  

Kentucky remains in the Likely Republican column simply due to the deluge of spending, but Democrat Amy McGrath has been far more hype than reality, again on pace to run an underwhelming campaign much like her 2018 House bid too. But McConnell, a true political animal, never took the challenge for granted either. Now it’s far, far more likely that McConnell will be the Senate Minority Leader come January 2021 than a former senator. 

And as we noted earlier, Mississippi has now earned a place in Likely Republican as well. After losing a special election runoff two years ago to Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith by 7 points, former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has been building an impressive campaign that has dwarfed what appear to be meager efforts by Hyde-Smith. He’s outraised her more than 3-to-1, including nearly nine-fold just since July. 


Mississippi Senate Fundraising


That sizable advantage has allowed Espy to batter Hyde-Smith on the air, too, along with help from coordinated funds from the DSCC. The week of October 20, he outspent her by just over $1 million to around $202,000. For this final week, Hyde-Smith has only reserved just about $166,000 compared to another $1 million from Espy. 

The disparity hasn’t gone unnoticed by Republicans in the state who do have some frustrations with Hyde-Smith’s campaign. And Espy has benefitted from a national surge in online fundraising like other Senate challengers across the board did. While that’s helped him be able to run robust statewide ad campaigns and voter-targeting efforts, Mississippi still remains deeply Republican. And evening running an anemic campaign with an R beside your name can usually get you elected in a presidential year. Espy hopes to juice Black turnout in the state, and some have pointed to subtle winds of change that are happening in the Magnolia State, including the legislature and governor voting to change the state’s controversial flag this summer — the last state to feature a remnant of the Confederate battle flag. The proposed new flag will go before voters on Tuesday, as will a medical marijuana referendum. Still, while we are moving this to Likely Republican, Hyde-Smith still remains the heavy favorite but it’s now a race to monitor come Tuesday night. 

Democrats’ “Green Wave” Has Fueled Their Probable Majority

If Democrats take back the Senate, as expected, the fundraising advantage challengers built early on, largely enabled by grassroots small-dollar donors, will also play a large part in that victory. When looking at all races we rate as anything other than solid; virtually every Democratic candidate outraised their GOP opponent over the past year, except for Texas. (In Georgia, most of appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s money has come from her own pockets). 

And some of the disparities are striking. In Kansas, Democrat Barbara Bollier outraised Rep. Roger Marshall by a 4-to-1 margin. In Maine, Democrat Sara Gideon outraised four-term incumbent Sen. Susan Collins by $42.4 million. In Iowa, Democrat Theresa Greenfield outraised Sen. Joni Ernst by $23.4 million. In North Carolina, Democrat Cal Cunningham outraised Sen. Thom Tillis by $24.6 million. And in South Carolina, Democrat Jaime Harrison outraised Sen. Lindsey Graham by $40.6 million. 


2020 Competitive Senate Fundraising


But if Republicans are able to somehow hold on or just hold Democrats to even a slim 50-50 tie (but with an assumed Biden victory) or 51-49, it will be because outside groups like Senate Leadership Fund and their wealthy donors were able to fill in the gaps in the final weeks of the race. However, given that candidates receive lower rates than super PACs, it’s candidates who often have the GRP advantage. For the week of October 20, SLF and its known affiliates spent over $31.4 million, with the most going to North Carolina, Michigan (GOP’s only offensive opportunity other than Alabama), Iowa and South Carolina. 

In fact, for the week of October 20, Iowa saw the most ad spending with $25.5 million total — $13.9 million from Democrats and $11.7 million from Republicans. But drill down further into those numbers, and Greenfield, with the best ad rates, spent $4.3 million on TV compared to just $1.8 million from Ernst. 

Michigan saw the second largest investment, with Republicans (including $4.7 million from the Senate Leadership Fund and $1.2 million from the NRSC) spending $10.7 million in total to try and force this one to become a jump ball, thus complicating the Democrats’ Senate math. But Democrats have matched them beyond that with $11.5 million, including $7 million from Senate Majority PAC. 

And for the final week of the campaign starting on October 27, so far, South Carolina is seeing the most spending in ads for $21.2 million total. Republicans — aided by a $4.1 million buy from SLF and $1.9 million from Security is Strength — have combined to spend $11.2 million. But while Democrats may be narrowly outspent in total ($10 million), $6.7 million of that alone is coming from Jaime Harrison, who gets the lowest advertising rates. In comparison, Sen. Lindsey Graham has spent just under $5 million.