A Democratic wave pickup of 10 Senate seats is a real possibility

Early in the cycle, the big question was wether Democrats could pick up the net-four seats they needed to get control of the U.S. Senate (assuming they won the presidency, and the tie-breaking vote). It was a tall order, given that only one top pickup opportunity (Colorado) was in a 2016 blue state. But Donald Trump’s disastrous and deadly presidency hasn’t just crushed his own reelection chances, but is now threatening Republican Senate seats no one would’ve ever thought would be at risk, even in some solidly red states. 

Welcome to my inaugural ranking of Senate races, by most likely to flip. 

TIER ONE (expected to switch)

1. AlabamaDoug Jones (D)

Our two-year Democratic rental, thanks to a narrowly won special election against a child predator, should come to an end this November as Alabama’s strong Republican lean and a run-of-the-mill Republican challenger ends Jones’ term. No regrets. It was great while it lasted. 

2. Colorado, Cory Gardner (R)

Joe Biden will win Colorado by double-digits. There’s no way Gardner overcomes that margin, and especially not against former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who remained popular throughout his two terms in office. In fact, Gardner has acted as someone vying for a spot on a second Trump term, reliably defending his president during the impeachment proceedings, rather than a blue-state senator trying to differentiate himself from the top of the ticket. 

3. Arizona, Marth McSally (R)

McSally narrowly lost in the Democratic wave in 2018, and since appointed to fill Sen. John McCain’s seat after his death, she is headed toward another defeat at the hands of Democrat Mark Kelly, an astronaut and husband to former congresswoman and gun violence victim Gabby Giffords. Polling is showing both Biden and Kelly pulling away, in a state in which resurgent Latino voters and suburban white women are heavily engaging. 

4. North Carolina, Thom Tillis (R) 

Democratic Iraq and Afghanistan war vet Cal Cunningham has proven a surprisingly strong challenger to first-term Republican Thom Tillis, handily leading him in all recent polling. It’s not even looking close, in a state in which Biden has also led (albeit more narrowly). Tillis runs weakly against Republicans, who see him as a traitor to Trump’s cause. And the double-whammy of Trump losing the state, and Tillis losing Trump voters, looks too much to overcome. 

5. Maine, Susan Collins (R)

Collins survived decades as a Republican in blue Maine by pretending to be a “moderate” independent-minded legislator. The Trump years have torn that facade away, as she’s sided with the wannabe despot in both his Supreme Court nominations, and in voting to acquit him during the impeachment proceedings. Democrat Sara Gideon, Speaker of the Maine House, is leading in all recent polling, and would be the first woman of color (Indian American) elected in Maine. 

These five races would net Democrats the +3 seats they need for a 50-50 Senate, with Biden’s vice-president casting the tie-breaking vote. But what a nightmare that would be, right? We’d have the nominal majority, but well-short of the 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, and without the Democratic votes needs to eliminate that stupid filibuster. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has already declared he’d vote against any such efforts. So it is imperative that Democrats pad their majority in order to have the votes to get rid of the filibuster and push through critical legislation like statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico (if its residents vote for it), voting right protections, economic stimulus, police reforms, measures to address climate change, and other Democratic priorities. 

TIER TWO (toss-ups)  

6. Montana, Steve Daines (R)

How can Democrats be competitive in a state which Trump won by over 20 points? First, convince popular Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to run, then watch Trump’s numbers collapse to the point that Biden is actually competitive. Recent polling in this hard-to-poll state show Republicans with the narrow edge, but it’s narrow. 

7. Iowa, Joni Ernst (R) 

This wasn’t a state that was supposed to be competitive, with Trump winning by nine points in 2016. Yet Trump disastrous trade wars decimated Iowa farmers, and the coronavirus pandemic has only added to anti-GOP sentiment. So this state of rural non-college whites—the core base of the modern Republican Party—is suddenly flirting with voting Democratic. Most recent polling shows Trump leading by a hair, the same as Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. 

8. Georgia, Kelly Loeffler (R)

Georgia has a racist Jim Crow-era election system, in which candidates require 50% in the first round, otherwise the race moves to a January runoff. This is a special election, thus features a “jungle primary” in which all candidates, of all parties, run on the same ballot. If none reaches 50% (and none will), this gets decided January next year. Democrats are running several candidates, and would be best served if they rallied around Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (where Dr. Rev, Martin Luther King preached). 

While Democrats have traditionally suffered turnout woes during the runoff elections, I doubt that’ll be an issue this cycle. January will be HOT in Georgia. 

9. Georgia, David Perdue (R)

Same as above, except that there’s no jungle primary. Democrats nominated Jon Ossoff to take on the incumbent. Polling has been mixed in this race, with some showing a tied race, and others showing Perdue close to 50%. But at the same time, almost all polling is showing a competitive presidential contest. If Biden can extend his lead in this coronavirus-stricken state, he could very well pull Democrats across the line with him, at least into January runoffs where defeated and demoralized Republicans might just sit things out. 

TIER THREE (lean Republican)

These solidly Republican states shouldn’t be competitive at the Senate level, yet amazingly, they are! 

10. Kansas, Open (R)

The conventional wisdom is that if Republican nominate crazed right-winger Kris Kobach, that this seat in this +20 2016 Trump state becomes far more competitive in November. That would make sense, since Kobach cost Republicans the governorship in 2018. Our own Civiqs polling, actually, found Democrat Barbara Bollier competitive no matter who Republicans nominate. A tough state, for sure but Kansas is one of the few remaining Republican states with high educational attainment (the other being Utah). Given the nation’s partisan stratification based on college education, we can expect Biden to narrow the gap from 2016, improving Bollier’s chances down the ballot. And if Republicans nominate Kobach? That can’t hurt, either. 

11. Alaska, Dan Sullivan (R)

Alaska is competitive at the presidential level (more here), despite the fact that Trump won it by 15 in 2016. No polling has shown the Senate race competitive, but that’s because 1) there is no Democratic nominee—an independent is filling that slot, and 2) that nominee, Al Gross, has a name ID of about zero percent. Gross is now up in the air, and that should boost that name ID in this cheap state. Also, Democrats will now learn that he is their guy, and will answer accordingly the next time they’re polled. 

Without strength at the presidential level, this seat isn’t in play, but Alaska has been trending Democratic for several cycles now, and this year may be the year when that vast swath of land is painted in glorious blue. 

12. South Carolina, Lindsey Graham (R)

Pinch me I must be dreaming. Infamous Trump bootlicker Lindsey is vulnerable? Yes. Yes he is. The polling has shown the state tightening at the presidential level, and the pandemic is hitting South Carolina hard, further weakening the state’s dominant Republican Party. Democrats have an awesome candidate in Jaime Harrison. His problem has been that while he’s running even with Graham, most undecideds in the race are conservative voters. It’s a tough hill to overcome. But this is happening: 

Every point Trump falls is a point that could cost him in the presidential election, and every point that presidential race narrows is one point less Harrison needs to overcome to win the Senate seat. The play here isn’t for Biden to win, he doesn’t need South Carolina (as nice as it would be!). We need it close enough to give ourselves a chance down ballot. 

This is a long-shot, by all means, but it’s a real shot. And Harrison has raised record amounts of cash and has the resources to wage a real campaign in this final three-month sprint to Election Day.  

13. Texas, John Cornyn (R)

The big question in Texas is whether it is competitive at the presidential level or not. It’s clear where the state is trending, and no doubt in a cycle or two it will be legitimately purple. But polling is mixed on whether this is the year. And that will inform whether the Senate race is flippable. On its merits, Cornyn should be cruising to reelection. He has none of the baggage Sen. Ted Cruz had in 2018, where he held on to his seat by just 2% of the vote. But if Texas Democrats can get the state’s chronically underperforming Latino vote to activate, then all bets are off—at both the presidential and senate levels. 

CONCLUSION

Of the 13 Senate seats currently in play, 12 of them are held by Republicans. The odds of Democrats picking up 10 or 11 seats are currently low, but the trends just keep getting worse and worse for the GOP. The toll of the pandemic isn’t just worsening nationwide, it’s currently disproportionately affecting some of the very states discussed above, like Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, and Texas. 

Meanwhile, Trump is doing nothing to reverse his precipitous collapse in his national standing, while also refusing to allow Republicans to distance themselves from him. 

So can we get to a double-digit pickup in the Senate? Not today, we wouldn’t, but Republicans still have three months to fall. 

Morning Digest: New York conservatives gear up to take down GOP establishment-backed House candidate

The Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest is compiled by David Nir, Jeff Singer, Stephen Wolf, Carolyn Fiddler, and Matt Booker, with additional contributions from David Jarman, Steve Singiser, Daniel Donner, James Lambert, David Beard, and Arjun Jaikumar.

Leading Off

NY-27: Plenty of Republicans were pissed when party leaders awarded state Sen. Chris Jacobs the party's nomination for the upcoming special election for New York's 27th Congressional District, and now the GOP's usual allies in the state's small but influential Conservative Party are also taking their whacks.

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New York law allows candidates to accept nominations from multiple parties, and it's rare for the Conservatives not to support Republican picks. However, Conservative leaders said in late January that, rather than back the apparently squishy Jacobs, they would not nominate anyone for the upcoming special election, which is expected to be held on April 28.

This seat backed Trump 60-35, so Jacobs is still the favorite even without Conservative help. Because the election will likely take place on the same day as the presidential primary, though, disproportionate turnout on the left could give Democrats a boost.

But if Jacobs manages to win the special, the Conservatives are gearing up to make his life hell soon thereafter. The GOP primary for the regular two-year term will take place just two months later on June 23, and there Jacobs will face attorney Beth Parlato, who has earned enough support from local party officials to receive the state Conservative Party's endorsement.

The Conservatives also promised Parlato their party's line for the November general election, but don't expect to see her on the fall ballot if she loses in June. "I'm confident I will win the primary," she said. "But if by some chance I lose, I would never split the vote."

The Conservative Party isn't the only right-wing group that wants to beat Jacobs once the special is wrapped up. Last month, a spokesperson for the Club for Growth called the senator "too moderate" and added, "We are prepared to spend seven figures opposing Jacobs." The Club, though, hasn't endorsed either Parlato or Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw, who also decided to challenge Jacobs after losing the GOP nod for the special election.

So, why does Jacobs inspire this much far-right disgust? Jacobs has long had a reputation as a moderate and even identified as pro-choice during his failed 2006 run for lieutenant governor. It doesn't help that his running mate that year was none other than Bill Weld, the former Massachusetts governor who is currently challenging Donald Trump in the presidential primary. Jacobs' enemies also remember that he refused to take sides in 2016 when Trump was running against Hillary Clinton, the same year Jacobs first won his seat in the state Senate.

Once he got to Albany, Jacobs did put together an ardently conservative voting record, which included opposition to expanding access to abortion. Jacobs also has tried to reinvent himself as a proud Trumper, and has insisted that he "ran for re-election to assure that President Trump had an ally in this seat." (We wonder if Jacobs' constituents, who voted for Hillary Clinton 50-45, knew that when they gave him a second term him in 2018.) However, it seems that conservative fanatics simply don't believe his conversion is sincere and want to replace him with a purer strain of wingnut.

Senate

GA-Sen-B: While 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jason Carter expressed interest in running here back in late August, he took himself out of contention on Thursday by endorsing pastor Raphael Warnock.

MT-Sen: Politico reports that national Democrats haven't given up trying to convince Gov. Steve Bullock to challenge GOP Sen. Steve Daines despite his consistent denials of interest, but they don't seem to be making any progress. Barack Obama even met with Bullock privately on Thursday, but the governor's team publicly reaffirmed afterwards that he would not run. Montana's filing deadline is March 9, so the field will be set here soon.

A few Democrats are already challenging Daines in this 56-35 Trump state, and one of them ended 2019 with a big fundraising edge over the rest of the June primary field. Nonprofit founder Cora Neumann took in $460,000 during her opening fundraising quarter and had $292,000 to spend, while neither Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins nor Navy veteran John Mues had so much as $40,000 on-hand. Daines, though, had an imposing $5 million war chest at the close of December.

NC-Sen: Politico reports that VoteVets is spending $2.5 million on a new two-week ad campaign supporting former state Sen. Cal Cunningham in the March 3 Democratic primary. VoteVets' affiliated nonprofit has already spent $3.3 million to help Cunningham win the nod to take on GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.

TN-Sen: Mason-Dixon is out with a new poll for local media organizations that unsurprisingly finds Republicans in good shape to hold this open Senate seat. Former Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, who has Donald Trump's endorsement, leads Army veteran James Mackler 55-33 in a hypothetical general election, while physician Manny Sethi beats the Democrat 46-35.

House

AZ-01: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy endorsed 2018 candidate Tiffany Shedd on Thursday in the August Republican primary to face Democratic Rep. Tom O'Halleran. Shedd, who took third in the primary last cycle, had more money by far at the end of December than any other Republican running here, but her $91,000 war chest still wasn't good. However, McCarthy seems to have decided that Team Red isn't going to get a better contender for this competitive Northeastern Arizona seat.

O'Halleran does face some primary opposition from the left, but neither of his opponents look very threatening. Former Flagstaff City Councilor Eva Putzova had just $15,000 in the bank at the end of 2019, while former state Sen. Barbara McGuire still hasn't reported raising any cash. O'Halleran, by contrast, had $919,000 on-hand to defend a district that narrowly backed both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump.

IL-03: Activist Rush Darwish is up with what Politico reports is his second TV spot of the March 17 Democratic primary against conservative Rep. Dan Lipinski.

Darwish says that the district can't just "keep electing the same people and expect a different result," though he doesn't mention Lipinski directly. Darwish describes himself as a "lifelong humanitarian and father who spends time volunteering to raise money for medical procedures on children affected by violence," and says he supports "Medicare for all who want it."

IN-05: Former Marion County Prosecutor Carl Brizzi announced Thursday, just one day before the filing deadline, that he would compete in the May GOP primary for this open seat.

Brizzi had been out of office since 2011, and the intervening years haven't been good for him. He was reprimanded by the state Supreme Court in 2017 for a conflict of interest between his real estate business and a 2009 criminal case his office prosecuted. That reprimand included a 30-day suspension of his law license for "professional misconduct" after he intervened to reduce the severity of a plea deal given to a client of his real estate partner, who was the client's criminal defense attorney at the time.

Brizzi kicked off his new campaign by acknowledging, "I certainly made some mistakes." He continued, "And I own them. Secondly, there's nobody in the race that's more vetted than me."

MD-07: Dels. Terri Hill and Talmadge Branch and law professor Michael Higginbotham have each announced that they will not compete in the April Democratic primary for the regular two-year term. All three were on the ballot in Tuesday's special primary and finished far behind former Rep. Kweisi Mfume. The filing deadline for the April primary passed in late January, but candidates had until Thursday to remove their names from the ballot.

Mfume, who represented a previous version of this Baltimore seat from 1987 until he resigned in 1996 to lead the NAACP, won the Democratic nod on Tuesday by beating former state party chair Maya Rockeymoore Cummings by a lopsided 43-17 margin. Rockeymoore Cummings and state Sen. Jill Carter, who was in third place with 16%, have each said that they'll keep running in April, but it's going to be very tough for anyone to beat Mfume after his decisive victory.

PA-01: Pennsbury school board member Debbie Wachspress recently picked up an endorsement from 2018 Democratic nominee Scott Wallace for her bid to take on GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in this 49-47 Clinton seat. Wachspress also recently earned the backing of Bucks County Prothonotary Judi Reiss, who dropped out last month, as well as 2018 primary candidates Rachel Reddick and Steve Bacher.

Wachspress' local endorsements come a little less than three months after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that national Democrats, including the DCCC and EMILY's List, were dissatisfied with the field. However, no other serious candidates have entered the race since then, and with the Feb. 18 filing deadline coming up fast, it looks unlikely that any will.

While it remains to be seen how national Democrats feel about Wachspress now, she very much looks like the frontrunner in the April primary. Wachspress ended 2019 with $355,000 on-hand while her intra-party opponents, Bucks County housing department official Christina Finello and businessman Skylar Hurwitz, each had less than $12,000 in the bank.

Whoever wins the nod is going to be in for a difficult race against Fitzpatrick. The incumbent held off Wallace 51-49 during last cycle's Democratic wave, and he ended 2019 with a strong $1.4 million war chest.

TN-01: State Sen. Rusty Crowe announced Thursday that he would join the August GOP primary for this safely red open seat in East Tennessee.

Crowe has a very long career in state politics going back to 1990, when he was elected to the state Senate as a Democrat: Crowe recently said that he ran with Team Blue back then because he'd missed the deadline to file as a Republican and decided to launch a write-in campaign for the Democratic nod. He explained that it was "difficult" serving in the legislature as a Democrat and that he was unpopular with his party's leadership, though Crowe waited until 1995 to switch to the GOP.

The only other notable Republican who has entered the race to succeed retiring Rep. Phil Roe so far is former Kingsport Mayor John Clark. A number of other local politicians did express interest in getting in after Roe announced his retirement in January, and they still have a while to decide before the early April filing deadline.

TX-10: For the second quarter in a row, GOP Rep. Michael McCaul has pretended that he raised considerably more money for his re-election campaign than he actually raised.

Last month, before FEC reports were due, McCaul put out a press release saying he raised "nearly" $500,000, but he actually brought in $378,000. The congressman ended 2019 with $984,000 to spend, which is also short of the $1 million he said he had. The Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston writes that McCaul's half a million figure included money from his affiliated PACs, which she explains is not standard operating procedure when announcing fundraising numbers.

Back in October, McCaul also announced that he'd brought in $400,000 during the third quarter of 2019, but his FEC report soon revealed that he'd actually raised $334,000; we're not sure what McCaul was including to get that extra $64,000 back then, but it was not money for his campaign. Inside Elections' Nathan Gonzales recently put out a great Twitter thread about how journalists view candidates' FEC reports, and we'll take particular note of his final point: "If you play games with one report, then it will just invite more scrutiny on future reports."

In past cycles no one would have cared how much McCaul did or did not raise his safely red seat, but his seat isn't safely red anymore. Donald Trump's 53-42 win in 2016 was a noticeable drop from Mitt Romney's 59-39 performance four years before, and Team Red also had a rough ride here in 2018: McCaul fended off Democrat Mike Siegel by a surprisingly close 51-47 margin, and Beto O'Rourke narrowly carried this district 49.6-49.5 against GOP Sen. Ted Cruz.

Siegel is running again in the March 3 primary, but two other Democrats have considerably more money than him. Attorney Shannon Hutcheson held a small $456,000 to $451,000 cash-on-hand edge over medical school professor Pritesh Gandhi, while Siegel had $152,000 to spend. If no one takes a majority of the vote next month a runoff would take place in May.

TX-28: Immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros is out with a new TV spot ahead of her March 3 Democratic primary with conservative Rep. Henry Cuellar. Cisneros begins, "Today in South Texas, it seems like no one is helping people afford health care. So we sell plates of chicken, we have loterías, we go to Mexico." The candidate then talks about how her aunt died of stomach cancer because she was unable to pay for treatment and continues, "Unlike Congressman Cuellar, I don't take money from health insurance lobbyists or corporate PACs."

We also have a copy of a commercial that Texas Forward, which is allied with EMILY's List, is running to support Cisneros as part of its $1.2 million buy. The narrator argues there's "a damn big" difference between the candidates and takes Cuellar for task for having refusing to sponsor raising the minimum wage and voting "with Republicans to oppose unions, to cut funding for Planned Parenthood." The second half of the ad pledges that Cisneros will stand up for women, workers, and families.

WI-07: Campaign finance reports are out for this special election covering the period of Oct. 1 to Jan. 29, and Army veteran Jason Church and state Sen. Tom Tiffany are in a similar position ahead of the Feb. 18 special GOP primary.

Church outraised Tiffany $653,000 to $463,000 during this time, though the state senator outspent Church $510,000 to $464,000. Tiffany also had a small $208,000 to $189,000 cash-on-hand advantage for the final weeks of the race. The Club for Growth and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been running commercials on Tiffany's behalf, while With Honor Fund has aired some ads for Church.

On the Democratic side, Wausau School Board president Tricia Zunker took in $145,000 during the fundraising period and had $64,000 to spend, while businessman Lawrence Dale didn't report bringing in anything. The general election for this 58-37 Trump seat is May 12.