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Democrats have a very narrow path left to win back the Senate

Democrats came into the 2020 Senate elections as slight favorites. But Republicans have had a strong showing.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer walks alongside Democratic Senate Judiciary Committee members at the US Capitol on October 22.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Democrats entered Election Day with high hopes of retaking the Senate and winning full control of Washington if former Vice President Joe Biden beats President Donald Trump in the race for the presidency.

But by Thursday afternoon, the election results presented only a narrow path left for Democrats. Both of Georgia’s Senate races appear destined to go to a runoff election in January. It seems likely Democrats would need to win both of them to achieve a 50-50 tie in the Senate; if Joe Biden wins the presidency, incoming Vice President Kamala Harris would then give control of the chamber to the Democrats.

There is an outside chance of a late break for the Democrats in Alaska’s Senate race, though it is probably a long shot. Georgia is the more likely path to a Democratic Senate.

Democrats needed a net gain of three seats to topple the Republican majority, and the race for the Senate came down to 10 or so competitive races.

If Republicans hold on to their lead in the North Carolina race, the GOP will likely control at least 50 seats. They would likely be considered the favorites to win at least one of the Georgia runoffs and therefore the Senate, no matter the presidential outcome.

The 2020 election cycle is yielding plenty of surprises, so we shouldn’t be too certain about anything. But here’s how Republicans got the advantage.

Democrats did not pick up any Senate seats in more solidly Republican states

One reason Democratic odds of winning the Senate were so high — about 3 in 4, according to the final FiveThirtyEight forecast — was they seemed to have opportunities to flip seats in Trump states. South Carolina and Montana were rated toss-ups, and Texas was only Lean Republican.

If Democrats broke through in one or more of those races, it would have likely portended a good night for them. Instead, Republicans appear to have won them handily:

  • Sen. Steve Daines beat Gov. Steve Bullock by 10 points in Montana.
  • Sen. John Cornyn topped MJ Hegar in Texas, also by 10 points.
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham fended off a well-funded challenge from Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, again with a double-digit lead.

It’s also worth noting that while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was never considered to be vulnerable to Democratic challenger Amy McGrath, McGrath did raise a lot of money — only to lose to McConnell by more than 20 points. Republicans held on in Kansas as well.

They also lead in Alaska, expected to be a competitive race that tilted toward the Republicans. But it’s mostly in-person votes, expected to skew toward the Republicans, that have been counted so far.

Some number crunchers think there is at least a chance of Democrats making up the difference in the mail ballots. But it’s going to be a few days before those are counted.

A Democratic win in Alaska would greatly improve their chances of winning the Senate. In that case, they would likely need to win just one of the two Georgia runoff elections to take the majority.

Democrats also struggled in the swing states

A win in South Carolina or Texas would have been a bonus for Democrats. Their clearest path to a majority was winning most (or all) of the contested seats in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina.

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper did beat Republican incumbent Cory Gardner in Colorado, and Democrat Mark Kelly is leading Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona. Those are solid pickups for Democrats, but with Sen. Doug Jones’s Alabama seat lost, they need at least two more, and — at the moment — they don’t appear to be getting them.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins announced her opponent, Sarah Gideon, had conceded on Wednesday, once again holding on to her seat in a Democratic-leaning state. Sen. Joni Ernst defeated Democrat Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, with a comfortable 6 percentage-point margin after polling showed the race effectively tied. Republicans are also leading in North Carolina (Sen. Thom Tillis is ahead of Cal Cunningham), though there are more votes to be counted.

If Democrats end up falling a seat or two short of a Senate majority, some of the blame is likely to be attributed to Cunningham, who enjoyed a solid lead in early polling before a sex scandal rocked his campaign and Tillis closed the gap somewhat in the final weeks.

Control of the Senate could come down to Georgia

Georgia had two Senate seats up for grabs in 2020: Republican Sen. David Perdue was up for reelection, and there was a special election for the seat vacated by retired Sen. Johnny Isakson and filled by appointment by Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

The state has an unusual primary system, which could mean one or both of those races will go to a runoff election this January. In brief, every candidate — regardless of party affiliation — was on the same ballot for the November general election. If one candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, they win. But if no candidate clears that threshold, then the top two vote-getters face off in the runoff.

Loeffler is headed to a runoff against Democratic candidate Raphael Warnock. Another prominent Republican, Rep. Doug Collins, was in the race, likely splitting the GOP vote, keeping all candidates well below 50 percent. It will be Warnock versus Loeffler on January 5, with Republican voters expected to unify behind Loeffler.

The question is whether Perdue also ends up in his own runoff, which would assuredly be against Democrat Jon Ossoff. As of 2 pm ET on Thursday, Perdue was slightly below the 50 percent threshold with most of the votes counted, and Ossoff behind at 47 percent. Democrats expect the final ballots counted will continue to push down Perdue’s vote share.

Barring a surprise in one of the other states, Democrats would have a chance for Senate control if they win two Georgia Senate seats in runoffs and Biden wins the White House. In that case, Harris would break the 50-50 tie.

It’s a very narrow path for the minority, but it’s the only one left.