Article I of the United States Constitution originally established the United States Senate as a body free of elections, with members designated by State Legislatures. It was only with the ratification of the 17th Amendment in the early 1900s that citizens were given the ability to elect senators. This year, 35 of the 100 Senate seats are up for grabs, and many of these races are competitive. Together, they will not only decide a divisive election but ultimately determine the fate of a potential Biden or Trump Administration.
Across the board, this year is shaping up to be a damaging one for federal Republicans. After astonishing victories in 2016, headlined by that of Donald Trump, the Republicans lost their majority in the House of Representatives in 2018 to Democrats under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi.
This year, all indications point to Democrats, emboldened by a Supreme Court nomination, COVID-19, healthcare, and much more, being able to forge an easy path to a Joe Biden presidency. Biden, who served as Vice President from 2009 to 2017, has enjoyed the most stable lead in presidential polling in decades, spending the last couple of months hovering around a 10% lead nationally over current President Donald Trump.
Even given noticeable national trends that could lead to a Biden Administration, no electoral gains made by Democrats would matter if they cannot capture the Senate. Without control of the United States Senate, Biden‘s policies, from environmental reforms, to criminal justice, to a public option in healthcare, would go nowhere. For that reason, it is vitally important to focus just as much attention on the battle for the Senate as it is important to focus on that for the Electoral College and the Presidency.
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Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have held the upper congressional chamber since 2015, and, despite sizable resistance, expanded their majority after the 2018 elections. This year, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N. Y.) is vying for McConnell’s job as Senate Majority Leader, from which position he can cause change in the chamber, including abolishing the filibuster— a top priority for many progressives this year. But what is Schumer’s path to control?
First, Schumer’s Democrats are likely to lose a seat in Alabama, where football coach Tommy Tuberville, a Republican, is heavily favored to defeat incumbent Sen. Doug Jones. Jones, a Democrat, was elected in 2017 narrowly over Judge Roy Moore, who had been accused of multiple sex crimes. His win was a major upset in the deep-red state, but seems near-impossible to repeat.
Aside from Jones’s seat, there are many pickup opportunities for Democrats. For example, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Co.) is running for re-election in an increasingly-liberal Colorado. Colorado, a state in which Bernie Sanders twice won Presidential Primaries, from which the first openly gay Governor in the nation has been elected, and in which Barack Obama scored crucial victories in 2008 and 2012, is easily hostile territory for Gardner. His challenger is former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who ran a brief campaign for President last year.
Another viable pick-up is in Maine, where incumbent Sen. Susan Collins (R) faces State House Speaker Sara Gideon (D). Collins, who has tried to maintain an independent, moderate appeal since her election in the 90s in what is quickly becoming a safely blue state, has seen that reputation tarnished during the Trump Administration, especially given her vote in favor of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
Sen. Collins has since become the only Republican to vote against the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Court (the vote, taken Monday evening, being 52 in favor, 48 opposed). Nonetheless, her opponent has a reported $41 million lead in independent contributions, and a 5% lead in polls, to boast. Collins, after being one of the last Republican congressional holdouts in liberal New England, is quickly seeing her time come to an end.
Another crucial pickup lies in a seemingly unlikely place: Arizona. The seat vacated by Senate legend and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain in August 2018 by his death is now up for contest. The seat is held by Sen. Martha McSally (R), who was appointed to it by Gov. Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.) after herself losing the election for the state’s other Senate seat.
As such, McSally is deeply unpopular in the state, and is steeply down in the polls to former astronaut Mark Kelly, who’s wife, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), was nearly killed in an assassination attempt in 2011. Kelly has ginormous fundraising and polling advantages over Sen. McSally, making him the clear favorite.
In picking up the Senate seats in Colorado, Maine, and Arizona, while losing Jones’s seat in Alabama, Democrats would reduce the current Republican Senate majority of 53/100 seats down to 51/100.
If Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are able to succeed in their endeavor to win the White House, Democrats would only need to gain one more Senate seat. This is because, as Vice President, Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) would be able to break any ties in the Senate in favor of her party. As such, Democrats would only need 50 seats of the 100 total. So, where can they get the crucial 50th seat?
North Carolina, at first glance, seems like a good opportunity. Former State Senator Cal Cunningham (D), a veteran, is challenging incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R). Due to Joe Biden’s being favored in the state, as well as Cunningham’s polling and fundraising leads, he has been largely seen as a clear favorite. However, the last month has seen him stricken with extramarital sexting scandals. While they don’t seem to have deeply affected his support, only time will tell if this is Seat No. 50.
Another possibility lies in Iowa, where incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is being challenged by Theresa Greenfield (D), a businesswoman from Des Moines. Iowa is historically close, with the eventual President consistently carrying Iowa in every presidential election since 2004. The race, by all measures and accounts, is dead even. Ernst notably in a debate this month could not accurately name the prices of certain vital crops in Iowa, while Greenfield could perfectly, steering many to wonder if Greenfield is better connected to the rural voters of the Hawkeye State.
Many other paths to a majority are possible— if not extremely likely— including through states like Kansas, Alaska, Montana, and South Carolina, all of which have Republican incumbents.
Notable among possible pickups is Georgia, which has two open seats this year, due to the resignation of Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) at the end of 2019. Both seats are very competitive, with Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler (R) struggling to defend their seats from Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Rev. Rafael Warnock, respectively.
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Regardless of which races specifically determine the contest for senatorial dominance, the bottom line is simple: the Senate next year will face many issues. From the possible retirement of Justice Stephen Breyer to the addressing of the Covid-19 pandemic, to the recovery of the beaten economy, to the enactment of many policies of an incoming Administration, the Senate has a lot on its plate. Whoever controls it will control the fate of the country— no matter who occupies the White House in January.
Next Tuesday, on Election Night, do not only pay mind to the race for the Oval Office. Pay equal attention and care to the 35 races of just as much importance. These races are evenly scattered across the nation by a clause set to parchment in Philadelphia 233 years ago, yet still carry gross weight today, especially with our divided politics. Now more than ever is it’s control key, down to the seat (and it WILL come down to a few seats in a few swing states, with a few swing voters).
Whether Democrats take the 51% of the chamber, just an even half, or whether Republicans can hold on to a slim majority, Senators will see out the great deliberations of the 2020s, beginning as soon as January 2021. Vote as if you can shape an election— because you can, and, in 2020, you just well might.
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