Guide to the 2020 Senate Battlegrounds: Volume 2


Daniel Gulotta, Contributor

Once again, Democrats are hoping to retake the Senate in a presidential election year. While 2016 shocked them and 2018 had too difficult of a map to overcome, they face much fairer weather in 2020. Republicans are defending 23 seats, two of which are in states Clinton carried. The Democrats are defending 12, two of which are in 2016 Trump territory. While each race is independent, they are also all tied to national trends. Since polls have begun to take shape, it appears the Democrats have a strong path to retake the presidency and the Senate.

The second volume of this article will address the final two categories of my analysis: the ones that I give over a 50% chance of the challenger winning.  I have based my assessments loosely on polling averages from RealClearPolitics models and from FiveThirtyEight (as of Oct. 31), as well as my own independent analysis. This guide will cover each 2020 Senate battleground except for the Georgia special election, which is expected to reach a run-off stage. Volume one can be found here.


Part III: The Almost Certains


It turns out it is pretty difficult for a Democrat to win state-wide in Alabama when you’re not running against a homophobic pedophile. Democratic Senator Doug Jones became a nationally known figure when he eeked out a 2017 special election victory to replace incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions. However, his candidate then was one of the most controversial Senate candidates in recent memory, Judge Roy Moore, whose campaign eventually was sunk by allegations of sexual assault against minors. Jones still barely won even with Republicans nationwide disavowing him. Jones will not have that boost this time as he faces former Auburn football coach, Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville has some problems of his own, most notably a fraud scandal that arose during his time managing a hedge-fund. Yet, the few polls out of the Cotton State show Tuberville with a comfortable lead, leading national Democrats to basically concede this race. It will take quite an anti-Trump turn in Alabama to save this seat.


RCP Polling Average: Tuberville [R] 10.3 point lead 

FiveThirtyEight Model Prediction: Tuberville [R] leads in 82% of simulations

My Flip Chance Prediction: 95%



What once was viewed as a fairly purple state has turned increasingly blue over the last few decades, which is bad news for Republican incumbent Senator Cory Gardner. Gardner was lucky to be elected in a historic red-wave in 2014, but will likely not have the same national coattails to ride in 2020.  Even more so, he is running against one of the best recruited Democrats in this cycle, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. Hickenlooper briefly ran for President in 2020 without much success. He initially declined the call for the race but has since joined and taken a sizable lead. Despite his status as a Republican in a Clinton-won state, Gardner has tied himself tightly to Trump, something that will only hurt him in this statewide race. All signs point to an easy flip for Democrats.


RCP Polling Average: Hickenlooper [D] 9.0 Point Lead

FiveThirtyEight Model Prediction: Hickenlooper [D] leads in 85% of simulation

My Flip Chance Prediction: 90%



Arizona is perhaps the best example of the purple-ing and blue-ing phenomenon happening across Sun Belt states. The Copper State used to be a clear Republican stronghold. Yet, the expansion of the Phoenix suburbs along with Trump’s concession of many suburban voters has made the state competitive in a presidential election for the first time in decades. The Senate election in 2018 saw a close win for moderate Democrat Kyrsten Sinema over Martha McSally in a favorable year for national Democrats. McSally was appointed to the late Republican Senator John McCain’s seat in 2018 and now has incumbent status, which she has also used to adopt a Trump-ist approach to politics. Senator McSally will face  a similar partisan environment in 2020 against astronaut Mark Kelly. Kelly is a powerful fundraiser with an emotionally resonant personal story – he is married to Rep. Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz., who, in 2011, survived an assassination attempt in Tucson with life-altering brain damage. Despite the fact Republicans won the state in 2016 and foresee a close election in 2020, the Senate race so far has been anything but. The polls show a clear lead for Kelly with the astronaut running considerably ahead of even Biden’s lead over Trump. This looks like the second pickup for the Democrats.


RCP Polling Average: Kelly [D] 3.5 Point lead

FiveThirtyEight Model Prediction: Kelly [D] leads in 81% of simulations

My Flip Chance 85%


Part IV: The Right on the Borderlines


Senator Susan Collins’ seat has long been an anathema to national Democrats, frustrated that a blue state like Maine continues to elect a Republican like Collins. Collins, for her part, was able to survive on a reputation as a deal-making moderate that crosses party lines and represents the independent streak of many New England voters. Unfortunately for her, recent votes to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh and on Trump’s impeachment have shed that reputation. Collins, who was once considered one of the most popular senators in the nation, immediately torpedoed into one of the least liked ones. This fall came at a particularly bad time as she faces a well-funded opponent in a favorable Democratic year. Her opponent, Sara Gideon, is the Democratic Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives and has proved herself to be an excellent fundraiser capable of attacking Collins head-on. Polls so far show Gideon with a small lead over the incumbent. If the election were held today, Gideon would probably be the new senator for the Pine Tree State.  


RCP last four polls: Gideon [D] 4.0 point lead

FiveThirtyEight Model Prediction: Gideon [D] leads in 60% of simulations

My Flip Chance: 80%


North Carolina

North Carolina is also representative of new territory for the Democrats to explore more consistently in federal and state elections. To win the Tar Heel State, Democrats will depend on its expanding suburban and college-educated white population to turn on Trump and deliver a Biden victory. They seemed to have recruited well with moderate Cal Cunningham taking on incumbent Republican Senator Tom Thillis. Thillis turned some heads when he refused to grant Trump emergency authorization for a wall,  but he was forced to retreat to Trump’s side to avoid a competitive primary race.  Cunningham is now in the midst of a scandal of his own as he faces accusations of sexting and adultery. Polls since this revelation have not shown much of a change, however.  It looks like Cunningham has a small advantage, but it remains fragile. North Carolina is likely to be a bellwether state for who controls the Senate.  If Democrats win, the Senate is probably already theirs.


RCP Polling Average: Cunningham [D] 3.2 Point lead

FiveThirtyEight Model Prediction: Cunningham [D] leads in 65% of simulations

My Flip Chance: 75%



Incumbent Republican Senator Joni Ernst won a competitive election in a plus-Republican year in 2014 but has since found herself as one of the most unpopular senators within her state and across the country. She has tied herself closely to Trump, a viable strategy in a slightly pro-Trump state like Iowa, but nevertheless faces a difficult election burden. Against her is a well- funded and well-positioned challenger in Theresa Greenfield.  Nationally, Iowa is looking like it will be a toss-up going into election day. Still, if the polling errors in 2016 and 2018 across the midwest are indicative of anything, Iowa may turn out to be redder on election day than predicted. Greenfield has led in almost every recent poll taken out of the Hawkeye State, but this election will probably come down to the wire. 


RCP Polling Average: Greenfield [D] 1.5 point lead

FiveThirtyEight Model prediction: Greenfield [D] leads in 54% of simulations

My Flip Chance: 60%


Image Credit: “2020 Senate election map” by Orser67 at English Wikipedia is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0