Do Democrats Have A Shot At Retaking The Senate?

[ Posted Thursday, August 29th, 2019 – 17:20 UTC ]

While almost all the election attention from the media so far has been on the presidential race (and, more specifically, the Democratic nomination race), there are other races out there which might be more important in the grand scheme of things, because the fight for the Senate is really the determining factor for what will get done in the two years after the presidency is decided. This holds true no matter who wins the White House, in fact, because if Trump gets a second term, facing a Democratic Senate and House would severely constrain his ability to enact his agenda. If Trump loses to a Democrat, it won't matter how many sweeping campaign promises get him or her elected, because control of the Senate will determine whether any of it will get a chance.

The possibility of Democrats retaking control of the Senate isn't the only thing which would need to happen to move a new Democratic president's agenda forward, though -- they would likely also have to forever jettison the legislative filibuster to move bills forward, and it is unclear whether there would be enough votes to do so, since it would be such a gigantic shift in the power structure of the chamber. Some Democrats are leery of taking such a big step, because they know that sooner or later they'll be the ones in the minority, and if the Senate becomes majority-rule, then they would be completely out in the cold.

But that's an argument for another day. Today, let's instead take a look at the chances Democrats have to even put themselves in this position by wresting control away from Mitch McConnell. The current Senate split is 53-47 to the Republicans. This means that Democrats would need to flip at least three seats -- and pick up the Oval Office -- to secure majority control of the Senate (because they'd then have a Democratic vice president to break the 50-50 tie). If Trump wins re-election, then Democrats would need a net of four seats to do so.

While the numbers would appear to favor Democrats in the 2020 Senate race, the geography is more daunting. There are almost twice as many Republican seats up for election this cycle than there are Democrats, which should mean that the Democrats have more chances to make gains. However, most of these races are in ruby-red states, meaning most of them are completely out of reach. There are only two Republican-held seats in states that voted for Hillary Clinton, while the rest of the Republican seats are in states that voted for Trump.

Democrats are pretty strong defensively, though. They've only got one state that the Republicans are likely to pick up, while most of the others are pretty solidly blue. Or, at least, they were before the 2016 election.

Let's take all these groups one at a time.


Easy Democratic pickup opportunities

The two states that didn't go for Trump are Maine and Colorado. Senator Susan Collins and Senator Cory Gardner are the two biggest targets Democrats have, to put it another way.

When states morph from being red to purple to blue (or, for that matter, the other way around), there is a delayed lag time for some politicians. This is especially true for senators, who only get elected every six years. Maine has been trending bluer and bluer, although this has been complicated by the fact that it is perhaps the only state in the Union with what approximates a three-party system. Maine now has an Independent senator, and it used to have an Independent governor. The two are wildly different, though, because the senator is a reliable Democratic vote while the governor was a Tea Party madman (and no, that's not an exaggeration -- just ask anyone sane who lives in Maine). Overall, the state is more blue than red. But Susan Collins has been in the Senate since she first got elected in 1996 -- over 20 years ago. Maine voters, however, may have had enough of her after her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (as well as other votes she's cast in favor of the Trump administration). There is a concerted effort to convince Maine voters that rather than having some sort of moderate Republican representing them in the Senate, that it'd be better to have an actual Democrat doing so. Collins is extremely vulnerable, and even her long tenure in the Senate may not be enough to save her.

Colorado has also trended bluer and bluer over the past decade or so. They've elected Democratic governors and all other statewide officials, and they've gone for the Democratic presidential candidate in the past three presidential election cycles. They're now seen as a pretty reliably blue state, perhaps tinged slightly into the purple. But they've still got one Republican senator. Cory Gardner was elected in 2014, but the state's demographics have shifted even more blue since then. Now that John Hickenlooper has announced his bid on the Democratic side, Gardner may be toast. This would leave Colorado without a single Republican elected on any statewide ticket, which is why it is being seen as almost inevitable, at this point.


Possible Democratic pickup opportunities

There are four states that I would put in this category, but they offer up five chances for a Democratic pickup, since both Georgia Senate seats will be on the 2020 ballot. Let's take these alphabetically, since it's tough to figure which states offer better chances for a Democratic win than the others.

Arizona is trending much more purple, although it'd be premature to call it blue. In doing so, it is following a trend from neighboring Mountain West states New Mexico and Colorado. But it's not as far down this path as they are, yet. In 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema beat Republican Martha McSally, which was a big surprise for many outside the state. After the election, the Republican governor appointed McSally to the seat vacated by the death of long-time Arizona icon John McCain (technically, John Kyl filled the seat for a year between McCain and McSally, on the condition that he'd only serve for a single year). Because it was an appointment, McSally is now up for election. The Democrats, however, have a very strong candidate to take her on -- astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of Gabby Giffords. If Kelly can beat McSally again (she's already lost one statewide Senate race), then both Arizona senators will be Democratic -- an outcome that would have been considered impossible only a few years ago.

Georgia Democrats were disappointed in 2018, as candidate Stacey Abrams lost a very close race for governor. They then set their sights on flipping a Senate seat in 2020, which might also be out of reach but is certainly within the realm of possibility (as Abrams proved). Their problem, however, was that Abrams herself was not interested in taking on sitting Senator David Perdue. This week, this race got shaken up even further with the news that Johnny Isakson will be stepping down from his Senate seat at the end of the year, due to his failing health. The Republican governor will get to appoint his replacement, but then the seat will be up for grabs -- essentially as an open seat -- in November. This gives Democrats two bites at the Senate apple, and the open seat might be a lot easier to flip than the one with the incumbent in it. However, Abrams immediately said she wouldn't be running for this seat either, which lessens the chance that Democrats will actually pick it up. But overall, the chances that they could flip one of these two seats has to be seen as a lot better than if they were just targeting a single seat.

Iowa Senator Joni Ernst has to also be seen as vulnerable. Trump's trade war with China has hit the state's farmers very hard, and (little noticed outside the state) the Trump administration just announced that they had issued 31 exemptions for refineries which means they don't have to use ethanol to make their gasoline. Ethanol is an enormous issue in corn-growing Iowa, and this is more exemptions in a single year than Obama granted during his entire term in office. So Ernst has the choice of either standing with Trump or standing with her own constituent farmers. That's a tough choice, because no matter which way she chooses, it may lose her votes. Democrats, however, are free to run on ending Trump's disastrous tariffs and expanding the use of ethanol. If Iowa goes for the Democrat in the presidential election, it could be enough to flip Ernst's seat.

The final state on this list is North Carolina. North Carolina has been a true battleground state for over a decade now. Democrats have made some gains, but Republicans are also still strong (helped by their previous gerrymandering, at times). It remains to be seen how vulnerable Senator Thom Tillis will be in 2020, but he's certainly going to be a Democratic target.


Democratic longshots

Call this the "dreaming the impossible dream" category, if you will. Democrats don't really have all that big a chance to flip any of these seats, but if a blue wave election rises in 2020, then it's not totally crazy to imagine it might wash into some very unexpected places.

Kansas might just be one of them, but only if Republicans in the state are foolish enough to nominate Kris Kobach (the seat is an open one, after Republican Pat Roberts announced his retirement). This would give Democrats a big opening, because Kobach is increasingly seen as downright unstable by Kansas voters. He lost the 2018 governor's race to a Democrat, and he might also lose a Senate race as moderate Republican voters desert him once again. However, Kobach is not guaranteed to be the nominee, and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo might also run for the seat. If Pompeo runs, he would have a good chance of defeating Kobach in the Republican primary. Democrats are also hampered by the fact that former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius decided not to make a run for this seat. So Democrats really would have to have all the stars align for them to have any real shot at winning this seat. Kansas, notably, has not elected a Democratic senator since 1932.

There are other Senate races that Democrats dream about, but they'll probably remain unfulfilled dreams. It sure would be nice to see Mitch McConnell get beat in Kentucky, but it's not very likely to happen. There's a Tennessee seat that's open as well, but it'll probably remain in Republican hands. And, of course, there's the biggest unfulfilled dream of all, that a Democrat could win a Senate seat from Texas. If Beto O'Rourke decides to end his presidential campaign in time to file, he could take a second run at this dream. Julián Castro could likewise switch races. But, of course, while he got close the first time, O'Rourke ultimately lost to Ted Cruz, and this time around he'd have to run against a much less-hated politician, Senator John Cornyn. If a blue tsunami develops in the presidential race and Texas actually goes for the Democrat, then it might be possible to pick up Cornyn's seat as well, but it'd have to be a pretty enormous wave for that to come to pass.


Easy Republican pickup opportunity

Now we've got to look at the Democrat's defensive game. Republicans have one very obvious pickup opportunity, one that they will in all likelihood win (unless they are insane enough to nominate the same seriously-flawed candidate, that is). Democratic Senator Doug Jones won by a fluke election that pitted him against an accused child molester, Roy Moore. That was simply a bridge too far for Alabama voters, and they held their noses and voted for a Democrat instead, even though the state remains pretty solidly red. If the Republicans put up any sort of normal candidate, they'll most likely beat Jones. However, Moore is running for the office, too, and if he wins the nomination then all bets are off. For now, though, the chances are more likely than not that Democrats lose this seat.


Possible Republican pickup opportunities

Republicans will be targeting lots of races, but there seem to only be three that they've got any real shot at: Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico. But there would have to be a "red wave" presidential election for them to even have any chance of picking these seats up, so I consider them all longshots for the time being.


Adding it all up

For the sake of argument, I'm going to go right ahead and assume that the Democrats beat Trump in the presidential race. If they don't, then taking back the Senate will be much harder to accomplish and it will mean far less overall. So let's assume that Trump gets beaten by a healthy but not overwhelming margin.

Democrats will likely start at negative one in the Senate count, as they'll probably lose that Alabama seat. But then they'll also likely pick up their two easy seats (Maine and Colorado), which would put them at a net of plus-one. Since I'm assuming that Democrats have won the Oval Office, this means they'd only need two more pickups to retake control of the Senate. Two out of the five possibilities in Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina doesn't seem all that tough to accomplish. Iowa and North Carolina could go for the Democratic presidential candidate -- Iowa voted twice for Barack Obama, and North Carolina did so in 2008, after all. If these two states vote Democratic in the presidential race, Democratic Senate candidates might just ride those coattails to victory. Democrats already picked up a Senate seat in Arizona in 2018, and they could beat Martha McSally once again in 2020. Georgia seems like more of a longshot at this point, but Democrats could conceivably flip at least one of the two seats up for grabs.

I'm not one given to assigning probability numbers to elections, so I won't do so now. But it does seem that Democrats have a better shot at retaking the Senate than you might think, if you just looked at the map of which seats were up for election. If Trump wins re-election, then his own coattails might be long enough for Republicans to hang onto the Senate. But if he loses, then the opposite seems now as likely as not -- that an incoming Democratic president will have a Democratic House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate to work with.

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


21 Comments on “Do Democrats Have A Shot At Retaking The Senate?”

  1. [1] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    I like Horserace articles. I also like pie. Won't you please please please write an article on the potential of pie to change the electoral process?

  2. [2] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    Screw your pie.
    Yes don, i believe you've mentioned that before. Not my thing, but hey, i'm not judging you for your man-pie love.

  3. [3] 
    John M wrote:

    [5] Don Harris

    "It was figurative, not literal.

    But if you want to take it literally for yourself- make sure it's an American Pie."

    Wasn't there a movie by the same name where the boy, in fact, did just that with a warm apple American pie? :-D

  4. [4] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


    when i came up with my idea of voting based on pie, don actually claimed i was that character from the movie. clearly he's jealous that my little project has garnered more interest in a few months than his "demand" has in over a decade.


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:


    Got yer hurricane pack ready??? Dorian is slated to come ashore between Miami and Port St Lucie Mon Nite/Tues AM then jag over FL to Tampa, exit into the gulf for a tad then sharp north east jag over to JAX, FL and exit at the FL/GA line up the coast to Nags Head, NC then out to sea...

    Be safe...

  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    For the sake of argument, I'm going to go right ahead and assume that the Democrats beat Trump in the presidential race.

    That's a pretty big assumption that denies the facts and the reality.. :D

    But hay.. Whatever ya have to do to make it thru your day.. :D

    If Trump wins re-election, then his own coattails might be long enough for Republicans to hang onto the Senate.

    AND take back the House.. :D

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    of course..

    Dorian is bearing down on Florida. Could likely be the most catastrophic strike on Florida since Hurricane Andrew almost 30 years ago...

    And what do Dumbocrats do??

    Hurricane Dorian already stirring political storm as Dems rip Trump

    As Florida stared down a massive hurricane that could soon engulf the state, a political storm is already brewing over President Trump's response.

    Democrats railed against Trump even before the storm makes landfall over the state -- accusing him of playing racial politics and blasting his decision to redirect funding from the nation's primary disaster relief agency toward border enforcement operations. The comments set the stage for what could be a politically explosive environment over the next several days regarding the federal response to the storm.

    Dumbocrats politicize it with the bullshit race card..

    :eyeroll: morons...

  8. [8] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Good article, CW. While I’d love to see my home state of GA go blue, it won’t be easy. Abrams would be the best bet to win, but it’s pretty clear that one or more of the presidential candidates have already secured her as their possible running mate should they win the primary. Heck, Abrams has polled so well since being thrown into the national spotlight that I would not be surprised to learn that the DNC has told all of the candidates that regardless of who wins the nomination, Abrams WILL be their VP! And given that the top three are white and older (and 2 of the 3 are male), Abrams will balance out the ticket’s demographics quite nicely.

    As for Alabama, I think Doug Jones has surprised a lot of the voters and they are happy with his performance thus far. He might be tougher to unseat than you’d think for a Democrat in Bama.

  9. [9] 
    Paula wrote:

    [12] Listen: I think the notion that the DNC tells candidates who they have to pick for Veep is wrong (unless you're joking).

    The DNC is constantly being portrayed as having power it doesn't have and responsibilities it doesn't have.

    I like Stacey Abrams and think she'd be a great choice for VP but if she's chosen by a candidate it isn't going to be because some person/some cabal at the DNC "ordered" it.

    Just sayin'

  10. [10] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    I noticed this, and got a chuckle:

    Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ? @AOC

    I love everything about this GOP attack ad.

    Republicans underestimate my intelligence bc I invite people into my home & talk about policy in plain English instead of DC jargon.

    They think that’s dumb, so they end up paying for ads that spread & explain our policy positions.


    WATCH: This time on "Shallow Thoughts, with @AOC," the New York socialist says coastal cities will be underwater due to climate change, and we face "death" if we don't spend trillions of dollars to address it.

    Embedded video
    1:25 PM - Aug 29, 2019
    Twitter Ads info and privacy

  11. [11] 
    Michale wrote:

    Cal Thomas: Hurricane Dorian shouldn't trigger Trump Derangement Syndrome. Lives are in danger

    As I and my fellow Floridians brace for potentially catastrophic damage from Hurricane Dorian in the next few days, we’ve witnessed the full fury of Trump Derangement Syndrome by those on the left in a stunning tweet by former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell.

    “I’m rooting for a direct hit on Mar a Lago!,” President Trump’s Florida resort, Campbell tweeted Wednesday.

    Hit with a torrent of criticism, Campbell – who also blasted Trump’s environmental policies on Twitter, claiming they are “making hurricanes more destructive” – backed off Friday.


    “I have deleted my tweet about the hurricane & Mar a Lago and sincerely apologize to all it offended,” Campbell said in a new tweet. “It was intended as sarcasm-not a serious wish of harm.”

    Remember a time not that long ago when the left promoted civility, rational debate and comity between parties and people of different views? That was when Democrats controlled our government. Now that they see control slipping from them, they are engaging in what they once denounced – and even getting support from leftists in other countries.

    Democrats don't DESERVE to be in power...

  12. [12] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Honestly, that's how far afield our politics has gone, when a congressperson reciting perfectly reasonable facts is lampooned for it.

  13. [13] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    No one in American politics wants a direct hit on Mar-A-Lago because we'd foot the bill for restoring it.

  14. [14] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    an incoming Democratic president will have a Democratic House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate to work with.

    Ah, dreaming. And the world's largest work-load, no doubt. Congressperson could be an actual job title!

    Well, first, the hard work of getting it done...

  15. [15] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: But Susan Collins has been in the Senate since she first got elected in 1996 -- over 20 years ago.

    When she pledged to voters she would only serve two terms:

    Twelve years is long enough to be in public service, make a contribution, and then come home and let someone else take your place. ~ Susan Collins

    Apparently Sue can't count. The voters in Maine should help her with that "pledge" of hers. :)

  16. [16] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Just read that one of the four remaining commissioners of the FEC has resigned, which means that by law, the FEC no longer can conduct any business or take official action until another commissioner is confirmed. There are supposed to be 6 commissioners on the board, but Trump had allowed the number to drop to four after he chose not to nominate enough people to fill all of the open positions.

    So let’s review: Mitch McConnell refuses to allow votes on bi-partisan legislation meant to help secure our national elections from foreign interference. Trump cripples the agency created to oversee federal elections and enforce federal election laws just prior to the 2020 election. These things occurring when they have just reaffirms the fear that the GOP is willing to corrupt our election process to remain in power. And unless something is done soon, Trump’s re-election might not be as far-fetched as I once believed.

  17. [17] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: Do Democrats Have A Shot At Retaking The Senate?

    Yep. :)

  18. [18] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    [12] Listen: I think the notion that the DNC tells candidates who they have to pick for Veep is wrong (unless you're joking).

    I was joking-but-not-joking.

    The DNC is constantly being portrayed as having power it doesn't have and responsibilities it doesn't have.

    The average freshman in Congress spends over 60% of their work week raising money for their party’s national convention. That means our elected representatives spend 3 days out of a 5 day work week working for the DNC/RNC, leaving only 2 days for actually representing their constituents. Now tell me again how little power they have...

    While I am not as disgusted by the DNC as I am by the RNC, they both weld far too much influence in our government. [Allow me to take this time to tell Don Harris that my statement in no way supports what he believes One Demand would do if only CW would get the word out to 20% of the non-voting public!].

    I look at John McCain’s campaign as the ultimate example of just how much power the Parties have over their candidates. McCain won the nomination as a moderate in a sea of Conservatives and ultra-Conservatives. Side by side comparisons showed that during the primaries, McCain and Obama held similar positions on a surprising number of social issues — maybe not identical, but more similar than they were opposed. But once McCain had the nomination, McCain flipped on every issue that he and Obama had shared. He ran as an ultra-Conservative who opposed everything that Obama/Democrats supported and was given an Uber-Conservative idiot for a running mate so the GOP had at least one minority on its ticket. Had McCain stuck to his moderate positions - the ones that got him the nomination - he might have won the election...he would have had my vote, I know that. But the GOP wanted to make it easier for their base to know whether to support legislation — by no longer basing their support on the actual content of the legislation, but instead, really simplifying it by making the rule that “anything the Democrats support is evil” meant McCain had to give up his moderate views.

  19. [19] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:


    Remember a time not that long ago when the left promoted civility, rational debate and comity between parties and people of different views?

    Remind me of the last time the not-right promoted civility, rational debate and comity between parties and people of different views? And I doubt you could name a single time when Trump has promoted even one of those things!

    Now that they see control slipping from them, they are engaging in what they once denounced – and even getting support from leftists in other countries.

    This was a tweet by a foreigner, so how, exactly, are Democrats to blame for any of this? Seriously, talk about having to work hard to find something to be upset at the Democrats over! Democrats had no part in this, but that doesn’t matter as long as it gives their mindless drones something to repost and be angry about.

    Seriously, for any Trump supporter to clutch their pearls and swoon over anything said by the left is so rich that it has to be fattening! Trump is directly quoted by mass killers in their manifestos explaining why they carried out their killing sprees; yet, it is wrong to blame Trump for anything he says according to his supporters. They refuse to say that he is mentally unfit to be president while expecting him not to be held accountable for his words — because clearly they were said by someone who is unfit to stand trial.

  20. [20] 
    ListenWhenYouHear wrote:

    Speaking of Conservatives thinking that they, and they alone, are the civil ones looking out for the country’s best interests....Great article from Washington Post on the similarities the language used by today’s Conservatives has with the language used by proslavery advocates 150 years ago.

  21. [21] 
    Paula wrote:

    Listen: Curious where you got that data: "The average freshman in Congress spends over 60% of their work week raising money for their party’s national convention."

    I've never heard that. I've heard they spend a ton of time fundraising, but how much of that is for their own next campaign vs. a national convention every 4 years?

    Separately that's not the same as the DNC having the power to force VP choices or the like. Furthermore, I don't think the DNC and RNC operate in the same ways. Since the entire GOP runs in lockstep and elected Repubs are apparently willing to be obedient it's hard to say where the GOP/RNC/Donor Class begin/end.

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