Democrats pinned their hopes of retaking the Senate on four key races this year, but they ultimately failed in two of them.
Democrats flipped Colorado and Arizona last week — half of the seats they need to get to a bare majority. But they fell short in North Carolina and Maine. They also lost races in more than a half dozen other more conservative states including Iowa, Montana, Texas, and South Carolina.
The dynamics in the states they lost were different: Former Vice President Joe Biden finished with a strong lead in Maine overall, suggesting that some voters split their ticket between him and longtime incumbent Sen. Susan Collins (R). Meanwhile, President Donald Trump narrowly won North Carolina, with Sen. Thom Tillis (R) performing closely in line with him.
To put some numbers on it: Democratic House Speaker Sara Gideon lost to Collins by as much as 9 points, after polls generally favored her to win, sometimes by a large margin. (About 5 percent of the vote had yet to be tallied on November 11, however, according to Decision Desk’s tracker.)
And in North Carolina, Cunningham was defeated by Tillis by roughly 2 points, though polls had shown Cunningham with a slight edge.
Understanding why each type of candidate failed is crucial for Democrats as they look ahead to an extraordinarily uphill battle to retake the majority in the Senate.
Susan Collins’s moderate brand won out in Maine
At the end of a hard-fought race, Susan Collins won reelection for her fifth term on the strength of her 24-year independent brand in Maine.
Collins did what many political prognosticators thought would be nearly impossible: She captured the support of Trump voters (without saying if she’d vote for Trump herself) and convinced some supporters of President-elect Joe Biden to vote for her as well.
Colby College pollster and political science professor Dan Shea estimated as much as 15-20 percent of Maine voters split their tickets in the 2020 election.
“That’s why she was able to do so well,” Shea said bluntly. “I thought Sen. Collins was going to finish her career because of this strong anti-Trump vote across the state. I didn’t think voters would split off.”
Collins was expected to prevail in Maine’s northern, rural, and traditionally more Republican Second Congressional District — her home district — even if some voters there broke for Biden and kept supporting the district’s Democratic Rep. Jared Golden. What was surprising to Maine politics experts was the degree to which Collins also overperformed in the more liberal and southern First Congressional District. Collins won in more Democratic areas like southern York County, where Biden won handily.
“I figured Gideon would do much better in the First Congressional District,” said University of Maine political science professor Mark Brewer.
Some early number-crunching from Sabato Crystal Ball associate editor J. Miles Coleman suggests how Collins won: keeping the margins with Gideon close in the First Congressional District and blowing them out of the water in the Second.
My current Maine CD #s w/@DecisionDeskHQ data:— J. Miles Coleman (@JMilesColeman) November 9, 2020
ME-1: 59.2% Biden, 38.0% Trump
ME-2: 51.4% Trump, 45.6% Biden#MESen
ME-1: 48.0% Gideon, 45.5% Collins
ME-2: 58.5% Collins, 34.9% Gideon
Biden crushed it in ME-1, kept ME-2 close. Collins crushed it in ME-2, kept ME-1 close.
Going into her toughest reelection, Collins ran a unique campaign among Senate Republicans; she barely talked about the polarizing Republican president and refused to say whether she supported him or would vote for him in the election.
“She wasn’t running against Gideon, she was running against the dislike for Trump,” Portland, Maine, real estate developer Joe Boulos, a longtime Collins supporter and friend, told Vox. “I agree with the strategy. Between her Kavanaugh vote and if she had come out for Trump, I don’t know if she would have lost — but it would have been a lot closer.”
Democrats had always known Maine would be tough, but they saw an opening after Hillary Clinton won the state in 2016, and Golden flipped a Republican district in 2018. Gideon ran a campaign tying Collins to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“There was a very strong challenge from Democrats here, it will be the closest margin for a reelection campaign she’s faced since the ’90s,” a Democratic strategist told Vox. “The reality is that Sen. Collins was an incumbent who had been there for two decades in a small state, who had won her last reelection with 70 percent of the vote.”
Collins, on the other hand, bet that her pragmatic brand in her home state and the millions she’s brought to Maine in federal grants was strong enough for her to win reelection. She consistently argued that if Republicans held the majority, she would be next in line to chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Collins also made the Paycheck Protection Program and the small-business loans it generated following passage of the CARES Act a large part of her argument for why she should get another term.
Cook Political Report’s Senate editor Jessica Taylor also said she’s seen anecdotal evidence to indicate that some voters may have split their ticket in order to ensure Democrats didn’t have control of both chambers of Congress, in addition to the presidency.
“She had to run a different race than she had before,” Brewer said. “Susan Collins has never had to run a base reelection campaign, and she did that to a certain extent here. But I’m not sure that’s generalizable anywhere else than Collins in Maine.”
If Democrats couldn’t unseat her this year, with a war chest of close to $70 million, it looks like Collins has her seat for as long as she wants it.
Strong Republican turnout benefited Trump and Tillis
In North Carolina, the race was always going to be close. According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Cunningham led — but by just 2.6 points, on average. North Carolina was among the races viewed as a true toss-up.
One possible reason Cunningham couldn’t pull off a win is that Trump’s support there was much stronger than some polls anticipated: Trump won the state, and it would have been tough for any Democrat down the ballot to win.
“I never believed that Cunningham would meaningfully outperform Biden,” says North Carolina State University political science professor Steven Greene.
“We really saw a lot of voters who showed up because of Donald Trump and voted down-ballot for a Republican candidate,” says Aisha Dew, a North Carolina Democratic strategist and political director for Higher Heights, a group dedicated to electing more Black women to political office.
Another possible reason is that Cunningham was just a bad candidate. News of Cunningham’s extramarital affair, which first broke in early October, may have played a role in deterring certain swing voters. (Trump has been credibly accused of having affairs and has been credibly accused of sexually assaulting multiple women. He denies the allegations.)
Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, argued that both the news itself and Cunningham’s handling of it likely reduced the momentum of the campaign in its final weeks.
“When the allegations about his character came out, it cut against his primary messaging,” Cooper said. “His response to the scandal was to ghost everyone for a week and a half or so, and really turn the volume down on his campaign ... at the same time, Tillis turned up the volume.”
Either way, it didn’t work out for Cunningham — or Biden, who also did not get the narrow victory polls suggested. “We think Democrats underperformed among independents in North Carolina,” says East Carolina University pollster John Morris.
Democrats may want to think carefully about the state moving forward. Republican Sen. Richard Burr is retiring, and his seat is up for election in 2022. One model of success for Democrats in the state is Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who was reelected this year even as Tillis and Trump won. Cooper got more support from independents and Republicans compared to Cunningham and Biden, according to early exit polls.
Cooper’s success comes down to favorable impressions of how he’s handled the coronavirus response. But he might benefit from the same thing successful Republican governors in the Northeast do: Reliably partisan voters may be willing to take a chance on the opposite party for the governorship rather than tip the party balance in Washington.
The fight for the Senate in 2021 isn’t quite over yet
Democrats do have one last remaining hope for retaking a Senate majority: two runoff elections in Georgia.
To be clear, this strategy is a long shot. Special elections typically go badly for the party that just captured the White House, and Georgia is a historically Republican state.
“We haven’t had many general runoffs. The one constant has been Republicans won all of them,” University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock recently told Vox. “Republicans have done a better job of getting their voters back to the polls.”
Still, there are positive signs for Democrats this year. As of Wednesday, Biden is ahead of President Donald Trump by a little over 14,000 votes, although that race hasn’t officially been called by Vox’s elections partner Decision Desk.
In one race, incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue faces Democrat Jon Ossoff. In the other, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, appointed to the seat in 2019, faces Democrat Rev. Raphael Warnock. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll released Wednesday showed two close races, with Loeffler 1 point ahead of Warnock, 49 to 48 percent, and Perdue leading Ossoff by 4 points — 50 to 46 percent.
One reason Georgia is becoming competitive is that the Atlanta metro area is booming, and a lot of people moving there are young and diverse. Increasingly, they’re voting Democratic.
Amid the influx to the Atlanta suburbs, political observers in Georgia have been watching elections get closer and closer. In the 2018 governor’s race, Democrat Stacey Abrams lost to then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp by a little more than 50,000 votes — a scare for Georgia Republicans. Abrams and other Democrats have gotten a boost from Georgia’s automatic voter registration — a program that helped register more than 5 million of the state’s total 7,587,625 registered voters.
It was enough to flip the state for Biden this November, and Democrats have less than two months to recapture the magic.