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November 4, 2020

A Remarkable Battle for the Senate

In a series of crucial races in which they were overwhelmingly outspent, Republicans outperformed expectations.

While the winner of the 2020 presidential election is still in doubt, the winner for control of the Senate isn’t. Against long odds, the Republicans have held. And by holding, they’ve eliminated — or at least forestalled — a serious threat to the composition and functionality of the Senate.

For weeks, the political debate has focused on what the Democrats would do if they took control of the Upper Chamber. You’ve heard their wish list: packing the Supreme Court and lesser courts; doing away with the filibuster and its traditional protection of minority rights; and granting statehood to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, thereby guaranteeing four Senate seats in perpetuity to the Democrats.

Who knew the discussion would soon be moot?

On a night of high drama, perhaps the most satisfying Senate victories were actually a couple of blowouts. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mopped the floor with challenger Amy McGrath, a failed 2018 congressional challenger whose Senate bid attracted plenty of deep-pocketed donors. Nevertheless, that race was called shortly before 8 p.m. Eastern Time. The final margin for Mitch was around 58.2% to 37.8%. Ahead of the election, FiveThirtyEight gave McGrath a 4% chance of beating McConnell, despite having raised some $84 million from the start of the campaign.

In South Carolina, a similar story played out between Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and a Democrat challenger who spent an obscene amount of money. As National Review’s Zachary Evans writes, “The victory for Graham comes after speculation that Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison might have been able to pull off an upset win. Harrison raised almost $50 million in the third quarter and was tied with Graham in polls in October.”

Graham ultimately pulled away from Harrison, winning 55.1% to 43.6% despite Harrison having raised some $100 million over the course of the campaign. The lesson to be learned from each of these races: Money can’t buy everything.

Elsewhere in crucial Senate races, Iowa’s Joni Ernst ran a strong grassroots campaign that included visiting each of her state’s 99 counties. She prevailed over real estate executive Theresa Greenfield and thereby earned a second term as Iowa’s junior senator.

Montana incumbent Steve Daines was also victorious, having come from behind against Steve Bullock, a popular former governor. As things stand now, GOP incumbents Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina were both ahead of their Democrat challengers, each of them having trailed badly in recent weeks before rallying late to close the gap.

Senate Republicans had much to fear in this election cycle. After all, they had to defend 23 seats to just 12 for the Democrats. But in two races with vulnerable Democrat incumbents, Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville and Michigan’s John James made the most of it. Tuberville took out Doug Jones, and James is polling slightly ahead of President Trump and leads Gary Peters in a race that’s still too close to call.

The Republicans began the day yesterday with a 53-47 advantage in the Senate. As expected, they lost Cory Gardner’s seat in Colorado and Martha McSally’s seat in Arizona, but their ability to fend off the above challenges and even snatch at least one seat (and perhaps two) away from Democrat incumbents looms large.

Yesterday, the Democrats had high hopes for a landslide against Donald Trump and a running of the table against more than half-a-dozen vulnerable GOP senators. They got neither. President Trump, though, is now narrowly behind in Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan; if nothing changes, those states give Joe Biden exactly 270 votes, the minimum number needed for the presidency.

As for the Senate, the Democrats need to pick up a net of three seats if Biden wins the presidency (in which case VP Kamala Harris would cast tiebreaking votes), or four seats if Trump wins reelection. With the Democrats’ wins in Colorado and Arizona, and their loss in Alabama, they’re currently at +1 seats. Thus, for them to take control of the Senate, they’ll need to overturn John James’s lead in Michigan, Thom Tillis’s lead in North Carolina, and Susan Collins’s lead in Maine – a tall order, even for a party that’s famous for finding votes when they need them most.

Barring that, the GOP has done what most observers didn’t think was possible just a week ago: They’ve saved the institution of the Senate – at least for another two years.

(Updated as results come in.)

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