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  • Amelia Harrison

The other race - The US Senate elections


The choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump is one that most Americans have been focused on, but the battle for who will win control of Congress is heating up. While the lower chamber of Congress, the House of Representatives, is looking likely to remain Democrat, the Senate is proving to be a closer race. If one is to believe the polls, the race for who controls the Senate may prove more interesting election night viewing, the ramifications of which will have an impact on the power of whoever the next President may be.

The checks and balances within the Constitution of the United States means that who controls the Senate can impact the ability of Biden or Trump to enact their election promises. If there is a united government of one party, the President is most likely able to get his plans and ideas through without partisan allegiances causing gridlock. The recent example of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court shows the importance of a President having control of the Senate. Yet it’s not just who wins control of the Senate, it is also how much by, with a greater Senate lead providing a greater buffer in case of dissenting Senators. Whoever controls the Senate and by how much will have impacts for whoever is President, positive or negative.

However, Senate elections are not straightforward. Every two years a third of its 100 seats go up for election, with the winners of those seats holding them for six years. This year 35 out of the 100 seats are in the race due to two special elections. While not all Senate seats are up for election the Republicans still face the possibility of losing their control of the Senate. The nature of the seats up for election mean that the Republicans are defending 23 seats and the Democrats are defending 12. Given the 53-47 split in the Senate in favour of the Republicans, Democrats only need to flip a net total of 3 seats (4 if Trump wins – the Vice President holds the tie-breaking vote in the Senate) to win control of the Upper House. In this sense, the race to control the Senate leans in favor of the Democrats. Indeed, out of the ten seats most likely to flip, nine of them are held by incumbent Republicans, with Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama being the anomaly.

The most likely path for a Democratic Senate is through seats in the Midwest. Since 2016 the media has focused on the Democrats loss of the ‘Rust Belt’ but there is still a chance for Democrats to take seats in places such as Iowa and Maine. For example, Susan Collins, the Republican Senator for Maine, known for her independent streak, is close in the polls with her Democratic opponent, Sara Gideon. Whilst known as a moderate Republican and historically having an independent streak, during Trump’s Presidency she has almost always eventually voted with the Republicans in controversial votes such as the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, which seems to have lost her a potentially crucial chunk of support.

While some of these close Senate races are affected by individual Senators, they should also be understood in the context of a national election. A Republican presidential candidate behind in the polls with low approval ratings has an effect, especially with the declining amount of split ticket voting. States like Maine where Biden leads in the polls means that Republican incumbents are much more vulnerable.

However, the Sun Belt, comprising the southern strip of states, will also be somewhere to watch on election night. If Democrats win big here then they have a chance of solidifying their Senate majority. While noting the rise of Republican voters in the Midwest, there has also been a growing number of Democratic voters in the South. Demographic changes mean that younger, more diverse and increasingly more suburban states in the South could swing Democrat. In 2020 states like Georgia, Arizona and South Carolina are all seats where Republican incumbents are close in the polls against Democrats. Indeed, in Arizona Martha McSally faces Democrat Mark Kelly who is consistently performing well in polls and has managed to raise more money. The Sun Belt should therefore be seen as a strip of states that are increasingly coming into play for the Democrats, not only in 2020 but farther ahead in the future too.

Further, there are some interesting battles to watch out for in individual senate seats. The Alabama race gives the Republicans a chance to win back the Senate seat from Democrat Doug Jones. Jones, who won narrowly against controversial candidate Roy Moore accused of sexual harassment, now faces significant competition from Tommy Tuberville, a somewhat less controversial candidate in a deeply red state. This also means that the Democrats will need to gain four seats rather than three for even just a 50-50 split in the Senate. Georgia will also be an interesting watch with both of the Senators up for election in two close races. While the Democrats haven’t won a Senate or Presidential race there since 2000, they have set their sights on winning this year. The interesting thing about Georgia is that their election laws mean that if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote then this leads to a runoff election in January. The likelihood of one run off and possibility of two means that the control of the Senate may be in the balance until early next year. The contest in Georgia has potential to be one of the most influential as to what happens on election night.

There is no question that the race for the White House is the focal point of November. However, the Senate elections should not be discounted for their importance, as whichever party gains control will help to dictate and shape the next four years of America, irrespective of who becomes President.

Image - Flickr (John Brighenti)



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