The Insider's guide to the key 2020 Senate races

Alex Wilson
October 21, 2019
Election 2020

With all eyes on the historically wide field of Democrats vying to be the party’s nominee for president in 2020, relatively little attention has been paid to the Senate races with the potential to decide control of the chamber. Here are the races to watch:


Cook Political Report: Tossup

Inside Elections: Tilt Republican

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Lean Republican

Along with her colleague Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) was long hailed as a moderate, common-sense foil to the partisan Washingtonian swamp that Mainers tend to detest; and given that she’s never lost any of her three Senate reelections by less than 18 points, it’s worked.

But times have changed, and it’s no longer an easy reelection for the incumbent. In a state that narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and gives President Trump a meager 34% approval rating, Collins’ recent party-line votes have done her no favors.

Just in the past year, since her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, Collins’ approval rating has plunged by 17 points, making her the second most unpopular senator—beaten out only by the Senate majority leader himself, Mitch McConnell (R-KY). With a newly elected Democratic governor and the recent ousting of Republican Rep. Bruce Poliquin by Jared Golden, Mainers have sent the sharp message that Trump’s GOP has no place in the state.

Despite her relative popularity throughout her 23 years in the Senate, Collins’ seat is far from safe this time around—so when Democratic Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon jumped into the race in June, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) quickly gave her their endorsement.

Earning $1 million in just its first week, Gideon’s campaign proved to have real momentum. Along with Gideon, the primary field includes five candidates (although Gideon appears to be the strong frontrunner). The winner of the March primary will also receive a booster of $4 million from a CrowdPac fundraiser created after Collins’ vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

While Gideon, the likely nominee, trailed Collins by a wide margin upwards of 15 points in a late July poll, an opponent still has over a year to gain name recognition in the state, and the House’s recent move to open an impeachment inquiry against President Trump could put Collins on a precarious tightrope.

If the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach the president, Collins, one of the most moderate senators from one of the most moderate states, would be thrust into the ultimate test of party loyalty—whether or not to convict and remove her own party’s president from office.

So, despite the wide margin that Collins has enjoyed in the earliest polling data, 2020 could prove to be a difficult year for the four-term incumbent.


Cook Political Report: Tossup

Inside Elections: Tossup

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Tossup

Arizona was a clear disappointment for Trump when he hung on in the reliably red state by a meager 3.5 points back in 2016. So, when Kyrsten Sinema narrowly won her Senate seat in the 2018 midterms—making her the first Arizonan Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate in 30 years—she signaled that Democrats could finally make meaningful inroads in the long Republican-dominated state.

2020 will show just how deep those inroads could go.

Shortly after her narrow loss to Sinema in 2018, GOP Rep. Martha McSally was tapped by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to fill the Senate seat vacated by the late Sen. John McCain.

Formerly the highest-ranking female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force and Representative for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, McSally’s selection was by and large an agreeable choice, but stirred up frustration among Democrats considering her Senate loss just one month before. Now, McSally must defend that seat in a 2020 special election.

As of now, it’s looking likely that the Democratic nominee for the seat will be retired astronaut Mark Kelly. The husband of Congresswoman-turned-gun-control-advocate Gabby Giffords, Kelly has made a name for himself in the state, and his fundraising numbers prove it.

By the end of the second quarter, Kelly’s team had already brought in $8.3 million in a swift and steady fundraising haul. But despite his impressive fundraising, solid name recognition, and opponent who actually lost her own race, Kelly has an uphill climb to Capitol Hill due to Arizona’s historical Republican-tilt, and the possibility that the Presidential race will galvanize Republican turnout.

Recently, in an issue that she’ll surely have to defend this coming year, McSally was fined $23,000 by the Federal Election Commission for accepting $319,000 in excessive contributions from 117 individuals and failing to properly disclose PAC contributions to her 2014 Congressional campaign.

Otherwise, McSally has been sure to keep her head down on hotbutton issues during her brief time in the Senate, and has emerged as a leader on common-sense issues such as military sexual assault prevention, making her a palatable incumbent.

President Trump won the solidly red state by under four points in 2016, and Sinema’s victory soon followed, but that could be less of an indicator of an ideological shift in Arizona and more indicative of a simple distaste for the president himself. If that, in fact, is the case, it will prove difficult for the Democratic nominee to persuade Arizonans to give up their only remaining GOP senator.

Nonetheless, with one recent poll showing Democratic frontrunner Kelly with a 5 point lead, another showing the two in a dead heat, and the Cook Political Report labeling the race as a tossup, one thing is clear: no one’s safe in this battle.


Cook Political Report: Tossup

Inside Elections: Lean Republican

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Lean Republican

Doug Jones made waves when he narrowly defeated his Republican opponent in the race to fill the Alabama Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions (R) in 2017. One of the reddest states in the nation—and the only state where the majority of residents still oppose same-sex marriage—had elected their first Democratic senator in decades.

But then again, Jones’ opponent, Roy Moore, had been twice removed from Alabama’s Supreme Court and is alleged to have sexually assaulted underage girls; thus, Jones’his victory may have said more about his opponent than aboutof himself.

So, when Moore announced his candidacy to challenge Jones again in 2020, the Republican Party was aghast. The one man, it seemed, who could have managed to lose one of the safest seats in the nation to an otherwise unexciting opponent, was jumping back in.

Then again, Moore’s running against seven other candidates for the Republican nomination, and thus, it’s far too early to assume that his name will be on the ballot next November.

Amongst his competitors are former Auburn football head coach Tommy Tuberville and Bradley Byrne, an Alabama Congressman who supported Trump’s “Muslim Ban,” spoke fervently against the Equality Act, and stressed the importance of focusing on traditional Alabaman values.

Democratic optimists argue that Jones will hold on to the same support that allowed him his fragile sprint to victory, largely driven by an unprecedented turnout amongst black women. Yet Jones may not have the same halo he once did. Fast forward to 2019, and, unsurprisingly, his approval ratings are nothing to gloat about.

And given a few years of distance from the sexual assault allegations against Moore and first exposures to the Trump White House, conservatives may have more cover to defend and support Moore despite his scandals if he is the nominee.

Facing off against any other opponent, Jones may lose the game of “the lesser of two evils” that he won in 2017, especially since his party affiliation alone puts him so out of step with other normative statewide elected officials in the state with the highest net approval rating for President Trump.

It’ll be hard to place odds on Jones’ future until we know who his opponent will be. What we do know is that if that opponent is Moore, Alabama’s 2020 election will shape up to be a dumpster fire of epic proportions,  (reminiscent of 2017).

If a common sense nominee is picked, we can wonder if Jones will face a similar fate to former senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)—another middle-of-the-road Democratic senator narrowly elected over a scandal-ridden opponent in a deep red state who lost her eventual reelection battle by a landslide.


Cook Political Report: Tossup

Inside Elections: Tossup

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Tossup

As the only Republican statewide elected official left in Colorado, Senator Cory Gardner has a target on his back.

Hailing from a state that voted for Clinton in 2016, elected a gay Democratic governor in 2018, and has paved the way for recreational marijuana’s decriminalization, Gardner’s typically conservative anti-gay marriage, pro-NRA, anti-Obamacare stances may have finally caught up to him.

As he approaches his battle for re-election, an alienated electorate and the national Democratic establishment has pegged him as the most vulnerable Republican in 2020.

There’s no question that Gardner’s numbers are an ominous portent—an August PPP poll found that if the 2020 election were held today and Gardner were running against former governor John Hickenlooper, he would lose to his challenger by a staggering 13 points. While Hickenlooper has yet to formally clinch the nomination, he holds a commanding lead of 60% in the wide Democratic primary field (his next closest competitor trailing by 51 points).

Tie all of that up with his unflattering favorability rating of only 30%, and we can be sure that Gardner has work to do if he wants to call himself a U.S. Senator for another six years. As of right now, Gardner seems more than willing to do that work: last month alone, the Senator held over 50 campaign events and had already raised nearly $7 million by the FEC’s third quarter fundraising deadline.

Regardless, Hickenlooper’s nomination would provide an opponent with considerable likeability and recognition in the state, curbing Gardner’s ability to go on the offensive, limiting his campaign to defenses of his prior positions and softening his hardcore-conservative image.

However, Gardner’s attempts to moderate his ideology as of late have been marked less by concrete changes to his stances, and more by an increased evasiveness to questions poking at some more splintering issues—notably his unwillingness to address the apparent racism of President Trump’s attacks on Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley.

If Gardner fails to prove to Colorado that he can act as a common-sense foil to conservative leadership in Washington, his opponent, likely Hickenlooper, may not have a difficult time persuading the voters of the blue-tinged state to bid farewell to their only GOP senator.

North Carolina

Cook Political Report: Lean Republican

Inside Elections: Tossup

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Tossup

GOP senator Thom Tillis hasn’t had the privilege of comfort since he set his sights on the upper chamber in 2014. That year, he scraped by in his mere 1.5 point victory over incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan, and neither party—Democratic or Republican—is going to give him a second term without a fight.

With a competitive, conservative opponent in the state’s GOP primary, Tillis is facing trouble right out of the gate.

When his opponent, businessman Garland Tucker, entered the race only a few months ago polling at only 7%, it may have been easy to brush off the candidacy. But Tucker has already managed to close that polling gap to a mere 10 points (30% to 40%), with 30% of the state’s voters still undecided.

The Democratic primary is stacking up as well, with four candidates announced thus far, including state senators Cal Cunningham and Erica Smith.

With Democratic governor Roy Cooper’s 0.2 point victory in 2016 and Democrat Dan McCready’s narrow loss in the 9th Congressional District’s recent special election, it’s clear that North Carolina is anybody’s game—the GOP primary isn’t the only hurdle that Tillis has to clear.


Cook Political Report: Likely Republican

Inside Elections: Lean Republican

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Lean Republican

A once blue-leaning swing state, Iowa fell firmly into the Republican column in 2014 and 2016, backing both Senator Joni Ernst and President Trump by 9 points after voting twice for Obama. By then they had both Senate seats, three of the four house seats, the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature.

Since 2016, however, cracks have begun to form in the GOP’s dominance of the state.

For starters, 2018 saw Democrats capture the majority of the state’s House delegation after flipping two seats, and coming within just three points of another. However, they fell short in the Gubernatorial and most statewide races, with one bright spot being the election of Democratic Auditor Rob Sand.

These fairly good results for Democrats, combined with Trump’s abysmal approval rating in the state which was once his most favorable swing state, gives Democrats some hope that they can unseat Ernst.

Ernst, who was once beloved in the state having cultivated a folksy, anti-establishment persona, has seen her approval drop underwater in 2019–she saw the biggest slip in net approval–9 points–of any of the vulnerable Senate incumbents this quarter. Now she’s at a -4 point disparity.

The current Democratic candidates are former Navy Admiral and Ted Kennedy staffer Michael Franken, Attorney Kimberly Graham, small business owner Theresa Greenfield and businessman and activist Eddie Mauro.

Greenfield, who has much of the unspoken support of the Democratic establishment, is widely seen as the frontrunner, having outraised Ernst $1 million to $700,000. Still, Ernst has a massive cash-on-hand advantage with $4 million to Greenfield’s $1.25 million. It remains to be seen whether that will be enough to hang onto her seat.


Cook Political Report: Likely Republican

Inside Elections: Safe Republican

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Likely Republican

With both the least popular senator and governor in the country, a storm is brewing in the Bluegrass State. This November, GOP Governor Matt Bevin will have to keep his seat in a race labeled as a tossup, and next year, the Majority Leader himself will be fighting a safer, but likely competitive, race to win his seventh term in the Senate.

It seems puzzling that in a state that voted for Donald Trump by 30 points and approves of his performance by a net 15 points, two statewide elected officials who have modeled their own campaigns after Trump’s own are struggling to keep their heads above water.

Maybe it’s a personality problem, maybe it’s a lower tolerance for such rampant partisanship within the state itself, but one thing is clear, and it’s that both men have alienated themselves not just from voting Democrats, but the state’s independents.  And in doing so, they’ve opened up an opportunity for Democratic candidates to capture a voting bloc that has rarely belonged to them in such a red state.

So far, five Democrats have announced their candidacies for  McConnell’s senate seat—the most well known being Amy McGrath, the retired fighter pilot whose campaign against GOP Rep. Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th District propelled her to Democratic stardom.

Despite her failure to unseat Barr, her narrow 3 point loss only seemed to whet the party’s appetite for a McGrath win. If she is able to clinch the nomination, her campaign to unseat McConnell should be expected to be loud, well-funded (her Senate campaign raised $2.5 million in just one day), and competitive—a late July poll put her only one point behind the Majority Leader.

If no one else succeeds at overcoming McGrath in the primary, both candidates will have to brace for a bloodbath.

McConnell has already capitalized on a pandering comment his centrist opponent once made to Democrats about being the “most progressive” person in the state, setting the tone for a battle that will likely try to tie the Democratic Party brand to socialism—not unlike President Trump’s socialist name-calling of the field of Democratic presidential candidates.

And in only the first days of her campaign, McGrath fumbled in her attempt to align her stances with those of the Kentucky electorate as she flip-flopped her position in regards to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Besides, despite the senator’s unpopularity, spectators should be assured that McConnell’s camp will garner spectacular GOP fundraising and special interest support from both within and outside of the R+15 state. In short: his opponent has a long way to go to prove to Kentucky that they are, at the very least, the lesser of two evils.

New Hampshire

Cook Political Report: Safe Democratic

Inside Elections: Likely Democratic

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Lean Democratic

Democrat Jeanne Shaheen is vying for her third term in her Senate seat, and if her narrow wins in 2008 and 2014 weren’t signal enough of yet another contentious reelection campaign, the volatile political environment heading into 2020 has been enough to rattle the party.

Essentially, no one is safe in the state that voted for Hillary Clinton by only one-fifth of a point in 2016, and quite a few Republicans hope to teach Shaheen that lesson.

So far, three Republicans have announced their candidacies—two U.S. Army veterans and Bill O’Brien, former Speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives—but don’t be surprised if the field widens.

Corey Lewandowski, President Trump’s polarizing and strongly ideological former campaign manager has not yet made up his mind on running, although a Lewandowski candidacy would be sure to splinter the state GOP.

Former NH senator Kelly Ayotte (who lost her seat by roughly 1,000 votes of over 700,000 ballots cast in 2016) and former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown (who lost his seat to Elizabeth Warren in 2012 before becoming the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand) have not definitively declined to run.

Nonetheless, by most indicators, Shaheen is still favored in New Hampshire’s election—the incumbent boasts a 20 point net approval rating, leads most potential opponents by margins in the high single digits, and dominates Lewandowski by up to 20%.

Regardless, there’s still fourteen months to go before the election, and that means there’s thirteen months for President Trump to bolster party support in the state, an array of potential Republicans to clinch the nomination, and competitive campaigning. In short, Shaheen shouldn’t get too comfortable.


Cook Political Report: Safe Republican

Inside Elections: Safe Republican

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Likely Republican

Despite what President Trump’s easy 20 point win might appear to say about Montana’s political leanings, Democrats Steve Bullock and Jon Tester have proved in their 4 point gubernatorial and senatorial victories that the party still maintains a tenuous—yet substantial—foothold in the state.

Therefore, hopeful Democrats have pegged Montana as a potential 2020 battleground as incumbent GOP Senator Steve Daines seeks reelection.

So far, three Democrats have declared candidacy, including Helena mayor Wilmot Collins, who as of the second-quarter fundraising deadline, had only brought in roughly $91,000—a slow start to a statewide campaign—and Cora Neumann, Founder of the Global First Ladies Alliance and former Senior Advisor at the State Department.

It’s still unclear whether Collins or Neumann would be able to build viable, competitive campaigns.

Moreover, Daines is popular in his own right, and in a red state, taking on a popular GOP incumbent is a daunting undertaking. Just this past quarter, Morning Consult reported that Daines had a net approval rating of +21 points, and in 2014, he won his Senate seat by a nearly 18 point margin even with an underwater approval rating as a Representative in the House.

Democrats do have one candidate to make the seat firmly competitive, however. Governor Steve Bullock, who is currently waging a longshot campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, has a net approval of +22 points, making him the second most popular Democratic Governor in the country. He would bring the necessary star power, resources and credibility to give Daines a serious run for his money.

The catch? Bullock has said he’s “ruling out” a run for Senate as he’s laser focused on his Presidential run. Then again, he’s likely to drop out of the Presidential race some time soon, and if he did run for Senate it would hardly be the first time a politician went back on their word (see: Hickenlooper, John).


Cook Political Report: Likely Republican

Inside Elections: Likely Republican

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Lean Republican

Less than a year after Democrat Stacy Abrams’ dramatic loss in Georgia’s gubernatorial election, the usually reliably red state may play host to yet another nailbiter.

With GOP Sen. David Perdue up for reelection, Georgia Democrats have been eager to capitalize on the liberal momentum that Abrams’ campaign created and put up a competitive opponent. But this past month, Georgia’s other senator, Republican Johnny Isakson, announced his resignation, putting his seat up for grabs in a 2020 special election.

Now, Georgia will be holding not one, but two, senatorial elections in 2020—one of them for a vacant seat (thus depriving Republicans of their incumbency advantage).

Before Isakson’s announcement, Democrats seemed to be all in on defeating Perdue, with Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson taking center stage in the race for the nomination. But with Isakson’s seat now a tabula rasa, of sorts, we can expect Democrats (as well as the GOP) to scramble for a formidable candidate.

Regardless, either seat will undoubtedly be difficult for a Democrat to capture. Abrams’ narrow loss in 2018 ignited hopes of a newfound possibility for liberal wins in Georgia; but then again, Abrams cultivated a sort of star power that few candidates can so successfully muster, and 2018 was a massive wave year for Democrats.

To put it simply: Georgia is within reach for Democrats—but that by no means indicates that a win will be easy.


Cook Political Report: Safe Republican

Inside Elections: Likely Republican

Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball: Likely Republican

Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss to incumbent GOP Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 sparked momentum in Texas’ long-overlooked Democratic Party—a momentum that has presented the question of whether O’Rourke’s star power alone allowed for an insular shining moment for the party or if the state may no longer be the deep-red stronghold that it once was.

Of course, just two years later, the Democrats are looking for another competitive race against GOP Senator John Cornyn to show that Beto’s successes were more than an anomaly.

With nine candidates already declared in the Democratic primary, it’s far too early to place bets on who will eventually get to challenge Cornyn. However, eyes have been on MJ Hegar, a retired Air Force Major who ran for Congress in the state’s 31st district in 2018, losing to incumbent John Carter by a mere three points.

Critics could reasonably wonder whether Hegar’s resume—her latest and highest line is a failed run for a lower office, though she has had accomplished careers in the Air Force, business and teaching—is enough to make for a serious Senate bid (much as O’Rourke’s presidential bid has floundered just after he also narrowly lost a race for a lower office).

Such an argument doesn’t even take into consideration Cornyn’s perceived agreeability (certainly higher than his colleague Ted Cruz) as well as his higher stature in the party, as the former Senate majority whip. And the likelihood that it’ll be harder for liberals to stoke the embers of a rebellion against him.

There’s no doubt that it would be a terribly risky gamble for any Democrat to take on a GOP senator with a +18 net approval rating in an R+8 state, but then again, crazier things have happened. Don’t be surprised to see Cornyn elected for another six years, but then again, don’t think that he’ll have the privilege of sitting back and relaxing this election cycle.

Alex Wilson

Alex (’22) is the Communications Officer and Senior Policy and Finance Editor. He is a political science and media studies double major with interests in global infrastructure and minority representation in government. He has interned for multiple Congressional campaigns and worked as an editorial intern for Cincinnati Magazine. He enjoys listening to podcasts, snuggling with his cat, and hammocking at Sunset Lake.