Republican fears of an electoral disaster for the Senate GOP are well-founded. They could narrowly lose control of the upper chamber. They could suffer a Chernobyl-like meltdown.
But the conventional wisdom seems to have grown too bearish on the GOP odds of holding the Senate.
The defeat of the deeply unpopular Kris Kobach in Tuesday’s Kansas GOP Senate primary, along with fresh polling this week out of Iowa and Montana showing Republicans ahead, suggests that Republicans have a decent chance of narrowly holding onto the upper chamber even if Joe Biden wins the presidency.
Here’s a closer look at the latest polls and the math behind preventing unified Democratic control of government.
On Tuesday, the first public poll of Alabama since the July primary runoff shows Republican nominee Tommy Tuberville leading incumbent Democrat Doug Jones by 17 points (52 percent to 35 percent). Absent revelations as bad as what took down Roy Moore in 2017, this Alabama Senate seat will likely return to Republicans.
A Tuberville win in Alabama would mean Republican incumbents could lose in three states and the GOP would still hold a 51-seat majority in the Senate.
But pick-up opportunities abound for the Democrats.
First, there are the two Republican seats in states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016: Colorado and Maine.
In Colorado, polls this spring showed Republican incumbent Cory Gardner trailing Democratic candidate and former governor John Hickenlooper by double digits, but only one public nonpartisan poll has been released this summer: A late July Morning Consult poll showed Hickenlooper leading Gardner 48 percent to 42 percent. The same survey showed Joe Biden leading Trump 52 percent to 39 percent. Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in Colorado 48 percent to 43 percent in 2016.
In Maine, there has also only been one public nonpartisan poll released this summer: A late July Colby College poll showed Democrat Sarah Gideon leading incumbent Republican Susan Collins 44 percent to 39 percent, while Biden was leading Trump 50 percent to 38 percent. Trump lost Maine 45 percent to 48 percent in 2016.
Then there are the two purple states where Republican incumbents are most endangered: North Carolina and Arizona.
In North Carolina, incumbent Republican Thom Tillis trailed Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham by 9 points in two separate nonpartisan polls in July (one conducted by Marist and the other by YouGov). Trump, who won the state by 3.7 points in 2016, trailed Biden by 44 percent to 51 percent in the Marist poll and 44 percent to 48 percent in the YouGov poll.
In Arizona, several polls were released in July, and the RealClearPolitics polling average shows Republican incumbent Martha McSally trailing Democrat Mark Kelly by nearly 7 points (42.8 percent to 49.6 percent). Trump carried the state by 3.5 points in 2016 and now trails Biden by 3.7 points in the RCP polling average.
If Democrats sweep all four races, it’s lights out for the GOP Senate majority. And if the election were held today, Republicans would likely lose all four races. In the eight congressional election cycles dating back to 2004, there is only one Senate race in which a candidate won despite trailing by more than three percentage points in the RealClearPolitics polling average on Election Day.
There are, however, many examples of Senate candidates who still won despite trailing by three points or less in the RCP polling average on Election Day. (It’s called a “margin of error” for a reason.)
And Election Day is still three months away. It’s not impossible to imagine North Carolina or Arizona tightening as the election nears. In August 2016, for example, Wisconsin GOP senator Ron Johnson trailed Democrat Russ Feingold by 11 points, and the race didn’t tighten until October. On Election Day, the polls showed Johnson down 2.7 points; he won by 3.4 points.
But the most realistic path for the GOP Senate holding onto a 51-seat majority involves Republicans losing North Carolina, Colorado, and Arizona, while Susan Collins holds onto Maine and the rest of the GOP incumbents win other competitive races discussed below.
Although Collins is down by 4.5 points in the RCP polling average, a Republican strategist tells National Review that “all of Collins’s polling over the last four months has shown her ahead. The last month it’s been outside the margin of error.” Collins won’t run 21 points ahead of the GOP presidential nominee, as she did in 2008, but it’s not hard to see her running far enough ahead of Trump enough to win in 2020.
So it’s entirely possible over the next three months that the presidential race could tighten. Perhaps some swing voters could become worried about the consequences of an unchecked Democratic government.
At the same time, it’s just as easy to see undecided voters breaking against Trump and down-ballot Republicans suffering a bloodbath across the country.
In a Biden landslide, there are eight Republican Senate seats in addition to the four discussed above that could be in play, even though Democrats don’t hold a lead in any of these eight contests right now.
In Iowa, Joni Ernst trailed Democrat Theresa Greenfield 43 percent to 46 percent in a Des Moines Register poll from June, but yesterday a new Monmouth poll of registered voters showed Ernst leading Greenfield 48 percent to 45 percent. The same Monmouth poll also showed Trump ahead of Biden 48 percent to 45 percent among registered voters in Iowa, a state he carried by nine points in 2016. In Monmouth’s likely-voter models, both races are even tighter.
In Montana, Republicans got a bit of good news this week when Emerson released a poll showing incumbent Republican Steve Daines leading Democrat Steve Bullock, the state’s sitting governor, 50 percent to 44 percent. Last month an online poll by Montana State University (whose methodology has drawn scrutiny) showed Bullock leading Daines 46 percent to 39 percent. Private GOP polling shows Daines ahead in a close race.
What’s worrisome for Republicans in Montana is the state’s robust recent history of ticket-splitting. Trump carried the state by 20 points in 2016, but Bullock was re-elected governor on the same ballot by four points. Democratic senator Jon Tester held onto his seat in 2012 even as Mitt Romney coasted to victory by 14 points over Barack Obama in Montana. More than $30 million in TV airtime has been reserved in Montana by outside groups.
In Georgia, meanwhile, there are two seats up for grabs this year. The historically red state has been trending purple since 2016. Trump narrowly leads Biden in the RCP polling average 47.2 percent to 45.6 percent, and incumbent Republican senator David Perdue leads Democrat Jon Ossoff 47 percent to 42.8 percent in the polling average.
Then there’s the special election for the remainder of retired GOP senator Johnny Isakson’s term. After Isakson left office, Kelly Loeffler was named as his replacement. Republican congressman Doug Collins is facing off against Loeffler and Democratic candidates in the November jungle primary. In Georgia, Senate races head to runoff elections if no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote.
In the “Chernobyl scenario,” there are the four more states that could be in play: Texas, Kansas, South Carolina, and Alaska.
In Texas, Republican senator John Cornyn leads Democrat M. J. Hegar 45 percent to 35 percent the RCP polling average, but the top of the ticket is a dead heat with Biden and Trump each nearly tied at 45 percent. A 10-point lead might seem strong, but no incumbent is truly safe when polling below 50 percent, and it’s not a great sign for Cornyn that he is garnering the same overall level of support as Trump. Cornyn will likely win, but watch to see if the polls tighten.
In Kansas, Republicans believe they were given a reprieve when Kris Kobach, the state’s failed GOP 2018 gubernatorial candidate, lost the race to be the 2020 GOP Senate nominee to Congressman Roger Marshall. But millions of dollars of negative advertising were dropped on Marshall prior to Tuesday’s primary, and his Democratic opponent Barbara Bollier is well-funded. This race remains on the radar.
In South Carolina, Republican senator Lindsey Graham had led Democrat Jaime Harrison by a comfortable margin in all polls until Morning Consult dropped some surprising results earlier this week: Graham 44 percent, Harrison 43 percent. Outlier or leading indicator? Republicans think it’s the former. But anytime a reputable poll shows a one-point race, it’s worth watching.
In Alaska, there hasn’t been any public nonpartisan polling released this year. The state is notoriously difficult for pollsters, and the only survey of the Senate race this summer was conducted by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling, which showed Republican Dan Sullivan leading independent challenger Al Gross by 5 points. Sullivan is a strong candidate, but he ousted Democratic incumbent Mark Begich in the 2014 GOP wave by just two points.
So, the threat of a GOP Senate wipeout is very real. But what’s more likely right now is that Republicans either narrowly lose or narrowly keep the Senate.