These Are the States to Focus on to Flip the Senate
In the final few weeks of the election, with Joe Biden looking strong (fingers crossed!), winning the Senate is a critical imperative in terms of rebuilding this country and reversing the damage caused by Trump. For the average activist, the best way to help in these final few weeks is to focus on Georgia and Texas, in particular the voter mobilization work happening in those states, as they are among the winnable races that could use the most help.
From both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint, the conditions are favorable for Democrats to win back control of the Senate.
Qualitatively, all indications are that 2020 is shaping up to be a negative referendum on Trump’s presidency, with a gathering wave of resistance and revulsion that looks like it is poised to sweep him out of office. In such an environment, which can render harsh judgment, Trump’s enablers and apologists in the Senate run the real risk of being tossed out along with him.
Quantitatively, Democrats need a net gain of three seats (plus winning the White House, since the vice president is the tie-breaking vote in the Senate if that body is split evenly between parties) to take control of the chamber. With Alabama incumbent Democrat Doug Jones facing long odds to hold on to his seat in that heavily Republican state, that means at least four of the 23 Republican incumbents up for re-election must go down to defeat. Fortunately, 11 of those 23 races are highly competitive, and analysts such as Nate Silver and his team at 538.com give Democrats a 69 percent chance of taking control.
In January, I worked with the data scientist Dr. Julie Martínez Ortega to create an index to rate the winnability of each competitive Senate race. This index incorporated multiple predictive data points, including several typically ignored by many political analysts. The folks at FiveThirtyEight, for example, do an excellent job of aggregating polling and other data to generate a probabilistic model of an election outcome. Others, such as The Cook Political Report, use the Partisan Voter Index to compare a state or district with national election outcomes.
While all of the main analysts help fill in the picture of what is happening electorally, I have yet to see much reliance on Democratic vote potential, as measured by the relative size of the infrequent voting population, and analysis of demographic and election trends in terms of how a diversifying population steadily erodes Republican margins. The analysis Martínez Ortega and I conducted incorporates those additional factors, and we also look to see if there is an effective in-state voter mobilization infrastructure that can manifest the Democratic vote potential. These additional factors were critical components in the political transformation of Virginia from a red state to its current situation, in which Democrats hold all of the statewide offices and a majority of the legislature; and they helped forecast the competitiveness of the statewide races in Georgia, Florida, and Texas in 2018.
In terms of specific states this fall, Arizona and Colorado are the most likely Senate seats to flip, and the Democratic nominees in those states—former astronaut Mark Kelly and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper—hold sizable leads in all of the polling averages. Picking up the next two seats is where the challenge lies for Democrats. Nine additional seats are in play, and all of them are worthy of support and attention. For particular focus in the final weeks, investments in Georgia and Texas make the most sense at this point in the race.
There are two paths to electoral victory in any race: persuasion and mobilization. Persuasion involves wooing a sufficient number of swing voters to your side, usually through television and digital ads making the case for your candidate and against the opponent. Mobilization consists of get-out-the-vote efforts to turn out more of your supporters than your opponent does of hers.
The lion’s share of political spending is focused on just one of these paths to victory—persuasion, i.e., targeting and trying to influence swing voters. Such an approach makes the most sense in the handful of states that have a sizable population of people who do in fact transfer their political allegiances back and forth. Iowa, for example, is perhaps the swingiest of swing states, having voted for Obama twice but then electing Trump by nearly 10 points.
Other states, particularly in the South and Southwest, offer two roads to victory because, in addition to swing voters, they also have large numbers of infrequent, usually uninspired, voters who are heavily inclined toward backing Democrats. Texas is the starkest example, as was illustrated in Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate race, when he came within 215,000 votes of defeating Republican Ted Cruz. In that same closely contested O’Rourke-Cruz contest, more than 5 million people of color did not vote. That pool of infrequent voters is a huge hidden advantage for Democrats, and groups such as the Texas Organizing Project are working to turn that potential into power.
Of the states that have Senate seats in play, those that are similar to Texas in having sizable populations of infrequent and Democrat-friendly voters are Georgia, Arizona, and North Carolina. Georgia rises to the top as a promising place to focus because it has two Republican-held seats that are being contested this year, and there is a formidable preexisting statewide electoral infrastructure, including groups such as the New Georgia Project Action Fund, from Stacey Abrams’s historic 2018 gubernatorial bid.
Polling data suggest that nine states beyond Arizona and Colorado are winnable, and a case can be made that some of them are somewhat more winnable than the Georgia and Texas races. That’s why it’s important to also analyze which contests need the most help.
In South Carolina, for example, no Democrat has won a US Senate seat in decades, but Democrat Jaime Harrison is waging a surprisingly competitive fight against Republican incumbent Lindsey Graham, and The Cook Political Report has moved that race to “Toss Up.” In terms of need, however, Harrison is now fortunately awash in cash, with $90 million raised, including a historic $57 million coming in just in the last quarter. In Maine, Republican pseudo-moderate Susan Collins is in the fight of her political life against Sara Gideon, who actually leads Collins in the RealClearPolitics polling average by more than four points. Gideon, like Harrison, has benefited enormously by battling a high-profile target of the progressive movement, and she’s received close to $30 million in a state with just 1 million voters.
The candidates in Georgia and Texas, on the other hand, have far fewer resources to work with as they seek to communicate with much larger voter universes. In Georgia, Jon Ossoff has raised $28 million, and Raphael Warnock received less than Ossoff in the first half of the year. And as M.J. Hegar seeks to unseat GOP Senator John Cornyn in Texas, the third-largest state in the country, she has raised $20 million.
In addition to the financial disparity, Texas and Georgia offer more promising targets because they have both paths to victory—persuasion of swing voters, and mobilization of large numbers of infrequent-voting, but progressive-leaning, people of color. In a state such as Iowa, which also has a competitive Senate race, the only real path lies in persuasion, since the state is 90 percent white and its voters have demonstrated a history of swinging back and forth from supporting Obama twice and then backing Trump by a nearly 10-point margin.
The contest in North Carolina offers another promising pickup opportunity for Democrats, with Republican incumbent Thom Tillis trailing by 4 points in the latest New York Times/Siena College poll. And North Carolina is similar to Texas and Georgia in that it has a large pool of 700,000 people of color who didn’t cast ballots in 2016. The need in North Carolina is not as great, however, as Cal Cunningham, the Democratic nominee, has raised $41 million, and the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, has moved more than $15 million into that contest.
In these final frantic days of the election, the highest leverage and most strategic allocation of money at this point is to the Senate races in Georgia and Texas, with a special emphasis on backing the voter mobilization groups there, such as the New Georgia Project and the Texas Organizing Project. Direct contributions to candidates are also beneficial, as the official campaigns can purchase television time at a reduced rate. Backing the candidates and the groups in those states maximizes the potential for victory. All indications are that Democrats are poised to take control of the legislative body that will be critical to reversing the damage of the past four years. One last push in the right places can get them over the finish line.