What it would take for Democrats to win a Senate majority

Is it impossible? No. Is it improbable? Yes, but it's already been a strange year in so many ways, so I'm reluctant to rule anything out.
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

Headed into this year's elections, there were really only two incumbent Democratic senators who appeared vulnerable. In Alabama, incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D), running in a ruby-red state, was clearly in serious trouble, despite his impressive record, and in Michigan, incumbent Sen. Gary Peters (D), was facing a credible challenge.

As the election results come in, we now know that Jones did, in fact, lose to retired college football coach and failed hedge-fund manager Tommy Tuberville (R). But as NBC News reported late yesterday, things appear to have gone better for Peters.

Democratic incumbent Sen. Gary Peters defeats Republican John James in Michigan Senate race, NBC News projects. Rebuffing Republican efforts to take a seat from Democrats in the Senate, incumber Sen. Gary Peters has fended off Republican challenger John James, NBC News projects. A first-term senator, Peters faced a stronger challenge from James than was expected.

As for partisan control of the Senate, by NBC News' tally, Democrats currently have 47 seats headed into the next Congress -- which, incidentally, is the exact same number of seats they have in the current Congress. That number may climb to 48 if Mark Kelly prevails in his Arizona race against Republican incumbent Sen. Martha McSally. (While several news organizations have already declared Kelly the winner, and the former astronaut has delivered a victory speech, NBC News has not yet called the race, and McSally has not conceded.)

That leaves us with a handful of races that also haven't yet been called. Following up on yesterday's posts, here's the list in alphabetical order:

Alaska: Incumbent Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) is generally seen as the heavy favorite over Al Gross -- an independent who accepted the Democratic nomination -- but only about half of the votes have been counted.

Georgia: With votes yet to be tallied, incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R) is narrowly leading Jon Ossoff (D), though a runoff is still possible if neither candidate reaches 50%. In Georgia's Senate special election, Raphael Warnock (D) was the top vote-getter in the large field, and he'll take on appointed incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R) in a January runoff.

North Carolina: Incumbent Thom Tillis (R) currently has a slight edge over Cal Cunningham (D), but it's among the too-close-to-call races.

Let's say for the sake of conversation that Kelly holds on in Arizona, while Sullivan and Tillis prevail in their respective contests. That raises the possibility of having to wait until January, when Georgia holds its special elections, to know for sure which party will be in control of the Senate.

That said, in case this isn't painfully obvious, the path to an effective Democratic majority is almost comically narrow: we'd have to see (1) Biden/Harris win the presidential race; (2) Kelly win in Arizona, (3) Perdue fall short of 50% in Georgia; and (4) Ossoff and Warnock win both of Georgia's runoff Senate elections on Jan. 5, 2021.

If each of these things happen -- a big "if," to be sure -- that would bring the Senate Democratic conference to 50 members, which would have a procedural majority thanks to a possible Democratic White House. (In this hypothetical 50-50 split, Chuck Schumer would be the Majority Leader and Democrats would name committee chairs.)

Is this impossible? No. Is it improbable? Yes, but it's already been a strange year in so many ways, so I'm reluctant to rule anything out.

Postscript: The political world may soon wonder about the direction of the United States in the 2020s were it not for Cal Cunningham's extramarital difficulties.

Update: As this morning progressed, Sen. David Perdue (R) appears to be dipping below the 50% threshold. In his latest statement, the senator conceded that "overtime" may be "required," raising the possibility of two, simultaneous Senate runoffs in Georgia, with control of the chamber on the line.