Democrats roll into Tuesday with their best chance at reclaiming the Senate majority since they lost it six years ago — yet Republicans still have a clear path to retaining power.
Absent a Democratic sweep, it’s unlikely that control of the Senate will be decided on election night. High volumes of mail-in ballots could drag out the vote-counting process in some states, and with Georgia’s two races expected to head to runoffs, a verdict on Senate control potentially could be delayed for months.
Republicans are defending their 53-47 majority in traditionally conservative states that have shifted toward Democrats in recent years. Just two Democratic senators are considered vulnerable — Doug Jones of Alabama and Gary Peters of Michigan — and the party has elevated races that started 2020 as afterthoughts to the middle of their target list, driven by an unprecedented fundraising operation, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s eleventh-hour push in states with competitive Senate races, and President Donald Trump’s sagging poll numbers.
One of those states, Georgia, has both of its Senate seats up for grabs this year: GOP Sen. David Perdue is up for reelection, and there is a special election to fill the remainder of former Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, after he resigned at the end of last year.
If no candidate reaches 50 percent — the most likely outcome in both races — Georgia state law requires a runoff election between the top two finishers, which is scheduled for Jan. 5, 2021. If neither party holds the Senate majority after election night, the outcomes of those races will determine whether Republican Mitch McConnell or Democrat Chuck Schumer is the majority leader.
President Donald Trump loomed over several of the races, and his sagging popularity dragged down some Republican senators, all of whom embraced the president throughout the campaign despite what majorities in polls saying he has mishandled the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, freshman GOP senators and entrenched incumbents alike are at risk of losing.
Candidates from both parties raised record-breaking sums of cash in the final stretch, fueled in part by the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Senate Republicans’ effort to confirm her replacement, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, just eight days before the election. Democrats, in particular, raised eye-popping amounts.
Jaime Harrison, the Democrat challenging GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, raked in $57 million in the third quarter of 2020, shattering the previous record for a Senate campaign. Graham raised $28 million in the same time period, which was a record for a Republican Senate candidate.
The fundraising totals helped lesser-known candidates raise their profiles in states that were not thought to be competitive even a few months ago. Democrats began the cycle with a relatively narrow path back to power that ran through Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina. But after recruiting successes and strong fundraising, they were able to put red states in play from places like Iowa and Georgia to Montana, Kansas and South Carolina, expanding their potential paths back to power.
The cash fueled the most expensive races in history in many states. North Carolina became the most expensive nonpresidential race of all time, in any place, topping $260 million in spending. Iowa topped $215 million and Maine and Montana, two much less populous states, saw $317 million combined in total advertising.
In each of those races, Democratic candidates had massive spending advantages.
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