The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip
Five senators are staring down serious political danger ahead of the November elections.
With less than six months to go until Election Day, the battle for control of the Senate hinges on five key states. Democrats are after four seats in particular — in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina — while Republicans are largely playing defense, but see an easy pickup opportunity in Alabama.
A handful of seats in states like Iowa, Montana and Michigan are also showing signs they may be in play.
Here are the Senate seats most likely to flip in 2020.
Doug Jones (D-Ala.)
Democrats are on the defensive in deep-red Alabama roughly three years after Jones defeated Republican Roy Moore in the state’s special election to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Jones was the first Democrat to win statewide office in Alabama since 2008 and the first Democrat to represent the state in the upper chamber since 1997.
Jones garnered about 50 percent of the vote in 2017, while Moore received about 48 percent. During the race, Moore had to contend with a cloud of controversy stemming from sexual assault allegations, which led to GOP leaders across the country calling for him to step down as the nominee.
However, Jones faces a totally different environment heading into the 2020 elections. The Cook Political Report rates the race “lean Republican” as Sessions and former Auburn University coach Tommy Tuberville battle it out ahead of the July 14 GOP runoff.
President Trump, who has thrown his support behind Tuberville, is also popular in the state with a 53 percent approval rating, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Jones, on the other hand, had a 41 percent approval rating, according to a Morning Consult survey released in January.
Still, Jones has had a successful streak of fundraising in recent quarters, giving him an advantage over the field of GOP candidates. He had over $8.2 million cash on hand at the beginning of April.
Cory Gardner (R-Colo.)
Gardner became the first challenger to unseat an incumbent in Colorado in roughly a generation when he defeated former Sen. Mark Udall (D) in 2014.
But his state has shifted increasingly to the left in recent years. Former President Obama won the state twice in 2008 and 2012, and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton carried it in the 2016 presidential election. In 2018, Democrats won control of the Colorado state Senate and held onto the governor’s mansion, giving them full control of the state government for the first time since 1936.
If that trend wasn’t enough to threaten Gardner’s prospects for a second term in the Senate, he faces an expectedly tough challenge from Colorado’s Democratic former governor, John Hickenlooper, who jumped into the race last summer after an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
There hasn’t been much polling in the race, but a survey from the Montana State University and the University of Denver conducted last month showed Hickenlooper with a 16-point lead over Gardner. Another Keating Research–OnSight Public Affairs–Melanson poll released earlier this month found Hickenlooper ahead by 18 points.
Hickenlooper out-raised Gardner in the first quarter of 2020, raking in nearly $4.1 million to his opponent’s $2.5 million. Still, Gardner has the overall cash-on-hand advantage with $9.6 million in the bank.
Martha McSally (R-Ariz.)
McSally already lost a Senate race in 2018, when Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) eked out a narrow 2-point win. Only a few weeks after her loss, McSally was appointed to fill the seat of the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Now, a little more than a year after she entered the Senate, she’s facing a challenge from Democrat Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and gun control advocate who is seen as one of his party’s top recruits of the 2020 cycle. Kelly raised a staggering $11 million in the first three months of 2020 and has some $19.7 million on hand. By comparison, McSally reported $6.4 million raised in the first quarter and $10.3 million in the bank.
There are also signs that Kelly is widening his lead over McSally in the race. A survey from the polling firm OH Predictive Insights released this week showed Kelly leading McSally by 13 points — up from a 9-point lead in a similar poll conducted in April. Republicans are hoping to seize on questions about Kelly’s business record in an effort to weaken him ahead of November.
But unlike Colorado, where Democrats hold power at the state level, Arizona’s state government is largely controlled by the GOP. What’s more, Republicans have won every presidential election in the state since 2000, though Trump carried it in 2016 by a smaller margin than the three Republican nominees before him.
Susan Collins (R-Maine)
The moderate Republican is also facing an uphill battle to defend her spot in the Senate. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Collins 3 points behind state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D), who is the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.
Additionally, polling shows Maine voters could be souring on the incumbent senator. A Bangor Daily News poll released in April showed Collins with a 37 percent approval rating and a 52 percent disapproval rating.
Collins has been viewed in the past as a critical Republican swing vote, voting against 2017 GOP legislation to replace the Affordable Care Act. However, she has since received the ire of liberals for voting to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 as he faced sexual misconduct allegations.
However, the race will not necessarily be a cakewalk for the Democrats if Gideon gets the nomination. Collins has represented the state in the Senate since 1997, giving her an incumbent advantage. Additionally, her decisions to side with the Trump administration on a number of issues may not play badly with all voters. The state went Democratic in the last three presidential elections, but elected conservative Gov. Paul LePage twice.
Thom Tillis (R-N.C.)
Tillis is locked in a true toss-up race to hold on to his Senate seat. The first-term senator is facing a tough challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham and polls show the two candidates in a dead heat.
One survey fielded by East Carolina University earlier this month showed Tillis narrowly leading Cunningham, 41 percent to 40 percent — well within the poll’s margin of error. But a Meredith College poll conducted late last month gave Cunningham a substantial lead in race, showing him ahead of Tillis, 44 percent to 34 percent.
Already, the race between Tillis and Cunningham is shaping up to be the most expensive Senate race of 2020. In March, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), booked nearly $22 million worth of fall advertising in the state, making up the largest part of a broader $67 million investment.
Soon after that, the Senate Majority PAC, the top super PAC backing Democratic Senate candidates, reserved $25.6 million in fall ads in the state. That was also the largest portion of a nearly $70 million investment by the group.
Cunningham led Tillis in fundraising in the first three months of the year, bringing in about $4.4 million to his opponent’s $2.1 million. But Tillis has more than twice as much cash on hand as Cunningham, reporting about $6.5 million in the bank at the end of March.
Also in play:
Joni Ernst (R-Iowa)
For now, Ernst appears more likely than not to win a second term. But Democrats argue that the race is trending in their favor, pointing to polls fielded in recent months that show her approval rating ticking downward and The Cook Political Report’s decision in March to shift her race from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”
Polling in the race has been scarce, but one survey released earlier this month by the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling showed Ernst leading her top Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield by 1 point, tightening from 6 points in a similar poll fielded in December.
Ernst currently has the cash advantage over Greenfield. She raised $2.7 million in the first quarter of the year, while Greenfield raked in about $2.25 million. But in the pre-primary reporting period between April 1 and May 13, Greenfield raised about $1.5 million to Ernst’s $1.2 million. Still, Ernst leads in cash on hand, with about $7 million as of mid-May.
The Cook Political Report rates the battle to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) as “lean Republican.” However, the party will first have to contend with a crowded primary before taking on former Republican-turned-Democrat Barbara Bollier. There are currently six Republicans running in the contest, with former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Rep. Roger Marshall leading the way.
The primary’s outcome could be a deciding factor in the general election. If Kobach wins the primary, the news would likely be welcomed by Democrats. The former Kansas secretary of state does not have the support of the party’s establishment, and faced criticism from the National Republican Senatorial Committee after he announced his intent to run last year. Additionally, Kobach lost his last statewide race to Gov. Laura Kelly (D) in 2018. A poll released in April from Public Policy Polling showed Bollier beating Kobach by two points in a hypothetical match-up.
Meanwhile, a number of Republican leaders have signaled that they would be in favor of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, to run for the spot. McConnell has pushed Pompeo to consider the opportunity.
“There’s not been a development yet,” McConnell told Politico. “But he would obviously be my first choice and he has been for months.”
Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.)
The race for Loeffler’s seat is more complicated than others up for a vote in 2020. She was appointed late last year to replace retired Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), but because the special election will be a “jungle primary,” she’ll face multiple challengers in November, including from within her own party.
Her top challenger on the right is Rep. Doug Collins (R), a staunch Trump ally who leads Loeffler in most recent polls. At the same time, Loeffler has come under fire in recent months for her stock trades, which critics say appeared timed to avoid the economic turbulence brought on by the coronavirus pandemic. Loeffler has denied wrongdoing, noting that her stock trades are made by a third-party adviser.
Meanwhile, national Democrats are backing the Rev. Raphael Warnock in the race for Loeffler’s seat. But there are other credible Democrats vying for the seat, including Matt Lieberman, an entrepreneur and the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).
Under state rules, if no candidate scores at least 50 percent of the vote in the November all-party election, it will trigger a runoff election between the two top vote-getters, currently slated for January.
Democrats are more hopeful about their chances in a runoff election, believing it will allow them to consolidate support around a single candidate in a head-to-head match-up against a Republican.
Steve Daines (R-Mont.)
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) will likely take on Daines in that state’s Senate race, which The Cook Political Report rates “lean Republican.” However, Bullock was reelected to a second term as governor in 2016, the same year Trump won the state. Additionally, the state’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester won reelection in 2018 by roughly 4 points.
Moreover, Bullock is leading the field in fundraising and polling. A Montana State University poll released earlier this month showed Bullock with 46 percent support in the state, while Daines garnered 39 percent support.
On the fundraising front, Bullock brought in $2.5 million over the past six weeks, while Daines raised $1.3 million in the same period. Bullock and Daines have raised a total of $5.8 million and $9.2 million, respectively, for their campaigns.
Gary Peters (D-Mich.)
Republicans are rallying around businessman John James in their bid to unseat Peters in November. James out-raised the first-term senator in the first quarter of the year, and Republicans are continuing to tout Trump’s unexpected victory in the state in 2016. However, James has never won a statewide election, losing to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) in 2018.
Peters, on the other hand, has been a player in Michigan’s political scene for years. He was elected to the state Senate in 1994 before he went on to become a U.S. congressman in 2008. He was elected to the Senate in 2014.
Polling also shows Peters with a clear advantage. A Fox News poll released last month showed Peters leading James by 10 points. The Cook Political Report rates the race as “lean Democratic.”
Updated at 10:16 a.m.