Mitch McConnell Probably Won’t Lose in November. Here’s How Democrats Can Actually Win Back The Senate.
The Democrat’s most realistic path to taking back the Senate does not run through Kentucky.
UPDATE: Amy McGrath has won the Kentucky Democratic Senate Primary. Changes made to the article reflect McGrath’s win
THE CASE AGAINST A KENTUCKY UPSET
Imagine waking up on November 4th, checking your phone and seeing a news alert from CNN- Donald Trump has lost the Presidential Election to Vice President Joe Biden, Democrats have taken back control of the Senate, and Mitch McConnell has lost his seat to his Democratic challenger. This moment is the dream, or, the waking moment from a nightmare, that Democratic activists have been waiting for for nearly a decade: Democrats take control of all three chambers of Congress, and Mitch McConnell, the face of legislative gridlock and a cruel Republican agenda moving in lockstep, has been defeated. Mitch’s Bill Graveyard has been dug up, and a Chuck E. Schumer’s Pizza Time Theatre has been built over it.
Any writer who covers electoral politics has to be careful when interpreting data and reaching conclusions; while one can make an educated guess based on current data and historical precedent about the results of a future election, a Presidential nominee’s running mate, how a particular administration will govern, etc., any politically savvy individual risks taking the information at their fingertips and becoming a false oracle, making assumptions and predications about events that have not yet occurred, and no one can claim to know the future. So, it would be journalistically irresponsible to say something like “Amy McGrath could not possibly beat Mitch McConnell in November” or “Mitch McConnell will not lose his seat this year”. So, in keeping with journalistic integrity, I will say this, and it’s something most Democrats don’t want to hear: It is really, really unlikely that Mitch McConnell will lose his Senate seat in November, and putting energy and money into the McGrath vs. McConnell race is very, very likely a poor allocation of those resources.
If you cherry pick some data, there is a lot that suggests that Mitch McConnell could be overcome in the General Election: McConnell is the most unpopular politician in a major leadership position in the country, according to RealClearPolitics, with a net -23% approval rating. Even in his home state of Kentucky, McConnell has a net approval rating of -8%, according to the most recent poll from Public Policy Polling. As of 2020, there are almost 200,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Kentucky, and in the last statewide election, the Gubernatorial faceoff between Andy Beshear and Matt Bevin, the Democrat came out on top. Amy McGrath is a fundraising machine, raising more than $40 million in the run up to the Democratic Primary. Wouldn’t all this suggest that Mitch McConnell could realistically lose in November?
Well, he could. Nancy Pelosi could lose her seat to progressive challenger Shahid Buttar, and Joe Biden could choose Michelle Obama as his running mate. But when talking in terms about what is realistic, realistically, none of these are likely to occur. McConnell is not a weak incumbent, despite what his approval ratings might say, and he certainly isn’t an inexperienced campaigner. This will be McConnell’s sixth reelection campaign- he’s the longest serving Republican Senator in Kentucky’s history, and that’s not a fluke. McConnell has been in power for so long because he is a mean, effective, wealthy campaigner with a tight grip on Kentucky’s political apparatus. His national unpopularity is, paradoxically, a result of his strong political prowess; He squishes opposition into the dirt, does not play nice, and gleefully boasts his reputation as the Grim Reaper of many a Democratic bill or campaign. He is America’s most powerful heel. It’s why he’s been the Majority Leader of the Senate for so long- and his leadership position means that, independent of his own personal war chest, McConnell’s campaign will have deep, deep pockets. He has full name recognition, for better or worse, and will be on the ballot under one Republican who is popular in Kentucky, President Donald Trump.
Trump won Kentucky in a landslide and 2016, and will probably do so again in 2020, and as we will later examine, the President’s performance in a particular state will be pretty important for any Senate race in the fall. And while there may be more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, a McConnell defeat would require huge Black Democrat turnout statewide, and Tuesday’s primary made it clear that Kentucky has ways around allowing Black citizens to cast their votes. Beshear’s narrow victory over Bevin may not be a good analogy for the McConnell reelection, as Bevin was a historically unpopular first term governor who had burnt many bridges within the Republican party, and Beshear’s father was the state’s popular governor who served until just before Bevin’s time in office. And Beshear still only won by .5%. McConnell, in many ways, is the Republican party, and all bridges lead back to him. It’s not like McConnell hasn’t been in a tough reelection before- the 2014 Senate Race was rated Lean Republican by Cook Political Report, the same as the current race, and the Democratic challenger, Alison Grimes, much like McGrath, was an impressive fundraiser and considered a strong opponent against the nationally loathed McConnell. McConnell was listed among the most vulnerable Senators both in his own primary and the general, and he still won in November by 16%- in a year without a Presidential election.
McConnell’s current position is déjà vu, and perhaps in a Blue Wave, McGrath could come within low double digits of McConnell, or even within the high single digits, but it’s highly unlikely that either will beat him. Despite the buzz around her name and the Senate race, the latest non partisan polling has McGrath down 20%. If Democrats want to win back the Senate in the fall, they will need to use their energy (and their dollars) in the most strategic regions, in states they can actually win. There are at least ten better states for Democrats to focus on to take back control of the upper chamber of Congress. Putting all your eggs in one Kentucky fried basket would be a major misstep by Democrats, and would increase the risk another 2 years of Republican control of the upper chamber of Congress.
COATTAILS AND THE INCREASING POWER OF PARTISANSHIP
In 2016, for the first time in United States history, every Senate race was won by the party that won the Presidential race in that state. There were no states that Clinton won where a Republican won a Senate race, and vice versa. Straight-ticket voting occurs with increasing frequency in the modern political era; The political and cultural divides between the Democratic and Republican party have become so rigid, and so all consuming within the political realm, voters have become more singularly concerned with party identity as opposed to specific issues, policy, character or geography. On the ballot, Republican means Trump, Democrat means Not Trump. More than ever, the Coattails Effect has significant bearing on down ballot races. The Coattails Effect refers to when the candidate at the top of the ticket, usually the Presidential Candidates, influences voters to vote for candidates of the same party down the ballot. For example, in a midterm election, the Senate Election will probably appear at the top of the ballot, or at least be the most publicized election in the region. Voters have more clarity in discerning the differences between the two candidates, and what they’ve heard about them over the campaigning period. In a Presidential Election, the Senate candidates are two names under or to the side of the Presidential Candidates, who voters have seen and heard about ad nauseum for months. So in an extremely partisan era, during a Presidential Election, a Senator may be elected on the coattails of the Presidential Candidate, with many voters seeing the D or R next to the name of the Senate candidate and matching their vote with who they voted for in the Presidential Election, which they consider to be the more important race. Republicans generally want Republicans to win, and Democrats want Democrats to win. This will likely be extremely important in 2020, where many potential Democratic pickups are in states that Trump won in 2016.
THE PATH TO FLIPPING THE SENATE
As it currently stands, there are 53 Republican Senators and 45 Democratic Senators, plus two independent Senators that caucus with Democrats. So Democrats need to only net three seats in order to win the Senate if Joe Biden wins the Presidential Election, or four if Donald Trump is reelected. However, just winning three or four elections probably won’t be enough for Democrats to win back the Senate, for the same reason that the Mitchum Brothers’ Silver Mustang Casino nearly went out of business in the third season of Twin Peaks: Doug Jones. The Alabama Senator won his seat in a special election to replace Jeff Sessions, who had been tapped to serve as Donald Trump’s Attorney General. He faced off against the notorious Roy Moore, who had been accused of, among other things, sexual misconduct, dating underage girls in his thirties, and virulent Islamaphobia. Jones was elected by a slight margin, and any Republican who isn’t as absurdly scandalous as Moore has a very good chance of taking the seat back.
Democrats will need to win a safety seat to cover for Jones’ likely loss, meaning Democrats will likely have to flip four or five seats to take control of the Senate. This is feasible, and there are several opportunities for Democratic pickups around the country, but some races are far more winnable contests than others. Determining which races will be at the tipping point of Democrats’ path to the Senate is crucial, as these are the races where Democrats will have to strategically focus their energy and organizing power. There are three seats that are likely to flip to Democrats, but it’s the fourth and fifth pickups that get tricky. Let’s look at the Senate seats most likely to flip to Democrats and then make our way to the tossups, and determine which are the best bets for Democrats.
LIKELY DEMOCRAT FLIPS
First term Republican Senator Cory Gardner is generally regarded as among the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. He’s not particularly popular, and Colorado’s recent blue streak has put him in a difficult situation. He will most likely face off against former Governor John Hickenlooper, who left office hugely popular, and went on to mount a Presidential Campaign where, although he topped out at 1% in national polling, he was able to boost his national profile. Gardner has been trailing Hickenlooper in nearly every poll by a wide margin, and if Hickenlooper is able to ride Joe Biden’s coattails in a state that will likely vote blue in the fall, he will probably oust Senator Gardner.
Hillary Clinton came surprisingly close to winning the traditionally Republican Arizona in 2016, coming within 3.5% of Donald Trump. Since 2016, Arizona has trended closer and closer to Democrats, most notably electing Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. Her opponent, Martha McSally, is currently the Junior Senator up for reelection, having been appointed to the seat in 2019 to fill out the rest of Senator Jon Kyl’s term. McSally, like Gardner, is not wildly popular, and McSally was not elected to her current seat. The Democratic Party nominated Mark Kelly, former Astronaut and husband of former Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords was the victim of an assassination attempt in 2011, leading to her resignation from Congress. In her post congressional career, Giffords has become an outspoken Gun Safety advocate, adding a strong emotional dynamic to Kelly’s campaign. Arizona’s Democrats are generally on the moderate side, and moderate Democrats are largely concerned with the decade long epidemic of gun violence. Despite never haven been elected to public office, Kelly has proved to be a worthy opponent, putting up impressive fundraising numbers and easily clinching the Democratic nomination. He has led McSally in most polls by impressive numbers; Biden also leads Trump in Arizona in most polling, but Kelly’s aggregate lead is actually larger than Biden’s. If current trends hold, both Democrats at the top of the ticket will prevail, granting its electoral votes to Vice President Joe Biden and leaving Arizona, which last went blue in 1996, with two Democratic Senators.
Susan Collins is the last Republican Senator in the North East. In fact, she’s the only Republican member of Congress in New England. Collins’ downfall has long been predicted, given that moderate Congressional Republicans in the Trump Era have not generally been able to toe the line between appealing to the Republican base and living up to their bipartisan aesthetic. Her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court put huge dents in her approval rating, and activists have been foaming the mouth for years to see the fall of the Lone Republican Survivor. Collins has fallen into the trap that most moderate Republicans have since 2016: Instead of bolstering support with both parties, she has weakened her standing with both the left and right flank of the electorate. Republicans do not see her as an effective ally to President Trump, and Democrats see her as a traitor to the bipartisan ideal she is supposed to embody, as even though she tends to make a show of whenever she disagrees with the President on something, she eventually falls into line with strongly Trump-aligned Republicans. Her opponent is State Rep. Sara Gideon, the current Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. While early polling gave Collins an edge on Gideon, as Gideon has increased her name recognition, she has taken the lead most polls. Given that Maine usually votes Democratic, and that Democrat Jared Golden defeated Rep. Bruce Poliquin in Maine’s 2nd District in the 2018 Midterms (which went for Trump in 2016), a strong Biden performance in the state will probably help Gideon overtake Collins, although Gideon currently seems to be in a good position all on her own. To the delight of Democrats across the country, it’s very likely it will be lights out for Collins in November.
So that’s three seats. If this is all Democrats win, and Jones loses, Democrats are at 49 seats, meaning they don’t control the Senate no matter who wins the Presidency. Out of the next eight races, Democrats have to win at least two to comfortably win the Senate no matter the outcome of the Presidential Election. These are not listed in order of most to least likely to flip to Democrats- we’ll evaluate that later. Here are the Senate races I classify as tossups.
1. NORTH CAROLINA
Despite its southern culture and heavy gerrymandering, North Carolina is not necessarily unfriendly to Democrats. North Carolina has a Democratic Governor, and Obama carried the state in 2008. Senator Thom Tillis is up for reelection, and there’s a chance he succumbs to Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve and former State Senator. Cunningham has led in most polling against Tillis, although the polls indicate it’s a tight race. Tillis was wrapped up in the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, when it was revealed that the firm had been violating the privacy of millions of Facebook users by obtaining information from them without their knowledge. Tillis had paid $30,000 to Cambridge Analytica for his 2014 Senate Campaign. Though Cunningham does lead in the polling aggregate, Biden and Trump are essentially tied in the Tar Heel State, and if Trump wins North Carolina, it may help Tillis squeak out a victory. Alternatively, in a Blue Wave, Cunningham could win by a comfortable margin.
A popular Governor turned failed presidential candidate goes back home and decides to run for Senate. American politics are full of déjà vu. Former Governor of Montana, Steve Bullock, will most likely be the Democrat to take on first term Republican Senator Steve Daines. While Daines has a pretty clean record, and Montana is a deeply red state, the popular Bullock has put the race into play. As a smaller state, Montana is more open to split ticket voting, often electing Democrats to federal offices despite awarding their electoral votes to Republicans since 1992. There hasn’t been much polling in Montana, but what polling there has been shows Bullock with a slight lead over Daines, though one that couldn’t be wiped out by Trumps’ coattails. However, it’s Montana- a smaller state where the electorate is not as strictly partisan as the rest of the country, and the electorate knows Steve Bullock fairly well. And they like him a lot. Perhaps Trumps’ inevitable blowout in Montana won’t be enough to save Daines, but it’s enough to give pause when looking at any Montana Poll that shows Bullock in the lead.
Just reading the word Iowa in 2020 still sends shivers down the spine of any politico, but not to worry- voting in the General Election will likely not be facilitated through an app. Unpopular incumbent Joni Ernst is facing Theresa Greenfield, president of a Des Moines based real estate company. Despite her low profile (Greenfield does not even have a Wikipedia page!), Greenfield has pulled ahead of Ernst in recent polling. While Trump still has an edge in Iowa, Biden has been within low single digits of Trump’s margin in most polling, meaning that Ernst may not receive much of an advantage from Trump come November. With enough enthusiasm and ground game, Ernst could lose even if Trump wins by a narrow margin. Still, Cook Political Report rates this race as Lean Republican.
NOT LIKELY, BUT BETTER THAN KENTUCKY
If Democrats win the Senate races in CO, AZ and ME, plus two of the three tossup states, they will be guaranteed to win the Senate. Yet, there’s a real chance that they only win one tossup, or lose all of them. The rest of the races that are feasible for Democrats are a reach, and would certainly be upsets, but they aren’t out of the question.
1. SOUTH CAROLINA
South Carolina will likely go to Trump in November, but I think that if Democrats were to pull any upset in the fall, it would be in South Carolina. Lindsey Graham is, to put it kindly, disliked, nationally, and is not particularly popular in his home state. There have been rumors swirling regarding Graham’s personal life that would certainly be considered scandalous that I will not address here, although I would not discount them coming up later in the campaign season. Jaime Harrison, an associate chairman of the DNC, is running a strong campaign against Graham, and the latest polling has them tied. While Trump’s place at the top of the ballot could undoubtedly help Graham, Graham has flip flopped from an anti-Trump Republican to a fierce Trump defender- so it would not be a surprise for Republicans voting for Trump to question Graham’s loyalty, as his reputation certainly precedes him. While Graham is likely to hold onto his seat, a Harrison upset is certainly not out of the question, and given Graham’s national profile and his notoriety, it would not be shocking to see a lot of energy spent trying to unseat him in November.
2. GEORGIA SPECIAL ELECTION
Kelly Loeffler was appointed to the Senate to fill out the rest of Senator Johnny Isakson’s term- already not a great electoral position to be in. Add on top of that the truly breathtaking insider trading scandal in which Loeffler was involved at the beginning of the COVID Pandemic, and it looks like Kelly Loeffler is in a very vulnerable position. Here’s the catch with this election- it won’t happen until 2021. A special election is set for January of 2021, and there will not be a traditional primary. Rather, on the day of the General Election, a sort of jungle primary will be held where, regardless of party, the two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the special election. Loeffler is being challenged from her left and right. Rep. Doug Collins, an ardent supporter of Trump during his Impeachment Hearings, is primarying Loeffler, and many Republicans feel that Collins would be a safer bet in the special election than Loeffler, who may or may not have committed a federal crime. The Democrat who has received the most endorsements is Reverend Raphael Warnock, a preacher and civil rights activist. If the November Primary results in Collins vs. Warnock, it’ll probably stay in Republican hands. However, if Loeffler manages to survive the primary, she will be in a very precarious position come January- polling in this particular scenario has Loeffler down against Warnock 13%. Here’s where it gets interesting: in a scenario where Joe Biden has won the Presidency, but Democrats have only won 49 Senate seats, we may not know who will control the Senate until right before Biden is inaugurated. Likewise, if Trump wins the election, and Democrats have won 50 Senate seats, the control of the Senate is up in the air until January. Neither of these two scenarios are out of the question, and the party who loses the General Election would likely be fired up to maintain control of at least one chamber of Congress. While this race will undoubtedly bring many headaches, it’s an interesting one to pay attention to.
3. GEORGIA- PERDUE v. OSSOFF
If you have nostalgia for 2017, you’re in luck! Put on your Fjallraven backpack, stream Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE and strap in- Jon Ossoff’s back! Ossoff gained pseudo-national figure status in early 2017 during the GA-6 Special Election, the first election of the Trump Presidency. It was the most expensive special election in history, and, looking back, perhaps the massive attention it was given was undue, as it was not really an accurate bellwether for the future of politics in affluent white suburbia. Democrats were hoping to flip the seat as a repudiation against Trump, but Ossoff narrowly lost the race to Karen Handel, who subsequently lost the seat in the fall of 2018 to Lucy McBath. Ossoff was criticized for being a bit stiff, milquetoast, and too fresh faced- a sort of Proto-Buttigieg. However, Ossoff came back with a vengeance to sweep the Democratic Primary in Georgia, avoiding a summer runoff, to take on incumbent Senator David Perdue. Georgia is truly a tossup in all regards- the state trends bluer every year, but the state goes out of its way to make voting difficult for Black voters, which likely kept Stacey Abrams from winning the Governorship in 2018. Trump has a slight lead in current polling, but the same polling gives Ossoff a slight edge over Perdue. While a Democrat win in Georgia will require significant Black turnout, Ossoff may be able to play to the affluent white suburbanites who have trended towards Democrats since 2016, who, interestingly, don’t seem to have as much trouble voting on Election Day. Georgia will be one of the most interesting, and probably most frustrating, states to pay attention to during the General Election, as Democrats may finally bring the state into their column, or it may remain just out of reach for another four years.
Kris Kobach has been a real thorn in Kansas Republicans’ side recently. After blowing the Gubernatorial race to Laura Kelly in 2018, he may come back to win the Republican nomination for the Senate and face off against Barbara Bollier, a state senator. While Kansas is a red state, Kobach has proven to be electoral poison. If it’s him against Bollier in November, he may very well lose again. However, Republican leaders seem to be pulling for Rep. Roger Marshall to win the nomination, hoping to turn a potentially catastrophic repeat of 2018 into a comfortable win. The primary isn’t until August, so we won’t know the full state of the race until the nominations are officially clinched.
On July 14th, retired Air Force Major MJ Hegar will probably win the Democratic nomination and face incumbent John Cornyn in November. Most analysts rate this race as Likely R, as there hasn’t been much reliable polling given that we do not know who the Democratic nominee will be, and what polling there has been contained huge numbers of undecided voters. Trump leads in Texas nationally, but not by much, and if Hegar is able to increase her name recognition and strengthen her fundraising, she may stand a chance against the well funded Cornyn, but not even Beto O’Rourke, one-time political superstar, could flip a Texas Senate Seat against an even more unpopular Republican incumbent. I rate this as a more viable pickup for Democrats than Kentucky because, while still probably out of reach, in a Blue Tsunami Texas would fall to Democrats long before Kentucky does.
DEFINING THE PATH
All of these races are more realistic than toppling Mitch McConnell, who will probably best Amy McGrath, even if by a narrow margin. While I would be delighted to see Mitch McConnell lose his seat, the Kentucky Senate race is most likely a foregone conclusion, and there are better ways to spend your energy to help Democrats take the Senate back than phone banking for Booker or McGrath.
Democrats need to win, at minimum, four, and at maximum, five of the eleven contests listed to win back the Senate. They’re in a strong position to win at least three of them. Where those last two may come from most likely lies in those Tossup states, where increased volunteering, media and fundraising could make the difference between a narrow victory and a narrow loss. That means that if you’re looking to donate to some political campaigns, I would say this- first, stop and donate to the memorial fund of Elijah McClain, or any of the memorial funds listed here. In the current moment, your financial contributions should be directed towards mutual aid, or local organizations that will assist vulnerable communities in your area. November is still a few months off, and there are a lot more people that need your money now than John Hickenlooper. But, down the line, should you find yourself wanting to contribute in some way to a Senate campaign, whether by phone banking, donating, canvassing, etc., here are the races that I think would get you the most electoral bang for your buck (literal or otherwise):
- Sara Gideon, Maine
- Theresa Greenfield, Iowa
- Cal Cunningham, North Carolina
- Jaime Harrison, South Carolina
- Mark Kelly, Arizona
- Steve Bullock, Montana
- Barbara Bollier, Kansas
Let’s define the path. If Democrats win the Senate, the path begins in Arizona, then up to Colorado, then out east to Maine. Then, most likely, through North Carolina- and then the path gets thorny. If another Blue Wave rolls in, the path could clear up and lead back out west to Montana, Kansas (if Kobach wins the Republican Primary) or, what I believe is the most realistic Democratic pickup, Iowa. It’s the state where Trump has the smallest lead, and it’s a relatively small state that has only recently trended red. If Biden performs strong nationally, Joni Ernst would probably be the first true tossup Senator to lose her seat. There is a chance that the path could end somewhere down south in Texas or Georgia, but it’s more likely that the tipping point will be back where the year started- in Iowa.
If that doesn’t scare you enough, consider again the very real possibility that Joe Biden will win the Presidency, but Democrats only net two pickups, flipping three seats but losing Alabama. Or that Trump is reelected and Democrats net three seats. Until January, all eyes will be on Georgia, where voting rights go to die.
2020 may go down as one of the most chaotic years in recent history- and the fun part hasn’t even started yet!