By Jim Ellis
April 14, 2020 — Following our Overview of the Senate races yesterday, today we look at the 10 most competitive campaigns. At this point, just one toss-up appears on our board, the North Carolina race featuring Sen. Thom Tillis (R) and ex-state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D). Six seats fall into the “lean Republican” column, while three trend Democratic.
• Thom Tillis (NC) – Over the years, the North Carolina electorate has defeated more incumbent Senators than any state. Therefore, all incumbents seeking re- election are almost always placed in a toss-up situation. The 2020 race is no exception. First-term Sen. Thom Tillis (R) and former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D), who easily won the Democratic primary on March 3rd, advance to what will become one of the premier general election campaigns in the country.
• Doug Jones (AL) – Sen. Doug Jones (D) won his seat three years ago in what can be described as an “accidental victory” when Republican Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court Chief Judge who was the party’s 2017 special election nominee, self-destructed. Now, Sen. Jones stands for a full term and he will either face retired Auburn University head football coach Tommy Tuberville or former US Attorney General and Alabama senator, Jeff Sessions.
The Republican runoff will be decided July 14, after the original secondary election schedule was moved from March 31. With President Trump leading the Alabama ballot in what will be one of his strongest states, it’s hard to see a scenario where Sen. Jones wins re-election now that Judge Moore has been eliminated from further competition.
• Kelly Loeffler (GA) – Appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler appears to be in deep political trouble. With her sale of more than $18 million in stocks and making COVID-19-related investments just after receiving virus-related Senate briefings, the new incumbent has seen adverse publicity tank her personal favorability rating, regardless of whether her story of not being directly connected to the transactions is true or not. Today, it appears difficult to foresee a path back to competitiveness for the novice politician.
That’s not to say the Republicans will lose the seat, however. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Gainesville) leads every jungle primary poll by substantial numbers and looks to be in the best position to win the seat. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has already endorsed Baptist pastor Raphael Warnock over Atlanta businessman Matt Lieberman, son of former Connecticut senator and 2000 vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, and ex-US Attorney Ed Tarver. The jungle primary runs concurrently with the Nov. 3 general election. If no one captures a majority of the vote in the primary, the top two finishers advance to a Jan. 5, 2021 runoff election.
• Joni Ernst (IA) – Democrats are looking to vault this state into a top-tier challenge race and are already spending millions of dollars on early media buys. A lot depends on how the presidential race unfolds. Iowa is a must-win state for President Trump, which will undoubtedly help Sen. Ernst assuming he wins here as he did in 2016. The Iowa primary is June 2, and the Democratic establishment is backing Des Moines real estate executive Theresa Greenfield.
While five candidates are ostensibly battling for the Democratic nomination, the race is realistically between Greenfield – who has raised over $3.3 million – and insurance broker Eddie Mauro who is close behind in the money race with $2.7 million, but almost all of it self-contributed. Regardless of who wins the primary, we can expect a competitive general election in a state that features close political contests.
• Kansas Open (Sen. Pat Roberts retiring) – A lot in this campaign will be decided in the Republican primary. The Democratic leadership believes that should former Kansas Secretary of State and 2018 gubernatorial nominee Kris Kobach win the August 4th GOP primary their consensus candidate, party-switching state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D-Mission Hills), has a chance to win the general election despite Kansas’ strong Republican voting history. Polling suggests that the Democratic brain trust is correct.
GOP Rep. Roger Marshall (R-Great Bend) is Mr. Kobach’s principal Republican opponent, though state Senate President Susan Wagle (R-Wichita) is also in the race. Sen. Wagle’s presence may actually help Marshall, however, as she is prone to draw some conservative votes away from Mr. Kobach. Should Rep. Marshall win the nomination, this seat will move into the Likely Republican column. Should Mr. Kobach win, a toss-up rating would immediately be assigned.
• Susan Collins (ME) – Some would already rate the contest between four-term Sen. Susan Collins (R) and state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport) a toss-up, but Sen. Collins’ long history of winning Maine elections by substantial margins – in 2014, she topped 67 percent – cannot be overlooked.
There is no doubt this race is already turning into a money war. Gideon, far from being the Democratic establishment’s first choice to run at the beginning of the election cycle, has proved herself an able contender in already raising $7.76 million by the end of 2019, as compared to Sen. Collins’ $10.87 million. This, for a state with just over one million people. The Maine campaign will be a top-tier race in terms of political spending and national attention. Look for a close finish, but Sen. Collins still has to be rated at least a slight favorite.
• Steve Daines (MT) – Until the last day of candidate filing, first-term Sen. Steve Daines (R) looked to be a lock for re-election. But the national Democratic leadership, at the last minute, was finally successful in convincing Gov. Steve Bullock, a short-term 2020 presidential candidate who never got his campaign untracked, to finally enter the Senate race.
The contest now becomes competitive because Gov. Bullock has demonstrated his ability to win close elections in Big Sky Country. He was re-elected in 2016 with a 50-46 percent win on the same ballot where President Trump was recording a 20-plus point victory. There is no doubt that Sen. Daines should be favored in the general election, but Gov. Bullock’s presence certainly makes this race highly competitive.
• Martha McSally (AZ) – This is one of two Republican seats that is already leaning toward the Democratic candidate. Appointed Sen. Martha McSally (R), who lost the 2018 Senate race to new incumbent Kyrsten Sinema (D), was chosen to replace interim Sen. Jon Kyl (R) after he resigned. This special election is scheduled to fill the balance of the late Sen. John McCain’s (R) final term.
Early polling gives retired astronaut Mark Kelly (D), the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Tucson) who was tragically shot in 2011, leads in all early polling. He is also one of the top Senate fundraisers in the country, reporting total receipts of $20.2 million even before the end of 2019. Sen. McSally, also a talented fundraiser, attracted $12.6 million during the same time period. There will be issue differences between the two, and while Kelly clearly has established an early advantage, this contest is far from decided.
• Cory Gardner (CO) – This is the second Republican seat that the presumed Democratic nominee is out to an early lead. Former governor, John Hickenlooper (D), another early exiting 2020 presidential candidate, looks to win the party’s Senatorial nomination, but he does have primary competition in the June 30 primary. Early polling suggests that Hickenlooper will begin the general election with a double-digit lead, though the last published poll was more than five months ago (Keating Research; Hickenlooper 53-42 percent).
Sen. Gardner could be the Republicans’ best candidate in the country, so he cannot be counted out. Still, with the state consistently moving toward the Democrats as time progresses, he has to be considered an underdog for re-election.
• Gary Peters (MI) – Another race that is clearly on the competitive board is the Michigan contest between first-term Sen. Gary Peters (D) and manufacturing company owner and retired Army Ranger John James (R). In 2018, James, with little outside help, raised $12 million in his campaign against entrenched incumbent Debbie Stabenow and came within six percentage points of victory in a bad Republican election year. This year, James returns with heavy party support against a general election opponent who is considerably weaker than Stabenow.
Recently, this race has been polled extensively and outside money is already heavy and present to help both candidates. Five polls were released just in March, and the ballot test ranged from Sen. Peters leading by nine percentage points to a one-point James edge. We can expect a major campaign here as this Senate race moves into the top tier. Sen. Peters’ incumbency and that fact that Michigan still elects more Democrats than Republicans gives him only a slight edge.