Our Final 2020 Senate Election Ratings

Election Day is days away, and if you’re not glued to FiveThirtyEight, Politico, and political Twitter, you probably have a life. 

Our two-person team here at The Postrider certainly has been and we’re ready to stay up all night — and probably many, many nights afterwards — to watch the results trickle in and the array of responses from the parties, candidates, and whatever may happen in disparate election systems across the states. So before we bear down on Election Day/week/month, it seems fitting to provide one final update on where the race for the Senate stands going into Tuesday.

Our Senate ratings have not budged since we published them in early October, which is a testament both to the stability of the race on the national level, and to our conservative ratings. Democrats need to win 16 races this cycle, or 15 along with the presidency (as the vice president breaks ties in the Senate). We believe Democrats are guaranteed to win at least ten of the 35 races, and are favored to win at least six more, which would give them control of the Senate if they have a night that goes moderately well for them. Republicans are expected to hold nine and favored to win nine more, with one race we believe is a true tossup: Iowa’s race between incumbent Senator Joni Ernst and challenger Theresa Greenfield.

The Senate map gives Democrats a slight advantage because of Biden’s competitiveness on the national level, which has given moderate Democrats in conservative states like Montana, Georgia, and Kansas a shot thanks to Biden’s own overperformance in these states. Democrats have also nominated strong candidates overall to take on vulnerable Republican-held seats: two popular two-term governors, a former Republican state senator, a state House Speaker, and an astronaut! So, we give Democrats the edge and our ratings indicate Democrats winning just over 16 seats, which we round down to project a 51-49 Senate majority for Democrats.

Races to Watch

If you’re looking at the races to watch, it probably comes down to two: Maine and North Carolina. Both of these states lean towards the Democrats, and will determine if Democrats can hit 50 seats and gain control of the Senate. The race in North Carolina between incumbent Republican Thom Tillis and challenger Cal Cunningham is probably the closest. It was rocked by scandal in the final month of the election, but has nonetheless held remarkably steady throughout the fall. Maine’s race, in which the State House Speaker Sara Gideon is challenging one of the few remaining Republican moderates, Susan Collins, has also been billed as a close race — but I’m not sure I buy it. Collins hasn’t led in a poll since July, and she is literally the least popular senator in the country.

If Democrats can carry both North Carolina and Maine handily, they’re well on their way to carrying Iowa, and probably pretty close to putting a seat in Georgia and the seats in Kansas and Montana in play too. But Republicans are trying to play offense in a couple states too. They’ve dumped a lot of money into Michigan in the last week of the race in an attempt to replace Democrat Gary Peters with businessman John James, and they’re almost certain to oust Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama. The problem for Republicans is that they don’t have the wide array of options that Democrats do. Democrats could lose Alabama’s race and Iowa’s race but still potentially pick off Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, defeat Dan Sullivan in Alaska, or win in Montana or Kansas. Democrats simply have a “longer tail”, and thus more opportunity to expand their number of Senate seats to 50, 52, or even 55 seats if they have a really good night.

On Georgia… 

Georgia has two Senate races this year: a special election, in which incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler is facing another Republican and several Democrats; and a regular election, in which the incumbent Republican David Perdue is being challenged by Democrat Jon Ossoff. We’ve kind of gone against the grain this year by rating these two races as likely (for the special election) and lean (for the regular election) Republican. Other ratings sites have called one or both of these races toss-ups, but we have been steadfast (despite some internal arguing) in holding that they are more likely to go to the Republican than the Democrat, even though we moved Georgia to a “Toss-Up” on the presidential level, for a couple of reasons. First of all, in Georgia, if no candidate wins an outright majority, the election goes to a runoff in early January. In the likely situation that the special election goes to a runoff, there is a chance that is between one of the Republicans and the most prominent Democrat, Raphael Warnock; in this case, the Republicans in the relatively-conservative Georgia would consolidate (especially if they’re reeling from the likelihood of Biden winning the presidency) against the Democrat. There is also a (fairly unlikely at this point, but plausible) chance the runoff is between the two Republicans, which would obviously make the odds for the Democrat zero. As for the regular election, we believe this is a lean Republican race because there are only two serious candidates, and therefore the odds of a runoff are smaller, but nonetheless remain — in which case the same throughline above would follow, with Republicans consolidating and motivated by an impending likely Biden presidency. It should not surprise you if Ossoff wins more than 50% in the first round, which is why this is only a lean Republican race; but it should absolutely surprise you if Warnock wins more than 50% outright in the first round in the special election, and it would be very surprising if Warnock is able to pull it off in a special election two months later if Joe Biden has won the presidency. 

So, Georgia probably isn’t the race to watch for control of the Senate, even if it will be interesting and have wide-ranging consequences in a state that Democrats have made a true toss-up at the national level. But, Georgia could be key in expanding an already emerging Senate majority for Democrats in the 117th Congress that convenes next year, and determine whether Democrats have a broader majority to work with. Keep your eyes on Maine, North Carolina, and Iowa — and as long as Democrats continue to make inroads in the Southwest, a Democratic-controlled Senate is likely next year.