Originally published in the Silent Noise in October of 2020.
On the third of November, millions of Americans will cast their votes in this year’s presidential election. At the top of the ballot will be President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Vice President Joe Biden. After months of wall-to-wall news coverage, you probably know that by now. But in certain states, there are important down-ballot Senate races that could be almost as impactful. As of the 2018 midterms, the Republicans control the Senate, with fifty-three of the hundred seats. The Democrats hold a decisive majority in the House of Representatives, so the sole obstacle standing between them and dominance of the legislative branch is a handful of Republican senators. Yet, victory won’t come easily; Democratic candidates face formidable challenges in several crucial races. Here are the five most closely-watched Senate battles pitting Republican incumbents against challengers with the potential to make or break the Democrats’ attempts to conquer Congress.
- Arizona: In 2018, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema narrowly beat Republican Martha McSally several days after polls closed, with mail-in ballot counts leaning in Sinema’s favor. McSally, despite losing the election, was later appointed to fill the late Senator John McCain’s vacancy by Arizona’s Republican governor. Now, Senator McSally faces a Democratic challenge from former astronaut Captain Mark Kelly. Captain Kelly, a veteran of the Gulf War, was a space shuttle pilot for NASA before retiring and beginning a career of writing and gun policy activism. Although Arizona is a fairly conservative state, he is currently favored to win the race by a significant margin.
- Colorado: Remember John Hickenlooper? The former governor of Colorado appeared at early debates in the Democratic presidential primary, withdrawing before a single vote was cast to return to his day job of looping hickens. It wasn’t an entirely lost cause for him, however, as he turned around and challenged Senator Cory Gardner for his seat. Gardner, a Republican, was first elected to the Senate in 2015. Being that Colorado is trending Democratic, Hickenlooper will be a worthy competitor for Gardner.
- Georgia: The Peach State finds itself in a unique scenario: both of its two Senators are up for re-election this year. Republican David Perdue holds one seat, challenged by Democratic ‘rising star’ Jon Ossoff. Ossoff, a former journalist, lost a 2017 Georgia congressional race but gained national exposure in the process. The other Senate race on the ballot is a bit more complicated. The seat, held by governor-appointed Senator Kelly Loeffler, is eyed by Republican Rep. Doug Collins, pastor Raphael Warnock, and the son of former Senator Joe Lieberman. In the event that none of these four candidates win a majority, the top two will participate in a runoff election in 2021. Georgia is generally a Republican-leaning state, but the 2018 gubernatorial election between Governor Brian Kemp and Stacey Abrams, who Joe Biden once considered as his running mate, was decided by the slimmest of margins. Plus, both Perdue and Loeffler were implicated in an insider trading scandal earlier this year – giving Democrats a glimmer of hope and tossing the Senate races up in the air.
- Maine: After twenty years in the Senate, Susan Collins is running for re-election once again. As one of the more moderate Republicans, Collins has found a way to straddle the political center throughout her career. Yet, facing scrutiny after her decisive vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she’s neck-and-neck in polls against Democratic challenger Sara Gideon. The Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives has a chance to unseat the only Republican senator in New England, the most liberal region in the country, and swing Maine to the left. A recent development in the race, however, came as Collins announced she would not be voting to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court before the election, presumably in a bid to sway undecided voters.
- North Carolina: The Tar Heel State is a pivotal battleground for the 2020 election. The incumbent Republican, Thom Tillis, is engaged in a fierce race with former State Senator Cal Cunningham. Tillis, a President Trump-devotee, found himself steadily behind Cunningham in most polls. However, game-changing revelations arrived in early October. A super-spreader event at the White House infected several members of Trump’s inner circle, including the President himself. Senator Tillis was diagnosed with COVID-19 soon thereafter. Meanwhile, news broke of an extramarital affair on the other side of the aisle. Cunningham, married with two children, admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a political strategist. It’s unclear how these bombshells will affect the North Carolina Senate race.
There are thirty-five Senate seats up for grabs in 2020, and that was only five. Still, there are many close races across the country. They’re not all Republican incumbents, either: Michigan and Alabama are both states with Democratic senators at risk of losing their seats this November. In order to shift the balance of power in the Senate, Democrats would need to defend all of their existing seats and pick up four new ones. If Joe Biden wins, however, they would only need three. This scenario would result in a Senate tie with hypothetically-Vice President Kamala Harris serving as a tie-breaker. Whatever happens down the road, whoever wins and whoever loses, the Silent Noise will be there to inform you every step of the way.