It's not just the White House: Senate control on the line in 2020

Trump privately told donors a couple of weeks ago that it would be "very tough" for the GOP to maintain its Senate majority. Is that true?
Image: The sun rises on the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2019.
The sun rises on the Capitol in Washington on Sept. 19, 2019.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

There's been ample speculation in recent weeks about what Joe Biden might be able to do -- and how he might be able to do it -- if the former vice president manages to defeat Donald Trump. Much of the discussion has focused on a range of ambitious possibilities, ranging from judicial reforms to economic aid to the possible end of the legislative filibuster.

But at the heart of this speculation is a suspect assumption: if Biden wins, the argument goes, it will reflect a good year for his party, which in turn means that the new Democratic president would work alongside a Congress led by his partisan allies.

It's not nearly that simple -- and not just because a Biden victory is far from assured. As MSNBC's Chris Hayes noted on Twitter yesterday, "I feel like the possibility of a Biden win coupled with a narrow [GOP] Senate majority hasn't been much explored because it's so awful to contemplate, but it's a very real possibility!"

It really is. The New York Times had a good report on this over the weekend:

[Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer called the battle for the Senate a "nail-biter," but said the outlook for Democrats was far brighter than it was only a few months ago.... Republicans quietly agree that their prospects have dimmed considerably. One Senate Republican leader said privately that the party could end up with anywhere from 47 to 52 seats.

That sounds about right, though there's obviously an enormous governing difference between those two numbers.

The arithmetic is relatively straight forward: Republicans currently enjoy a 53-47 majority in the chamber. For Democrats, that creates a difficult challenge: a net gain of three seats would create a tie, but effective Democratic control if the Biden/Harris ticket succeeds. A net gain of four seats would be necessary to claim a majority outright.

And the party hasn't seen that kind of success in a single election cycle since 2008. That doesn't mean it's impossible, but it reinforces how difficult the task is.

The good news for Democrats is that the map has expanded in ways few expected. As the year got underway, the conventional wisdom was that only a handful of Senate contests were likely to be competitive, giving Republicans an important edge in the fight for control of the chamber.

But as 2020 has progressed, the number of competitive seats -- including contests the GOP has been forced to invest in -- has grown in ways few saw coming.

For Democrats, the test isn't limited to flipping "red" seats to "blue"; it also involves holding onto seats they currently hold. That, of course, isn't easy, either: in Alabama, incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D) is an underdog against retired college football coach and failed hedge-fund manager Tommy Tuberville (R). If Jones comes up short, as both parties seem to expect, the Dems' challenge becomes that much more difficult.

That said, Democrats have quite a few options. In alphabetical order:

Alaska: Incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) is generally seen as the favorite, but his polling advantage over Al Gross has been modest, and both parties have recently invested in this race. (Note: Gross is an independent who accepted the Democratic nomination.)

Arizona: Appointed incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R) is one of this year's most vulnerable Republican incumbents, and nearly every recent poll has shown Mark Kelly (D) ahead.

Colorado: Incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner (R) is the only GOP incumbent senator this year running in a blue state. All recent polling shows him trailing former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and the DSCC has pulled out of the state, confident that the race is in hand.

Georgia: Not only is incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R) facing a tough race against Jon Ossoff (D), but Raphael Warnock (D) has a shot at winning the seat currently held by appointed incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R).

Iowa: As 2020 got underway, incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst (R) was not seen as especially vulnerable. That's changed in a hurry: Theresa Greenfield (D) has run a very strong campaign, and several recent polls suggest she has a chance of prevailing.

Kansas: Given that Kansas hasn't elected a Democratic senator since 1932, when Sen. Pat Roberts (R) announced his retirement, few questioned whether the seat would remain in GOP hands. Assumptions have changed of late: Barbara Bollier (D), a former moderate Republican, is scaring the heck out of the GOP and its allies, who've been forced to spend millions to bolster Rep. Roger Marshall (R).

Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) is favored to win, but Amy McGrath (D) has raised enough money to keep a credible challenge going.

Maine: Incumbent Sen. Susan Collins (R) is facing the toughest race of her career and most polls show her trailing former state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D).

Mississippi: Incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) is seen as the favorite, but Mike Espy (D) fared relatively well in their 2018 special-election match-up, and it's tough to rule him out this year.

Montana: Incumbent Sen. Steve Daines (R) was on track for an easy re-election bid, right up until Gov. Steve Bullock (D) threw his hat in the ring.

North Carolina: Incumbent Thom Tillis (R) appears to be trailing Cal Cunningham (D) in most recent polls.

South Carolina: Incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) effectively became Trump's caddy as a way of ensuring his own re-election. What he didn't anticipate was Jamie Harrison's (D) success as a prolific fundraiser and organizer, forcing Republicans to invest millions in a race they assumed would be easy.

Texas: Sen. John Cornyn (R) was another incumbent who expected to win easily, but who's facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from M.J. Hegar (D).

Will one party win each of these 14 contests? Almost certainly not. But if Democratic candidates win half of them, they'll likely be in the majority next year.

For his part, Donald Trump privately told donors a couple of weeks ago that it would be "very tough" for the GOP to maintain its Senate majority after this year's elections. That said, his comments were kind of odd, even for him.

"I think the Senate is tough actually. The Senate is very tough," the president said at a fundraiser. "There are a couple senators I can't really get involved in. I just can't do it. You lose your soul if you do. I can't help some of them. I don't want to help some of them."

That made it sound as if the president wanted to see some GOP incumbents lose, prompting Trump senior campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski to insist the next day that Trump "wants to see every Republican re-elected, regardless of who they are," despite what the president said.