Washington Wednesday – Is the GOP losing its grip on the Senate?

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 21st of October, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: the battle for the Senate.

BROWN: At the beginning of this year, Republicans seemed likely to keep their narrow Senate majority. But Democrats have steadily chipped away at seats that were once reliably red. The latest polling shows them poised to take control of both chambers of Congress.

REICHARD: If that happens, it will come down to just a few races. 

Well, it’s Washington Wednesday, and joining us now to talk about those races is Kyle Kondik. He’s a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

Good morning!

KYLE KONDIK, GUEST: Good morning.

REICHARD: Democrats are defending several seats that Republicans hope to pick up. Let’s begin there, starting with Alabama. How is Democrat Doug Jones doing in his bid to keep his seat against Tommy Tuberville, the former Auburn University football coach?

KONDIK: Jones has looked like an underdog really the whole cycle in his bid to win a full term in the Senate. He, of course, won a special election against a very weak Republican opponent in late 2017, but I think if you look at all of the Senate seats across the country and I think Democrats overall are poised to make gains. But the single seat that’s probably likeliest to flip remains Alabama, which would be a Republican pick up.

REICHARD: Let’s talk about Michigan. John James is the Republican candidate there. Has he made any headway against Democratic Sen. Gary Peters?

KONDIK: Yeah, there are a lot of Democrats who are concerned about holding Michigan. It’s a state that flipped to Donald Trump very narrowly in 2016, but a lot of people seem to think that Biden is going to win the state. That’s what polling indicates and the Trump campaign in general seems pretty bearish about holding that state. And yet Gary Peters, the Democratic senator, he often polls behind Joe Biden in polling, although he’s generally still leading John James in that race. I think Peters is still favored in Michigan. We’re in an era where the presidential results and the senate results in a given state in a year are generally usually pretty similar. Peters may end up doing worse than Biden but so long as Biden carries the state by more than a point or two, Peters should still be OK but there’s a lot of money flowing into that state. And, obviously, Republicans aren’t playing offense in the senate in many places. Michigan is one state where they feel like they can play offensive and they’re doing so. There’s a lot of outside money coming in there. James has also done a good job of fundraising, keeping relative parity with Peters. In many other states the Democratic senate candidates have been vastly outraising the Republican candidates.

REICHARD: So those are two seats Republicans are hoping to take. Let’s turn now to the four seats Democrats want to flip. Starting with Colorado.

KONDIK: Yeah, Corey Gardner has been, I think, an underdog for much of the cycle against John Hickenlooper, the former Democratic governor of Colorado. Frankly, Gardner is probably a more talented candidate than Hickenlooper and is arguably running a better campaign, but Colorado is a state that has trended more Democratic over time. Donald Trump lost Colorado by about 5 points in 2016 and most people expect him to lose it by more in 2020. Gardner does not have the kind of built-in crossover appeal that maybe some Republican senators have had in the past. And so I think it’s just going to be hard for Gardner to generate the kind of crossover support he needs to win.

REICHARD: And in Maine, Senator Susan Collins is facing the fight of her political career. How is the GOP push to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court playing into that race?

KONDIK: One of the problems for Collins is that she long had a lot of bipartisan crossover appeal in Maine and so she’s had pretty easy reelections since her first election in 1996. But she, like so many other politicians, has become more of a nationalized figure and I think that that was sort of crystalized in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation vote two falls ago. The increasing salience of the court as an issue probably reminds a lot of voters of maybe why they didn’t like Collins over Kavanaugh even though Collins has suggested that she didn’t think it was right for Amy Coney Barrett to be nominated and confirmed before the election. Collins has generally been behind in polls. One little wrinkle in Maine is that it uses a rank-choice voting system for a lot of races, including the Senate race. And so there are two other candidates running and so it’s pretty likely that Collins and the Democratic candidate Sarah Gideon, neither of them will get to 50 percent in all likelihood, so they’ll have to reallocate the votes of those who voted third party. Probably the more prominent third party candidate is more of a liberal candidate who has been telling her supporters to rank Gideon second. A lot of Republicans don’t really like the rank-choice voting system and perhaps won’t even use it, and so that’s another problem, to me, for Collins. And so I think Collins is an underdog at this point, although that race continues to be fluid.

REICHARD: OK, North Carolina now. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis also faces an uphill battle to keep his seat. How has the confirmation process affected that race?

KONDIK: I’d say I don’t think the confirmation process has really impacted North Carolina as much as a couple big news developments involving the candidates. Thom Tillis had a positive COVID test. Cal Cunningham, the Democratic candidate, has been caught up in a scandal in which it seems pretty clear that he had at least one extramarital affair. And Cunningham has continued to lead in that race, but I do wonder if by the time we get to the election, the weight of the scandal will drag down Cunningham. But we also may be in an era where a sex scandal maybe doesn’t mean quite as much. Also, North Carolina is a state where a lot of people have already voted. I think North Carolina is up to close to a third already of total votes cast from four years ago. So there’s already a significant chunk of the vote in in that state. Maybe you put a pinky on the scale for Cunningham, but I think that race is a toss-up.

REICHARD: And finally, Arizona. Republican Martha McSally remains pretty far behind Democrat Mark Kelly in just about every poll. Is the outcome in that race pretty well set?

KONDIK: Mark Kelly has been a favorite in that race for a long time. He generally performs a little bit better in polls than Joe Biden does in the state. But Biden is generally leading in Arizona, too. Arizona is a state that has long been kind of a pretty conservative Republican place but over time it has trended more Democratic and I think that’s been particularly true in the Trump era. McSally ended up losing a Senate race in 2018 to Democrat Kirsten Cinema. She got the appointment to the other seat following the death of longtime Senator John McCain. McSally has never been quite able to catch up to Kelly in that race. I think some of the polls that show and have shown Kelly up by double digits are probably overstating things, but Kelly has had a pretty consistent lead in Arizona. If Democrats don’t win Arizona for the Senate, that’s probably a broad indication that things are really going haywire for them on election night.

REICHARD: Any other races that might end in a surprise on Election Night?

KONDIK: Well, look, I think that you have to add Iowa to the list of really top tier Democrat targets at this point. It’s kind of similar to North Carolina in that Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat, has pretty consistently led Joni Ernst, a Republican, in a state that the president won by almost 10 points but seems guaranteed to be pretty significantly closer this time. And then there are a bunch of other red states or kind of purplish states with races. You’ve got two Senate elections in Georgia, Alaska, South Carolina, Montana, open seating in Kansas. Those are all seats that I think the Republicans probably will be able to hold, but maybe not. And if the Democrats are able to win one or more of those seats, it would be part of, probably, a larger kind of sweep on election night. The Republicans are holding the line in a lot of these places, but the playing field is bigger than I think they hoped it would be.

REICHARD: The analysts over at Five Thirty Eight are predicting the Democrats will likely take control of the Senate. And Joe Biden remains ahead in national polls—by double digits, as you mentioned. Are these Senate races primarily a referendum on the president or are other factors driving the Democrats’ momentum?

KONDIK: On one hand, Senate races are a lot more nationalized than they used to be and I think we saw this in 2016 in that for the first time in modern history every state that had a Senate race voted the same way for president and also for Senate for the same party in both races. That said, there are still ticket splitters. You are still going to see some differences in the vote tallies between the Senate candidate of one party and the presidential candidate of that party, too. And I think from the Democratic perspective, if they really are going to make very significant gains, they may need to flip a seat or two in states that Donald Trump is going to win. And, look, polling has indicated that that’s possible, although, I do still think Republicans hold the edge in some of these states that we’ve talked about—Alaska, Kansas, South Carolina, Montana, etcetera.

REICHARD: Last question here. We have two weeks until Election Day. With early voting already underway in many places, it seems unlikely that something could happen between now and then to drastically change the race. But it’s 2020, so you never know! What are you watching for in the next two weeks?

KONDIK: Look, I mean, we are in a time where it seems like there are a lot of big news developments almost on a daily basis. You never know what might come up. We also have the debate coming up on Thursday, which is probably the last kind of big tentpole event of the election season. What I would say is that if something significant does happen, don’t necessarily assume it’s going to change anything, because we’ve had all of this stuff going on throughout the year and the numbers have moved some, but not a whole lot.

REICHARD: Kyle Kondik is a political analyst at the University of Virginia. Thanks so much for joining us today!

KONDIK: Thank you.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin) Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., waves to the crowd after she is introduced by President Donald Trump at a campaign rally Monday, Oct. 19, 2020, in Tucson, Ariz. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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