Mid-Year Senate Primaries

By Jim Ellis

Jan. 24, 2020 — The second in our three-part series about the in-cycle Senate races covers the 13 contests with June and early August primary dates:

JUNE 2

Iowa: Sen. Joni Ernst (R) stands for a second term and will likely face Des Moines real estate executive Theresa Greenfield (D) in the general election. Greenfield, who aborted a congressional run in 2018 when her campaign effort didn’t collect the requisite number of legal petition signatures, enjoys at least unofficial backing from the Democratic establishment and party leadership. The leaders’ first choice to run, freshman Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Des Moines), decided to seek her first re-election instead of jumping into a statewide battle.
Sen. Ernst is favored for re-election but some of her approval ratings have been low. Much will depend upon the national political trend, particularly at the presidential level. Iowa is typically a swing state that has been moving right in most recent elections, though the Democrats did gain two congressional seats in the last election.

Montana: Sen. Steve Daines (R) stands for a second term, and with the Democrats unable to convince outgoing governor and former presidential candidate Steve Bullock to run for the Senate, most of the political attention has shifted to the open governor’s race and at-large US House contest. With Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-Bozeman) again running for governor, both the governor’s office and the state’s lone House seat are open for the coming election.
In fact, when looking at the entire statewide ticket, mostly due to term limits and statewide officials running for other offices, five of the seven statewide races are open contests in 2020. Therefore, the lack of attention and concentration on the Senate race certainly helps Sen. Daines. At this point, with the March 9 candidate filing deadline less than a month away, the type of candidate who could give the senator a serious run has not yet emerged.

New Jersey: Sen. Cory Booker (D) backed away from the presidential contest in order to concentrate on his re-election campaign. While state law was changed to allow candidates to run for offices simultaneously, Sen. Booker decided the time to exit the presidential race was upon him before embarrassing losses in Democratic primary states encouraged stronger primary competition for his re-election back home. Now concentrating on New Jersey full-time, Sen. Booker looks safe for re-election.

New Mexico: At one point after Sen. Tom Udall (D) announced his retirement, it appeared that Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-Nambe/Santa Fe) would have statewide competition in both the Democratic primary and general election. With the March 10 candidate filing deadline fast approaching, Rep. Lujan faces only minor candidates in both the primary and general election. Therefore, he looks to be a cinch to move from the House to the Senate come November.

South Dakota: Rounding out the June 2 primaries, first-term Sen. Mike Rounds (R) is in solid shape for re-election. He faces state Rep. Scyller Borglum (R-Rapid City) in the GOP primary and likely ex-state Sen. Dan Ahlers (D) in the general. Opposition appears minor at this point, and Sen. Rounds, also a two-term governor, becomes a prohibitive favorite for re-election.

JUNE 9

Maine: In what could evolve into one of the premier 2020 Senate contests, veteran Sen. Susan Collins (R) seeks a fifth term after winning her 2014 election with 67 percent of the vote. Though Maine is only a two-congressional district state, the campaign money will fly here throughout the cycle. Sen. Collins, through Sept. 30, collected more than $8.6 million in receipts, while her strongest Democratic opponent, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, attracted more than $4.2 million.
Sen. Collins is unopposed in the Republican primary, and Gideon has only minor opposition. This race will be a major national target for Democrats, and Sen. Collins’ vote on the presidential impeachment question, regardless of her decision, will be a point of contention at least in the early going. Maine is largely a Democratic state, but Sen. Collins has proven herself a good fit for the electorate. This will be a race to watch, but the senator should be regarded as at least a slight favorite to win again.

South Carolina: So far, Democrats looking to be rapidly coalescing around former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison who had already raised over $4 million through the end of September. Except for the last Change Research poll (early December) that gave Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) just a two-point lead over Harrison, earlier polling posted the incumbent to sizable leads.
South Carolina will be a strong state for President Trump, so if Sen. Graham was to receive a challenge that could actually beat him, it is doubtful that this will be the year. Expect the three-term incumbent to win comfortably regardless of how much money is raised and spent against him.

Virginia: Until just recently, one-term US Rep. Scott Taylor (R) was challenging senator and former governor, Mark Warner (D) in the 2020 campaign. With Taylor deciding to jump into a re-match campaign against 2nd District Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Norfolk) earlier this month, Sen. Warner is likely not likely to draw a credible challenge.

JUNE 30

Colorado: Though former governor and presidential candidate John Hickenlooper still has nine Democratic primary opponents, his nomination is not in doubt. Hickenlooper will then face Sen. Cory Gardner (R) in the general election. Because Colorado continues to move leftward on the political spectrum, Sen. Gardner is highly vulnerable even though he may be the best campaigner in the national GOP’s candidate stable. This race should be considered a toss-up, but it is a prime Democratic conversion target and one the party must win if it is to have any chance of gaining Senate majority status.

Oklahoma: Sen. Jim Inhofe (R), at 85 years of age and still looking to run for re-election, won his first campaign for state representative all the way back in 1966. He then served in the Oklahoma Senate, as mayor of Tulsa, in the US House, and the Senate since his initial special election victory in 1994. At this point, it appears Inhofe will file for election on April 10, but his wife’s recent health concern places him on the retirement-watch list. Right now, however, it appears Sen. Inhofe will again be on the ballot and would be considered a solid favorite for re-election in the fall.

AUGUST 4

Arizona: Possibly the race that will draw the most national attention comes in Arizona where appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R) attempts to win the right to serve the balance of the late Sen. John McCain’s (R) final term. While she looks to have clear sailing in the Republican primary, something she didn’t have in 2018 when she lost an open seat Senate battle to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, the general election will be a tough fight.
Sen. McSally’s opponent will be retired astronaut Mark Kelly (D), the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson) who was forced to resign from the House after surviving a shooting attack in 2011 that drew national media attention. Kelly had already raised just under $14 million through Sept. 30, while Sen. McSally had over $8.5 million in receipts. Therefore, it is clear that both will have plenty of funds with which to communicate their message. Polling consistently finds this race within the margin of error, and we can count on such being the case all the way to Election Day.

Kansas: Now that political observers and activists are finally beginning to believe US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will not return to his home state to run for the open Senate seat, attention is turning to other candidates. Democrats are coalescing behind Republican-turned-Democrat state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D-Mission), while the Republicans are wary that former Kansas Secretary of State and 2018 gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach will win the GOP primary.
Democratic leaders believe they can beat Kobach, as they did for governor, and early polling suggests that they are correct. US Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Great Bend) appears to be the candidate with a chance of upending Kobach and, if he does, the congressman will become the favorite in the general election. Candidate filing does not close until June 1, so the Kansas Senate drama will continue for some time.

Michigan: Sen. Gary Peters (D) stands for a second term, and this race has already moved into the top tier. With most polling already finding Sen. Peters and Republican John James within the polling margin of error, the GOP looks to have a surprisingly good chance of scoring an upset win. President Trump must improve his standing here in order to put the Senate seat into serious play, because either the Republican wave or drain coming from the top of the ticket will be a major factor in whether Sen. Peters’ perceived vulnerability actually comes to fruition.

Monday, we will wrap up the Senate overview with a synopsis of the late-year primaries.

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