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Control of the U.S. Senate looks to be in play

The Inside Elections summary puts it this way: “Most likely outcome: Democratic gain of +3-5 seats.”

The doors to the U.S. Senate floor are closed at the Capitol during the coronavirus disease outbreak.
The doors to the U.S. Senate floor are closed at the Capitol during the coronavirus disease outbreak.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

What are the chances that Democrats will take control of the U.S. Senate next year?

I don’t know what will happen with any certainty, and neither, I cautiously assume, does anyone else. But if you look at the current ratings from “Inside Elections” (led by Nathan Gonzales,) it looks like this:

The current Senate is composed of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, plus two independents who caucus with the Dems, so call it 53-47. Democrats need a net plus-three to get to 50, which would be enough if they also pick up the vice presidency (because the veep is constitutionally authorized to vote in case of 50-50 ties) or four to get to a clear majority of 51.

Inside Elections says that among the seats on the ballot this year, FOUR Republican-held seats (Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina) currently “tilt Democratic.” (Tilt means less than “lean,” but slightly favored based on current polling.)

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Only one seat currently held by a Democrat is in much danger of flipping (the Doug Jones seat in Alabama), but Gonzales rates that a “lean,” which, again, is stronger than a “tilt.”

So if all those seats just go the way IE says they are tilting, the Senate would be 50-50 next year, and the veep might be casting a lot of tie-breaking votes.

Or, control of the Senate could come down to the outcome in the two races that IE rates as pure “toss-ups.”

… and both of those are currently held by Republican senators, namely:

  • Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa, who faces Democrat Democrat Theresa Greenfield. Greenfield has led narrowly in three recent polls; 
  • Sen. Steve Daines in Montana, who led former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock by one point (45-44) in the most recent poll, by the New York Times. And that might be even slightly better for Bullock, because the poll unfortunately listed a Green Party candidate, who, it turns out, will not be on the ballot, but whom the poll said might get 3 percent.

These are all just poll numbers, not quite “facts,” because there are margins for error. But I will say this: 

Early in this cycle, when I looked at which states were scheduled to have Senate races in 2020, I thought the list overwhelmingly favored the Republicans to retain control, because there were so few “purple” states in which Republican incumbents were up for reelection. 

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But that’s old thinking. The latest and best poll numbers, at least as analyzed by Gonzales, would suggest that control of the Senate is pretty much in play. The Inside Elections summary puts it this way: “Most likely outcome: Democratic gain of +3-5 seats.”