US Senate race: The ‘other election’ and why it matters

Control of the powerful US Senate is a razor-close proposition in the 2020 election, but final results from a handful of contests may not be available for days, and probably even weeks, after the November 3 polls. FRANCE 24 looks at some of the key Senate races.

The US Capitol building, where the House of Representatives and Senate meet, Washington, D.C., USA.
The US Capitol building, where the House of Representatives and Senate meet, Washington, D.C., USA. © Olivier Douliery, AFP file photo

The 2020 US elections have been called the country’s “most important election ever” with historians, pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle agreeing that the choice between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has portentous implications for the future of the US.

But while the presidential race – with its tweets, threats, drama and debates – have grabbed headlines this year more than ever, the battle for control of the US Senate is just as important as the one for the White House.

There are 35 seats up for election in this 100-member chamber this year. Republicans currently control the Senate with a 53-47 majority in the upper chamber of Congress, which impacts not just on the balance of power in Washington, D.C., but also the lives of ordinary Americans.

The power of the Senate was on display over the past two years, when the upper chamber in February acquitted Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress after the lower chamber, the Democrat-controlled House, impeached him on the charges last year.

The Senate also approves treaties and appointments, including life term-serving US Supreme Court justices appointed by the president. On October 26, just weeks after Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, the Senate approved Judge Amy Coney Barrett, Trump’s pick to replace the liberal Ginsburg. There are currently six Republican appointments in the nine-member Supreme Court, whose decisions influence most spheres of American life, from healthcare to abortion rights to voting access and, possibly, a ruling on the November 3 election results if it ends up in the courts.

With 35 Senate seats on the ballots, the control of the Senate is up for grabs this year. But results from some races are not likely to be known until after Election Day, due to this year's unprecedented volume of mail-in ballots and possible runoff elections in four races, according to analysts and state election officials.

Each of the 50 US states has two representatives in the Senate who serve six-year terms that are staggered so approximately one-third of the seats are up for grabs every two years.

While Republicans won the Senate majority in the 2018 midterm elections, it has also upped the stakes for the party, explained Jessica Taylor, senate and governors editor at The Cook Political Report, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

"Remember, these are seats that are up every six years, and six years ago was when the Republicans flipped the Senate. So they have more seats that they are defending. They have 23 Republican seats that they are defending versus just 12 for the Democrats. So Republicans are really more exposed," explained Taylor.

Of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot, The Cook Political Report considers 14 races very competitive, with 12 Republican incumbents facing formidable challenges. Meanwhile, just two Democratic incumbents’ re-election chances are considered imperilled.

Here’s a look at the key Senate races to monitor:

Kentucky: Republican Mitch McConnell vs Democrat Amy McGrath

As the Senate majority leader and a key Trump ally, McConnell is in the Democrats’ sights this year. The 78-year-old multi-term senator faces a re-election challenge from Democrat Amy McGrath, a 45-year-old former US fighter pilot who was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the Marine Corps.

But pollsters and analysts says McGrath is unlikely to unseat McConnell, a seasoned politician with a list of seniority positions to his name, including “the longest-serving US senator for Kentucky in history” and “the longest-serving leader of US Senate Republicans in history”.

In contrast, McGrath’s political experience is slim. Following her retirement from military service in 2017, McGrath ran for the 2018 House of Representatives election for Kentucky, losing to Republican Andy Barr.

As the rival to the most powerful man in the Senate, McGrath has managed to raise millions for her campaign – including a Kentucky record of $36.8 million in just one quarter. Nevertheless, analysts predict McConnell will win his seventh term in the US Senate.

South Carolina: Republican Lindsey Graham vs Democrat Jaime Harrison

The South Carolina race has been dubbed “one of 2020’s most unexpected Senate battlegrounds” and it has certainly been one of the most exhilarating for Democrats.

In his reelection bid for a fourth Senate term, Graham – a 65-year-old close Trump ally – is facing a fight for his political life against Harrison, a Black 44-year-old former congressional aide and state Democratic party chair.

No Democrat has won a statewide election in South Carolina since 2006, but Harrison has electrified his party’s base and donor pockets, raising $86 million for his campaign — more money than any Senate candidate in US history.

Harrison’s grassroots fund-raising and statewide campaigning have upped the stakes in a staunchly Republican state, catching pollsters, pundits and his seasoned Republican rival by surprise.

Maine: Republican Susan Collins vs Democrat Sara Gideon

There was a time when Collins never had to face a tough race in her home state. A moderate Republican and seasoned politician, Collins was part of the “mod squad” in a once bipartisan chamber, where Senators could accomplish legislative goals by working with colleagues across the ideological aisle. The 67-year-old’s ability to buck her party and vote with Democrats and independents made her a respected figure in her famously independent New England home state.

But Collins lost some of that respect, particularly among Maine’s female voters in 2018, when she approved Judge Brett Kavanaugh – a Trump nominee facing sexual abuse allegations – for the Supreme Court. Her vote followed days of deliberation under the spotlight, as Democrats and opponents to Kavanaugh’s nomination speculated about Collins crossing the aisle to reject the nomination.

Last month, Collins voted against Trump’s latest Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, casting her vote without addressing the chamber before rushing to Maine to try to save her political career.

Analysts say the fact that Collins is battling for her seat, considered key to controlling the Senate, is a sign of Maine’s demographic shift and disapproval of Trump’s policies.

Her challenger, 48-year-old Sara Gideon, represents the new face of a changing state. The daughter of an Indian immigrant father and an Armenian-American mother, Gideon has served as speaker of the state House of Representatives. A relative political newcomer, Gideon became a household name in Maine when she helped pass climate legislation aiming to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in the state by 2050.

Colorado: Republican Cory Gardner vs Democrat John Hickenlooper

Demographic shifts have also tightened the race in Colorado, a once Republican state that is turning blue due to an influx of young, liberal voters.

On the 2014 campaign trail, Gardner promised to be “a new kind of Republican" who would work with Democrats and support clean energy. Six years later, Trump’s policies appear to be the Republican incumbent’s biggest liability.

The 46-year-old politician is running for reelection against a well-known name in his home state: former Colorado governor and two-term Denver mayor, John Hickenlooper.

Alabama: Republican Tommy Tuberville vs Democrat Doug Jones

Three years ago, Jones shocked the nation when the Democrat won a Senate special election in the staunchly Republican, Deep South state to replace Jeff Sessions, who was appointed US attorney general. Jones ran against Roy Moore, who was the subject of sexual misconduct allegations.

But this year, Republicans are expecting to reclaim the seat in Alabama, one of the few seats that pollsters predict might flip from Democrat to Republican. The Democrat's opponent in the 2020 race is Republican Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach and player, and a well-known figure in the state.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app