Here are the Senate races to watch in the 2020 election

While much of the focus may be on the U.S. presidential race in the 2020 general election, the outcome of this year’s Senate races could also have a major impact on what President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden may or may not be able to accomplish in office.

As it stands, the GOP holds a 53-47 advantage in the Senate, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats. There are 35 seats up for election in 2020. Republicans must defend 23 seats this year, compared with 12 for Democrats. 

But in order to gain control of the Senate, Democrats will need to flip three or four GOP-held seats — three if Biden wins, and four if not. Any Senate tie is broken by the sitting vice president.

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The coveted seats

High on the list of coveted seats for Democrats in November are the Republican senators who represent left-leaning states or states that appear to be shifting demographically. This includes Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), according to a recent analysis by The Cook Political Report, an independent, nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes U.S. elections and campaigns.

On the opposite end, the most likely Democratic seat to flip Republican appears to be Alabama. The Cook Report identifies the Southern state as a competitive race — but with a Republican advantage.

Freshman incumbent Doug Jones is facing off against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville, who has been leading in polls in a red state where Trump is expected to win. Jones won his seat in a bit of a fluke during a 2017 special election, according to David Hughes, an assistant professor of political science at Auburn University at Montgomery.

While Jones is "the second-most conservative member of the Democratic coalition in the Senate, only behind Joe Manchin of West Virginia," Tuberville has the name recognition and party affiliation to his advantage, Hughes said. 

He added that while Tuberville lacks in political experience, "he’s been navigating public opinion for a good while."

"When you’re a head football coach in the South, you’ve got plenty of run-ins with reporters," Hughes said. "To be perfectly honest, coaches in Alabama probably get more scrutiny than governors." 

In Kentucky, Democrat Amy McGrath is on a mission to unseat Republican Sen. Majority leader Mitch McConnell. McGrath, a retired Marine combat pilot, was in elementary school when McConnell was first elected to the Senate.

She faces an uphill battle, as McConnell is favored to win, according to recent polling.

The toss-ups

The next likely pickup for Democrats could be Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ seat in Maine, according to The Cook Political Report’s analysis. Collins, who has represented the state as a senator since 1997, is up against Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Collins has trailed Gideon in polling since July, according to FiveThirtyEight. Democratic groups have also launched about $3.5 million in ads against the decades-long incumbent senator.

In North Carolina, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is facing Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in a very competitive and costly race. Recent polling shows Cunningham with a slight lead over Tillis, though close to being within the margin of error.

As The Cook Political Report notes, the race was shaken up on Oct. 2 after Tillis announced he had tested positive for COVID-19 and Cunningham confirmed that he sent romantic messages to Arlene Guzman Todd, a public relations strategist. 

Guzman Todd told The Associated Press that she had an intimate encounter this summer with Cunningham, who is married and has two teenage children. 

Cunningham has committed to remaining in the race and is hoping voters will see past his personal life, while Tillis is aligning himself closely with Trump and pushed for the confirmation of the president's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

The race in Iowa between Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield is among the most expensive in the nation and another toss-up.

Major GOP campaign committees have spent more than $5 million on TV and radio ads aimed at protecting Ernst’s Republican-held seat, while Democratic groups have also spent over $1 million in ads against Ernst.

In the northwestern state of Montana, political groups fighting for control of the Senate have poured more than $118 million into the race between Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock and Republican incumbent Steve Daines. Recent polling shows a very competitive race well within the margin of error.

The Cook Political Report identifies Georgia as a potential problem for Republicans. A state typically dominated by conservative politics, Georgia is growing and its demographics are shifting — meaning the margins have narrowed.

The regular election, between Republican Sen. David Perdue and challenger Democrat Jon Ossoff, remains very competitive, according to recent polling.

But this year, there are two open Senate seats in Georgia following Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson’s retirement in 2019. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp appointed Kelly Loeffler, another Republican, to fill his seat in January 2020. But Kemp also ordered a special election in November to determine who would serve the remaining two years of Isakson’s term.

A total of 21 candidates are on the special election ballot for U.S. Senate in Georgia in November. Loeffler is facing a fierce challenge from Republican Rep. Doug Collins. 

Collins raised his profile significantly during Trump’s impeachment proceedings in January, said Dr. Charles S. Bullock, III, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia. Being the president’s chief defender in the House added steam to Collins’ Senate ambitions. 

Had Collins not entered the race, Loeffler would have been the frontrunner, Bullock added.

With the conservative vote split, Rev. Raphael Warnock has emerged as the Democratic frontrunner. Warnock is the senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church once pastored by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recent polling has Warnock leading both his Republican counterparts.

But if no candidate receives a majority of the vote on Nov. 3, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will take place on Jan. 5, 2021 — regardless of party. 

"This is competitive because Senator Loeffler and Congressman Collins are treating it as though it’s a Republican primary even though it’s a jungle election," Bullock said. "They’re fighting over Republican voters in order to have a chance at the run-off. That’s allowing Democrats to coalesce around Democratic frontrunner Raphael Warnock who has the support of Washington Democrats and the establishment."

In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey Graham is in an expensive reelection race with Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.

Graham, who has held the seat since 2003, has continued to pull in campaign funding in the days leading up to the election, raising about $1 million a day for the first two weeks of October, according to the Associated Press. But Harrison raised more than $57 million in the third quarter of this year, which is the most ever brought in by a Senate candidate in a quarterly fundraising period — in any U.S. state.

Graham presided over the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings this month for Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, hoping it would help garner support among conservatives in the state. Recent polling shows a competitive race, and it is deemed by The Cook Political Report as a true toss-up.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.