A dozen U.S. Senate races are within the margin of error, with two theories on how they will shake out: voters split pretty much evenly, or in the final two weeks go against the incumbents.
Either way, it's bad news for Republicans.
Currently the Republicans hold a 53-47 advantage. Based on the reliable Cook Report and Inside Elections analyses, the polls, and talks with political strategists in states as well as gut instincts formed over decades of reporting on elections, the probable outcome — I think — ranges from Democrats picking up a net of three or four seats to gaining seven or eight. Either way, they’re likely to take control.
Both sides generally acknowledge three seats will flip: Republicans will likely take back the seat in deep red Alabama that Democrat Doug Jones won in a special election three years ago, and strong Democratic candidates will likely unseat Republican Colorado Sen. Cory GardnerCory GardnerProtecting the outdoors: Three cheers for America's best idea Ex-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program MORE and Republican Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns Schumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster MORE in Arizona.
There then are ten competitive seats, all held by Republicans, except in Michigan where incumbent Democrat Gary PetersGary PetersFreedomWorks misfires on postal reform Senators call on Taiwan for aid in automotive chip shortage Lawmakers raise concerns over federal division of cybersecurity responsibilities MORE is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge. Do the math: If they divide evenly, Democrats gain four seats; in a wave — with Joe BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Democrats hope Biden can flip Manchin and Sinema On The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles MORE winning the presidential race by double digits — it's more like seven.
The ten battleground races are geographically diverse: four in the South, two in the West, three in the Midwest and one in New England. In three or four of them, Democrats have a small lead; in about the same number, Republicans have a slight advantage, and there are several genuine toss-ups. (Texas and Kentucky are real long-shot Democratic takeovers)
Unique factors are at play. Two of the races are in Georgia, one to fill a seat vacated by a Republican for health reasons. Under state law if a candidate doesn't get 50 percent, there is a run-off between the top two finishers. That would be held Jan. 5.
Since both could go to a run-off, it's possible — though not likely — that control of the Senate won't be clear until two months after the November election.
Maine, where veteran Republican Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWelcome to ground zero of climate chaos A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate Bipartisan blip: Infrastructure deal is last of its kind without systemic change MORE is slightly trailing Democrat Sara Gideon, a leader of the state legislature, there are two minor candidates on the ballot, one a left winger the other a Trumpite. The state has ranked voting, where citizens get to select their subsequent preferences too. If no candidate gets 50 percent, the outcome is settled by the ranked voting choices.
In 2018, Democratic congressional candidate Jared Golden finished behind a Republican incumbent on election day — but won when the second choices were counted.
If it comes to that, most analysis suggests it would favor Gideon.
Unfolding developments also could affect outcomes.
In North Carolina, Democratic state legislator and veteran Cal Cunningham has held a steady lead over undistinguished Republican incumbent Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime How to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) MORE. A few weeks ago, however, an expose revealed that Cunningham, a married father of two, was sexting with another woman. Polls suggest — for now — that the Democrat remains in the lead.
In Michigan, Republican John James, a veteran and a businessman is trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Gary Peters. Democrats insist the race isn't that close. It might be even less close after a report last weekend that linked a James campaign contributor to a right-wing militia rally where the conspirators recently accused of plotting to kidnap the Michigan Governor allegedly recruited.
In Iowa, incumbent Republican Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization More Republicans call on Biden to designate Taliban as terrorist group Top Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal MORE, already trailing Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield, stumbled badly last week when she couldn't identify the price of soybeans.
Democrats are fighting lots of history in two red states. Over the past 40 years, Alaska has only had one single-term Democratic Senator, who defeated the late Ted Stevens who was under indictment at the time. (The case was thrown out after the election.). Kansas last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1932. But Al Gross in Alaska and Barbara Bollier in Kansas are good candidates and are hauling in huge amounts of campaign contributions. In a wave election, they could win.
The most extraordinary money story in this — and maybe any — Senate election is Jamie Harrison, an African-American former South Carolina state Democratic Party chair, who raised $57 million in the last three months, in his bid to defeat Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamOvernight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE.
Graham was considered invincible when he was a charming independent-minded John McCainJohn Sidney McCain20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance What the chaos in Afghanistan can remind us about the importance of protecting democracy at home 'The View' plans series of conservative women as temporary McCain replacements MORE acolyte; over the last two years, he has become more of a snarling, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer Sen. Heller to run for Nevada governor Overnight Defense & National Security — Milley becomes lightning rod Joint Chiefs Chairman Milley becomes lightning rod on right MORE loyalist. Republicans believe the Supreme Court nomination of right-wing judge Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettNew Hampshire state representative leaves GOP over opposition to vaccine mandate Barrett: Supreme Court 'not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks' To infinity and beyond: What will it take to create a diverse and representative judiciary? MORE, popular in South Carolina, will save Graham, who’s chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and thus got a bunch of free air time to perform during Barret’s confirmation hearing.
A model for this national election might be 1980.
Two weeks out, Republicans were poised to pick up a half dozen Senate seats and enhance their minority status. The Reagan wave hit, and they won a dozen seats and control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter century.
The difference is this time, it might be the Democrats.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.