One thing the United States love is an election. Or maybe it’s only political geeks who love them, I’m not sure. Understandably, the contest which is hogging the headlines is the title bout between Joe Biden and Donald Trump for the presidency. However, across the US, there are hundreds of individual contests for Congressional seats occurring simultaneously, many of which are just as fascinating as the battle for the Oval Office.
Voters will be going to the polls to elect members to both houses of Congress – the legislative body equivalent to the UK’s parliament. The House of Representatives is the lower house and consists of 435 members, who are elected to represent individual districts in states. The number of districts -and therefore members- that each state has is determined by the size of its population. Heard of Nancy Pelosi? Ilhan Omar? AOC? Matt Gaetz? This is their political home.
Elections will take place for all the seats in the House, with the winners serving for two years. However, there is no term limit so incumbents can stand for reelection as many times as they like. The House currently has a sizeable Democratic majority and the vast majority of experts don’t expect this to change. Whilst some seats may change hands it is unlikely that the Republicans will be able to win enough districts to regain control. Look out, however, for an increasing number of high profile progressive Democrats being elected.
So the House will most likely be in a similar shape after November. But don’t fear! The battle for the Senate is much more exciting.
The Senate is the Upper House of Congress, but is far more powerful than the House of Lords in the UK. It consists of 100 Senators (two for each state) who are elected for six years, with a third of all seats being elected in each cycle. Thirty-five seats are up for grabs this year – including two special elections (British translation = by-election). Over half of these seats are Republican held which offers Democrats an opportunity to make gains. Big name Senators who you might recognise include Bernie Sanders, Mitt Romney, Elizabeth Warren, Mitch McConnell and Cory Booker.
Republicans currently reign supreme in the Senate with fifty-three seats. Democrats hold forty-five but two independent Senators vote with them on nearly all issues – so they effectively have forty-seven. Democrats will need to make three gains to flip the senate if Joe Biden wins and four if Donald Trump is sent back to the White House by the electorate. This is because the Vice-President holds the casting vote in the Senate – so they need to have an overall majority to make current VP Mike Pence’s vote redundant if Trump holds onto power. If that doesn’t happen they can rely on the kindness of Kamala Harris in the event of a tie.
The Senate is crucial to the progress of a President’s legislative agenda and it makes their life a lot easier if it’s controlled by their party. The furore that greeted Barack Obama when he tried to nominate a Justice to the Supreme Court in an election year is a sharp contrast to the acceptance of nearly every Senate Republican that a vote will be held following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, despite this also being an election year. Whatever you think about this whole affair, there is no doubt that having a favourable Senate has given Donald Trump an easier time.
Senate seats don’t necessarily go the same way as the Presidential vote. Indeed, the 2016 Senate Election was the first time that all states voted the same way in both elections. Obviously not all Senate seats are elected at the same time as the President but it’s still a fascinating fact. Voters might be more likely to think about state issues when electing a Senator, whereas they look for a national leader when electing a President. They might also, for example, feel a personal loyalty to a long-serving Senator but not necessarily support that party’s candidate for President. In this time of such partisan difference that effect could be particularly important. Will traditional Republican voters who dislike President Trump still vote to reelect their local GOP Senator, even if they vote for Joe Biden?
Let’s take a look at some of the key battles which will decide who controls the Senate come January. The individual contests I’ve highlighted below have either been rated as ‘toss-ups’ or as leanly turning in favour of the challenging party by the respected news website Politico.
Alabama – DEMOCRATIC DEFENCE
Despite the potential for Democratic gains in this year’s set of Senate races, the Senator who is most at risk is actually a Democrat. In a 2017 special election Doug Jones was elected as Senator for Alabama with a wafer-thin majority of just 20,000 votes. He became the first Democrat elected in a statewide race in Alabama since 2008, and their first Democratic Senator since 1997. However, this was a dramatic election. The Republican candidate, Roy Moore, had a long history of controversy and was not the favoured candidate of GOP bosses. He had been kicked off the Alabama Supreme Court twice due to judicial misconduct and shortly before polling day was accused of sexual assault by multiple women. He denies all the allegations and has not faced any criminal charges. Alongside a huge voter drive from Jones’ campaign, the Democrats were triumphant.
Fast forward to 2020 and the picture looks a lot different. Jones faces former football coach Tommy Tuberville and his poll numbers are less than rosy. The President enjoys his highest approval ratings in Alabama and Tuberville has closely allied himself with Trump through his campaign’s TV adverts. Yet, there is still a glimmer of hope for Jones. Tuberville has run a relatively low-key campaign with few appearances in contrast to Jone’s seemingly endless campaigning zeal. Back in 2017 he overwhelmingly won the black vote, with African-Americans turning out in record numbers, following campaigns to help communities of colour get registered to vote. Yet Jones will need to inspire even more voters to put their cross in his box, especially with a candidate who may be more amenable to traditional Republican voters than Moore was three years ago.
Maine – REPUBLICAN DEFENCE
Incumbent Republican Susan Collins has served in Congress since 1997 but finds herself in a perilous electoral battle with Sara Gideon, the speaker of Maine’s state legislature. Collins has long been known for her moderate politics. She was one of only two Republican Senators to vote for the preferred position of Barack Obama more than 70% of the time. She has often attracted Donald Trump’s ire for her willingness to criticise him and was slammed by him recently for indicating she would vote against a new justice being appointed to the Supreme Court before the election. Despite her moderation, which has thus far played well in Maine, which has voted Democrats for President since 1992, Collins has also come under fire from centrists for voting to acquit Donald Trump on impeachment charges. She had been seen as a potential swing vote during the trial.
During the campaign Gideon has consistently held an average polling lead of around five points. She has emphasised her experience of local affairs and apparent ability to connect with the experience of everyday Mainers. During the campaign she has visited every county of the state to take part in her #SuppersWithSara. She has criticised Collins for voting to confirm over 150 conservative justices that have been appointed by Donald Trump, using it to suggest she is out of touch with the priorities of constituents in The Pine Tree State. Collins has emphasised her ability to work in a bipartisan manner on a wide range of issues which she suggests helps bring federal money to Maine. Despite the Democratic leaning of the state in Presidential elections, Collins was still reelected during the tenure of George Bush Jr. so it would be unwise to write her off. Perhaps though, her association with the agenda of Trump will prove to be the nail in her political coffin, despite her attempts to put some distance between herself and his administration.
Arizona Special – REPUBLICAN DEFENCE
This Special Election will permanently replace the late John McCain, who had served as an Arizonan Senator since 1987. McCain was Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2008 Presidential Election and was well respected across the political spectrum. Following his death in 2018, Jon Kyi was appointed to the seat. He retired in 2019 and was replaced by Martha McSally, who was also appointed. However, McSally will stand for election in November to try and win the seat democratically, something she failed to do in 2018 when standing for the other Senate seat in the state. Her Democratic opponent will be Mark Kelly, a former astronaut. And they say politicians are out of touch. This one’s out of orbit. Apologies.
McCain still looms large over the politics of this race. Donald Trump had clashed with the late Senator on multiple occasions, questioning his status as a war hero. His widow, Cindy McCain, has endorsed Joe Biden stating that he is the ‘only candidate.. who stands up for our values as a nation.’ In response, Trump tweeted that Biden was her husband’s ‘lapdog’ and that he was ‘never a fan of John.’ Whilst she has not endorsed either Kelly or McSally, her intervention demonstrates how far the Republicans have drifted from the party of McCain during Trump’s tenure and may make some loyal supporters of her husband reconsider their vote this time. Kelly has been consistently ahead in polling. However, will traditional Republicans, those who aren’t enthused by Donald Trump’s political style, be motivated to swing behind McSally and the President if his new conservative justice isn’t installed by election day?
As well as the lingering legacies of John McCain coming into play, Arizona as a state has been trending Democratic for some time as its demographics slowly shift. Looking more closely at polls, Kelly is benefitting from a greater proportion of independent support and more moderate Republicans. Indeed, the same coalition of voters that defeated McSally in her 2018 race seems to be forming once again. The ex-NASA man has promised to be an ‘independent voice’, with much of his campaign messaging deliberately playing to the centre, presumably to try and eschew any allegation that he is a “puppet of the left.” The Democrats are on the front foot here, with McSally standing on the crumbly edge of the Grand Canyon.
Thanks for reading. Please return for Part Two of the Senate election preview where I’ll profile another four key races.