With the political conventions behind us and Labor Day approaching, it’s the time of year when down-ballot elections start to kick into high gear. At the start of the 2020 cycle, the Senate wasn’t expected to be all that exciting, with Republicans largely on defense in red states.
But that’s changed. With President Donald Trump trailing in national polls, Democratic challengers raking in millions and demographics shifting across the South, many of those Republican incumbents are sitting in states that don’t look as red as they used to.
Democrats need a net gain of three seats to flip the chamber if they also win the White House – since the vice president would break a tie – or four seats if Trump wins reelection. Although those net gains are possible, Democrats’ path is still complicated by the fact that they’re likely to lose a seat in Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones tops CNN’s inaugural ranking of the 10 Senate seats most likely to flip in 2020.
Still, eight of the top 10 seats on this list are held by Republicans. That the GOP is on defense is a reflection of their success in 2014. Half of the senators on this list are Republicans who were first elected six years ago. Two others are longtime incumbents who are facing their toughest challenges yet in South Carolina and Maine.
Besides Alabama, one other Democrat-held seat comes in at the bottom: Gary Peters of Michigan is the only other Democrat running for reelection this year in a state Trump carried, albeit narrowly, in 2016. But Peters is not raising major alarm bells for national Democrats, especially in a state that looks to be moving away from Trump. It’s possible this race drops off the list in subsequent rankings.
Several other GOP-held seats could move onto the list in the future. Texas, for example, is a politically evolving state, and the presidential race there is closer than Republicans would like. But this year’s Democratic Senate nominee doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of money Beto O’Rourke did two years ago, while GOP Sen. John Cornyn isn’t as disliked as Sen. Ted Cruz. The Lone Star State is worth watching, though.
So is Georgia. Sen. David Perdue’s seat falls in the bottom half of our ranking, but the state’s other seat is also competitive. Appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler faces Republicans and Democrats on the same ballot in the November special election, which will likely go to a January runoff. With so many moving parts, it’s too soon to tell whether this seat deserves to be on the list, but there’s no question it’s causing an extra headache for Republicans.
Two other Republican-held seats – Kansas and, to a greater extent, Kentucky – are generating buzz this year, too, but neither is likely to grace the top 10 list anytime soon. Kris Kobach could have jeopardized the open Kansas seat had he won the GOP primary, but national Republicans got the candidate they wanted. And in Kentucky, Democrat Amy McGrath is outraising Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose lead has dipped into single digits in a recent public poll. The Bluegrass State elected a Democratic governor in 2019, but McGrath – who has sometimes stumbled as a candidate – is still fighting an uphill battle during a presidential year.
Here are the seats most likely to flip:
Incumbent: Democratic Sen. Doug Jones
Jones has been in a perilous position ever since he flipped this seat blue in a December 2017 special election, only narrowly defeating the scandal-plagued Roy Moore. Running in a state Trump carried by nearly 30 points against a Republican who isn’t facing sexual assault allegations, there’s only so many Republicans Jones can hope to win over. Jones is now facing the Trump-backed Tommy Tuberville, who beat former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the primary runoff for the right to try to take back Sessions’ old seat. Jones isn’t running away from his party – he voted to impeach the President and spoke at the Democratic National Convention – and any path to victory likely depends on energizing Black voters to turn out. Jones enjoys a healthy financial advantage over Tuberville, and despite the difficulty of the race, national Democrats aren’t leaving him out to dry, with one group going up on TV for him earlier this month.
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Cory Gardner
First elected in 2014, Gardner has tried to cut an image of a bipartisan, moderate lawmaker – touting his sponsorship of the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act in one of his first ads this summer. But even if he were running a flawless campaign, the national environment would be hard to overcome in Colorado, which Trump lost by about 5 points in 2016. Gardner is in a bind: he needs to appeal to voters who disapprove of the President but also not alienate the GOP base, who he needs to turn out in order to win. While former Gov. John Hickenlooper endured a rough Democratic primary and is being attacked for ethics violations, he’s a former statewide elected official running on his executive experience, while Democrats try to tie Gardner to the national GOP.
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Martha McSally
Appointed to this open seat after losing the 2018 Senate race, McSally is the only incumbent on this list who hasn’t won statewide. The former congresswoman failed to win over suburban women voters in that race two years ago, and she again needs to strike a balance between winning Trump supporters and appealing to the middle. This year, she’s running against a former astronaut without a voting record. Democrat Mark Kelly is far outraising her, ending the pre-primary reporting period on July 15 with $21 million in the bank to McSally’s $11 million. But the competitiveness of Arizona at the top of the ticket makes McSally slightly less vulnerable than Gardner, given that she could get a boost if Trump does well.
4. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Thom Tillis
Running in a key presidential battleground, Tillis has to hope things go Trump’s way here. The first-term incumbent, who only narrowly won in 2014, ended up avoiding a contentious primary but had to spend money and political capital in the off-year to do it. He didn’t make many friends with an infamous flip-flop on Trump’s border wall, first penning a Washington Post op-ed against use of an emergency declaration to secure funds for the wall and later, in an appeal to Trump, reversing his position. He’s up against former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, a member of the Army Reserves. It’ll be an expensive race, with forces on both sides of the aisle already having booked millions of dollars for TV advertising. Cunningham is outpacing the incumbent on fundraising, bringing in $7.4 million to Tillis’ $2.6 million in the second quarter.
Incumbent: Republican Sen. Susan Collins
Unlike most of the incumbents on this list who are in their first terms, Collins has the advantage of long-time incumbency. First elected in 1996, the Caribou, Maine, native has relied on an image of a moderate GOP lawmaker. But Democrats’ pitch is that she’s changed. While her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 allowed the left to villainize her nationally (which helped raise nearly $4 million for her eventual opponent), it’s her vote for the GOP tax plan in 2017 and contributions from the pharmaceutical industry that Democrats are using against her. Republicans, meanwhile, are defending Collins’ service to the state and attacking Democrat Sara Gideon, the state House speaker, for things she did in the state legislature.
Maine is one of two states that splits its electoral votes by congressional district, so even though Trump lost the state by 3 points in 2016, he picked up an electoral vote by carrying the sprawling 2nd District, where Collins is from. Trump is unlikely to carry that district by as m