Former Vice President Joe Biden’s lead over President Donald Trump in swing states and national polls may be a good sign for Democrats hoping the enthusiasm trickles down to the battle for control over the Senate.
Republicans hold a majority of the seats up for reelection giving Democrats a lot more opportunities to break their current 53-47 majority.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a political analysis newsletter at the University of Virginia, said Biden is decently positioned in at least four states — Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina — with incumbent GOP senators.
Democrats also have expanded the map so that Georgia, Iowa and Montana are potential targets — and others, such as South Carolina, “are more interesting sleeper targets than they were at the start of the cycle.”
“In order to win the Senate, Democrats will need Biden to do well and for Senate candidates to be largely connected to their respective presidential party nominees,” Kondik said.
The two sides must also find a way to motivate voters while the coronavirus pandemic restricts gatherings and millions have been left without work.
Which states could flip?
Arizona: At the top of the Democratic list is the Arizona battle between Democrat Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and gun-control activist, and Republican incumbent Martha McSally, a firebrand conservative.
Kelly has name recognition as an astronaut and husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. He also has a reputation for being above partisan politics, observers say.
“Politically, he has long identified as an independent, making him more palatable to more conservative or moderate Democrats,” Samara Klar, a political science professor at the University of Arizona, told USA TODAY.
The result is a fundraising boon that has calcified a lead in most major surveys.
McSally set a personal campaign record when she raised about $9.3 million in the second quarter of 2020, but still fell short of Kelly, who raked in $12.8 million.
Kelly has raised $46.1 million in total with roughly $22 million left on hand compared to $30.4 million generated by McSally, who has about $10 million in the bank.
There should be no question: all Arizonans need access to COVID-19 testing and care. This pandemic is a challenge like nothing we’ve faced in our lifetime, but we’ll get through this together — because Arizonans are tough and that’s what we do. pic.twitter.com/MuOThmkhf2
— Captain Mark Kelly (@CaptMarkKelly) August 8, 2020
But Arizona remains a battleground state in the presidential race and hasn’t gone for a Democrat since 1996. The most recent Emerson College poll shows Biden up by four points, 49% to 45%, over Trump in what has long been a reliably red state.
Kelly has seen large double-digit leads for most of the year, but a new Arizona Public Opinion Pulse survey released on Tuesday showed McSally closing that gap to 5 percentage points.
Klar said the biggest opponent for Kelly right now might be the sense that he’s already won.
“Complacency is always a risk when voters start to feel that a win is inevitable,” she said. “However, it’s been over half a century since Arizona had two Democratic senators, so I don’t think anyone here believes that Kelly’s victory will be a sure thing.”
Colorado: Republican incumbent Cory Gardner fits into a category Democrats refer to as the “barely elected” class of 2014 because he won by less than 2 percentage points. He consistently trails former Gov. John Hickenlooper in the polls up to double digits, but that margin has been shrinking as Election Day approaches.
Then there is Trump, who Gardner didn’t support in 2016 but has embraced since. Four years ago he abandoned the then-GOP presidential nominee after the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood video was released of Trump making vulgar comments about women.
“I will not vote for Donald Trump,” Gardner said at the time. In January, Gardner endorsed the president for reelection.
Democratic attacks have focused on Gardner’s vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, pass the GOP tax cut plan and confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Hickenlooper comes out of a tougher-than-expected primary that exposed weaknesses Republicans hope to exploit.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, said in a recent campaign memo that Hickenlooper’s net favorability rating dropped 20 points since he entered the race.
Hickenlooper has seen a dip in the polls in the aftermath of GOP attacks ads about him being smacked with $2,000 worth of fines in June by the state’s ethics commission for illegally accepting flights, lodging and meals.
A Colorado ethics panel concluded Hickenlooper had twice violated the state’s ban on valuable gifts to public officials when he was governor, but it dismissed four other trips included in the original complaint.
The NRSC memo said its internal polling shows when it comes to Hickenlooper voters, “far and away” think of the former governor as someone who is “dishonest and corrupt.’”
Alabama: Democratic Sen. Doug Jones squeaked out a 2017 victory over Republican Roy Moore, who faced accusations from multiple women who said he had made sexual advances toward them when they were teenagers.
He is now running in a state Trump won handily in 2016, facing a much more formidable and less controversial Republican nominee in Tommy Tuberville, a former Auburn University football coach who beat former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a GOP runoff.
Trump was elated when Tuberville defeated Sessions, and immediately pivoted to hammering Jones, who the president called a “terrible senator who is just a super liberal puppet” for congressional Democrats.
Morning Consult shows Tuberville leading by 17 percentage points in the ruby red state where Trump is pummeling Biden by 22 percentage points.
“At this point, Democrats should probably view Alabama as a likely loss and hope that Jones can spring an upset,” Kondik said. “Democrats have to assume a path to the majority that does not include Alabama.”
Keep an eye on these toss-ups
Maine: Sen. Susan Collins has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican in a state where many voters prize political independence, but her seat is under serious threat.
Collins faces a tough test against Democrat Sara Gideon, the Maine House speaker who has been leading in every major poll since July.
A Democratic campaign official said the party wants this race to be about Collins’ votes in which she’s sided with Trump, specifically confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and acquitting Trump in the impeachment trial.
Mark Brewer, a political science professor at the University of Maine, said the state remains a toss-up because of Collins’ years of high popularity, which has kept the polling, fundraising and energy close.
“There are some people out there who say Gideon is the frontrunner, and I don’t think those arguments are crazy, but you can’t write off someone like Collins with that sort of career and experience,” Brewer said.
Republicans have gone on the attack, alleging Gideon didn’t move quickly enough to address a sexual misconduct allegations against a Maine legislator, according to News Center Maine.
The NRSC said its internal tracking shows voters often look at Gideon as “weak” or “unprepared” for the job, and that Maine cares more about state issues than national headlines.
But if the polls are to be believed Collins is in trouble.
A survey of 500 registered Maine voters released on Tuesday by the Bangor Daily News showed she trailed Gideon 35% to 43%, but that lead shrinks to five percentage points among likely voters.
Another poll released on Tuesday, which was conducted by RMG Group, also found Collins trailing Gideon among registered voters, 41% to 48%. Earlier this month a Quinnipiac University poll had Collins down by four percentage points among registered Maine voters.
Brewer said out-of-state Democratic groups are trying to make this race a referendum on Collins supporting Kavanaugh, especially given her previous comments in favor of abortion rights.
What’s evident is if Republicans lose Maine it will be a sign the Senate is probably lost to Democrats.
“It’s one thing to beat (Martha) McSally in Arizona with a candidate like (Mark) Kelly, that isn’t going to surprise anyone,” Brewer said. “On the other hand, if Democrats knock off a four-term incumbent who 18 months ago had favorability in the 60s — Susan Collins losing in Maine would be a stunning and rapid downfall.”
North Carolina: Republican Sen. Thom Tillis upset Democrat Kay Hagan by a razor-thin margin of 1.5% in 2016. But he faces a tough reelection bid in a state where presidential contests have been close
An Aug. 11 poll by Emerson College has Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, a former state senator and Iraq war veteran, with an edge of 3 percentage points.
“This race will not be easy,” the recent NRSC campaign memo said.
Amid the pandemic, Cunningham is attacking Tillis for his previous efforts to block Medicaid expansion in North Carolina.
As speaker of the state House, Tillis led on a 2013 measure that stopped the governor from extending those health care benefits without the approval of state lawmakers. The bill also kept North Carolina from running its own health benefit exchange.
Thom Tillis blocked Medicaid expansion as Speaker of the NC House. If he cares about his constituents, he should take a hint from the states adopting expansion, admit he was wrong as Speaker, and incentivize North Carolina to expand Medicaid now.https://t.co/SPnk5q0bHr
— Cal Cunningham (@CalforNC) August 5, 2020
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst finds herself in a close reelection contest as Trump’s support in the state dips.
Trump won Iowa by a comfortable 10 percentage points four years ago, but he’s ahead of Biden by about 3 percentage points in a new Monmouth University survey.
Ernst, a first-term senator, has also seen her support soften a bit.
Democrat Theresa Greenfield was leading by 3 percentage points in a June poll conducted by the Des Moines Register.But Ernst bounced back in the Monmouth University poll released this month leading by roughly 3 percentage points.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan analyst website, has moved the Iowa race from “leans Republican” to toss-up.
Montana: Democrats recruited outgoing Gov. Steve Bullock to challenge Sen. Steve Daines in a state Trump easily won in 2016.
Big news: we just launched our first TV ad!
I’m so thankful for the opportunity to reach every single Montanan and share my vision: to make Washington work more like Montana.
We need to keep our TV ads running to reach every last voter: chip in today! https://t.co/2FtgbfYPmr pic.twitter.com/jpaeJqGu0y
— Steve Bullock (@stevebullockmt) June 14, 2020
“Unlike other states with candidates newer to the statewide ballot, Bullock is already well-defined in voters’ minds, and it may be harder to change voters’ opinions of him,” Jessica Taylor, who tracks Senate races for the Cook Political Report, said in June.
Daines is leading by roughly 6 percentage points in the most recent Emerson College survey after he went on the offensive. He, for instance, has hit Bullock, who briefly ran for president, on cultural issues such as gun rights, saying Bullock is “too liberal” given his poor rating from the National Rifle Association.
Bullock hasn’t taken those hits without responding, however. He has pointed out that Daines was praised by China’s ambassador to the U.S., who once called the GOP incumbent the foreign country’s “ambassador to Congress.”
South Carolina: Democrat Jaime Harrison is staging a competitive challenge to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a race that has drawn national attention.
A Quinnipiac University poll this month shows Harrison tied with Graham and a Morning Consult survey had the GOP incumbent up by one point in a state Trump won by 14 percentage points in 2016.
Kentucky: Democrat Amy McGrath wants to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and she’s raised plenty of money towards that goal.
McGrath, a retired Marine, has raked in $47.2 million, which according to the Federal Election Commission is the most of any candidate, incumbent or challenger, running for Senate this year.
But McGrath was rattled when during the Democratic primary by an underdog state legislator who came within two points of winning.
The Cook Report, a political analyst website continues to rank Kentucky as likely Republican and given it is a state Trump won by 30% Democrats face a mountain climb to make this race competitive.
McGrath has tried to appeal to those voters by arguing those who supported the president wanted a sea change in Washington and are equally fed up with McConnell, who is consistently ranked as one of the most unpopular senators in the country.
Initial general election polls showed McConnell with a commanding 17 percentage point lead, but other surveys showed McGrath within 5 percentage points.
The McGrath campaign said it believes the race is tightening, and shook things up on Friday when it announced Democratic consultant Dan Kanninen, who previously worked on Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign, will be replacing Mark Nickolas as campaign manager.
So many Kentuckians in Hardin Co. are fed up with Mitch that they came out in the middle of a hot day to fight to send him packing. It was great to talk with them about the future of our democracy.
While I was there, I also had the honor of visiting the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. pic.twitter.com/KcDnc3zplG
— Amy McGrath (@AmyMcGrathKY) August 12, 2020
Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at pbailey@USAToday.com. Follow him on Twitter at @phillipmbailey.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Senate 2020 races to watch as the COVID-19 election comes into focus