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Analysis: The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2020

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/12/2019 Amber Phillips

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Can Democrats take back the Senate in 2020? They’ll need to have a dream election to do it.

Republicans currently have the majority by four seats, and even though the GOP is defending seven of the 10 most competitive Senate seats on the ballot this year, most of those are in states President Trump won. Two Democrats on this list are also trying to get reelected in states Trump won.

We’re just under a year and a half out from the election, so these races are still taking shape.

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First, some honorable mentions: Kentucky, where Democrat Amy McGrath raised an incredible $2.5 million in her first day as a candidate to try to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R). In South Carolina, Democrats argue Jaime Harrison could give Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R) a competitive race. We’ll also be watching to see if Republicans can recruit candidates in New Mexico and Minnesota to make a competitive run for these Democratic seats.

As they stand right now, here are the top 10 Senate races, ranked in order of least likely to flip parties (number 10) to most likely to flip parties (number 1). We will update this list semi-regularly, and much more regularly as the election nears.

a close up of a map 10. Texas (Republican held): The Beto O’Rourke effect has a long tail. After the former Texas congressman and current 2020 presidential candidate came within three points of knocking off Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, Democrats are trying to rebuild his coalition to unseat Sen. John Cornyn. They’ve recruited veteran and former congressional candidate M.J. Hegar. (Though O’Rourke still has time to get in himself if the whole presidential thing doesn’t work out.)

But was O’Rourke vs. Cruz a unique matchup? Republicans concede O’Rourke revealed Texas to be slightly less red, maybe even a shade of purple. But GOP and Cornyn roots run deep here — Cornyn is seeking his fourth term and is the No. 2 Republican in the Senate — so Democrats will need a lot more than just star power to knock him out.

9. New Hampshire (Democratic held): It’s a testament to how narrow the Senate map is this cycle that we have Texas and New Hampshire in our top 10 list. In New Hampshire, Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is running for her third term in a state Hillary Clinton won (albeit narrowly).

Republicans are going to make a run for Shaheen, though, and they’re excited by the entrance of retired Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who is running on his military record, which includes 10 tours in Afghanistan, five Bronze Star medals and two Purple Hearts. Given he’s not widely known in the state, Democrats are curious to see how much Bolduc can raise and whether he faces a primary fight.

8. Georgia (Republican held): Georgia is another traditionally Republican state where a star Democratic candidate recently reshaped strategists’ views. Even though she didn’t win, Stacey Abrams’s gubernatorial race revealed the partisan makeup of Georgia, shifting it slightly less red. In addition to winning a majority of younger and nonwhite voters, Abrams won a majority of women.

Democrats tried and failed to recruit Abrams to run for Senate. As such, Republican Sen. David Perdue has a long list of Democrats vying to challenge him in his first Senate reelection campaign. Perdue recently raised nearly $2 million this spring while one top Democratic candidate, former Columbus mayor Teresa Tomlinson, raised just half a million.

7. Iowa (Republican held): Democrats have reasons to be optimistic: They’re excited about the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s endorsed candidate, Des Moines real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, and they benefit from Trump’s tariff threats in Mexico and Canada impacting farmers. Plus, in 2018, Democrats flipped a couple House seats and won two statewide offices, suggesting Iowa is in the mood to swing back after going for Trump by nine points in 2016.

But Greenfield has a primary to get through first, and Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is a military veteran who is well-liked in the state — a February Des Moines Register poll had her approval rating at its highest ever, 56 percent.

  Joni Ernst holding a sign posing for the camera: Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) at her campaign kickoff in June. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP) © Bryon Houlgrave/AP Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) at her campaign kickoff in June. (Bryon Houlgrave/The Des Moines Register via AP)

6. Michigan (Democratic held): It’s true that Sen. Gary Peters is a Democrat trying to win reelection in a 2016 Trump state. But Trump barely won then, and could just as easily not win it this time around. State polls currently show Trump losing to several 2020 Democratic candidates here, and in fact he’s polling worse in Michigan than he is nationally.

Republicans hope to contrast Peters’ low name ID with candidate John James, an Iraq War veteran who also ran for Senate in 2018. He lost to Sen. Debbie Stabenow, but he has proven to be a strong fundraiser and a media darling on the right.

5. Maine (Republican held): Other than McConnell, Sen. Susan Collins is the Republican senator Democrats most like to oust. Her high-profile vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh turned her into a villain on the left.

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But does that translate to Maine voters? Democrats think so, and they recruited Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, who raised $1 million in a week and argues Collins has become more partisan in the Trump era. (If she wins her primary, she will have access to $4 million in the general election thanks to a crowdfunding campaign to unseat Collins for her Kavanaugh vote.)

But Collins knows how to win in Maine; she's been doing it for decades. Even after the Kavanaugh vote, Republicans say her approval is still in the high 50s. Can Democrats make the case to Maine voters that it's time to stop electing a senator they've known for 20 years?

4. North Carolina (Republican held): North Carolina continues to look more purple, and that has complicated life for Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. He first got elected in 2014 with less than 50 percent of the vote, Trump narrowly won here in 2016, and that same year, Democrats flipped the governor’s mansion.

Tillis’s attempts to appeal to both sides of the aisle have seemed erratic. He recently wrote a Washington Post op-ed saying he would vote against Trump’s national emergency declaration at the border to fund a wall. But then he voted for it. Tillis now has a primary challenger in businessman Garland Tucker.

And Democrats are excited by former state senator and veteran Cal Cunningham's chances, should he win his primary, to build on a couple good election cycles for Democrats.

 

3. Arizona (Republican held): Now we get to the truly competitive races. Sen. Martha McSally (R) ran for the Senate and lost just last year to Kyrsten Sinema (D). But then she got appointed by Arizona’s governor to the seat that opened with the passing of John McCain. Layer her very-recent loss with the fact Arizona voted for Trump by just 3.5 percentage points, and Democrats feel pretty good about the chances of Mark Kelly, an astronaut, gun-control activist and husband to former Democratic congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who is outraising McSally 2-to-1 shortly after he got in.

Gabrielle Giffords standing in front of a building: Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords listens as her husband, Mark Kelly, speaks on Capitol Hill in October 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) © Susan Walsh/AP Former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords listens as her husband, Mark Kelly, speaks on Capitol Hill in October 2017. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

2. Colorado (Republican held): Cory Gardner is the most vulnerable Senate Republican. He’s running for reelection in a state Clinton won by five points, and he won his first race in 2014 (a great year for Republicans) with less than 50 percent. Plus, Colorado is getting more Democratic by the year. Democrats say they now have 50,000 more registered voters than Republicans and Trump (whom Gardner has endorsed) is unpopular there, which raises the question of whether there will be enough Democrat-Gardner voters. Democrats have 16 candidates running for the nomination, and some have raised more than $1 million. Gardner will need help to win, and Republicans are hopeful a divisive primary can give him some breathing room.

1. Alabama (Democrat held): Was Democrat Doug Jones’s victory over Roy Moore in a 2017 special election a fluke? Jones became the first Democrat to represent Alabama in 20 years. He beat Moore, who was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore is running again and has a chance to at least make a runoff. Democrats argue Jones didn’t win because of Moore, but rather that he put together a strong coalition largely of African American voters. But this is still deep red Trump country; Alabama is one of the most pro-Trump states. So unless Moore wins the nomination again, Jones is going to have a really steep uphill battle to remain in his seat.

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