It’s finally over! Last week, Donald Trump was defeated by his Democratic challenger Joe Biden, signaling an end to four years of cruelty, corruption, incompetence, and national disgrace. The humiliation of the Narcissist-in-Chief is however, far from the only important story emerging from Election Day.
The Democrats had high hopes of winning not only the White House, but both branches of Congress. In the House of Representatives, Democrats held onto their majority, but in the Senate, the picture was more complicated.
Here at the Cascadia Advocate, we have been tracking a number of key Senate races that Democratic strategists had their eyes on. How did these candidates do?
Republican incumbent Martha McSally was always a weak candidate. She was defeated in her run for Arizona’s other Senate seat in 2018, and was subsequently appointed to fill John McCain’s vacancy by Arizona’s Republican governor – hardly a mandate from the people of the Grand Canyon State.
Her Democratic opponent, by contrast, was one of the strongest in the country. Mark Kelly is a pilot, engineer and former astronaut whose newcomer status to electoral politics is offset by his marriage to Gabby Giffords, a popular former member of the U.S. House of Representatives who survived a horrific assassination attempt in 2011. Kelly’s high-profile status allowed him to amass a formidable war chest during the campaign.
Although Kelly is only partially progressive, his victory should encourage those on the left of the Democratic Party. For one thing, his win in the border state of Arizona marks a rejection of Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant brand of politics. As a bonus, Kelly is a passionate supporter of gun safety, and could be a driving force in finally getting some sensible gun laws in this country.
Senator Cory Gardner’s upset win in 2014 was premised on his being “a new kind of Republican” that the purple state of Colorado could get behind. However, the past six years have shown Gardner’s true colors as a same-old-same-old Republican; during a rally in February, Donald Trump claimed Gardner was “with us all the way.” This was aimed to fire up the right-wing base, but probably hurt Gardner more than it helped, as his state largely finds Trump repellent.
The Democratic victor, former Governor John Hickenlooper, did not have an auspicious start to his campaign; for most of 2019 he was running a quixotic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, peaking in the polls at around 1%. However, once he entered the Senate race, he was boosted by endorsement from influential figures in the Democratic Party, which helped him to see off a more progressive primary challenger.
Although Hickenlooper is a marked improvement compared to a Trump crony, progressives should be wary of him. As Governor, he acted as Colorado’s chief oil-and-gas industry advocate, opposed an attempt to repeal the death penalty, and worked against civil rights legislation. During the presidential primary, he even compared progressives to Josef Stalin. Progressive Democrats will need to lean hard on Hickenlooper to force him to support much-needed legislation that, left to his own devices, he would probably oppose.
Susan Collins has spent her career in the Senate playing the role of the reasonably minded Republican who is wiling to eschew partisan divides in pursuit of compromise. Although her actions throughout the Trump era put her on decidedly thin ice with her constituents (and dropped her to the position of the most unpopular member of the U.S. Senate), Mainers seem to have decided to once again reward her with another six years in the Senate.
Collins’ victory was probably helped by the unwillingness of her Democratic opponent to take any stances that seemed controversial or too partisan.
Maine’s State House Speaker, Sara Gideon, defeated a more progressive challenger to gain the nomination, but was hounded by both Collins’ team and many on the left of the Democratic Party for refusing to give firm answers on big questions such as healthcare and climate change. Ultimately, when given the choice between two candidates trying to prove their bipartisan chops, Mainers went for the candidate with more experience – Collins.
In the early months of 2020, Democratic strategists realized that almost any path to a majority in the Senate would run through North Carolina.
The state is in many ways a geopolitical microcosm of the nation itself, with heavily red rural areas, growing Democratic constituencies in the cities, and suburbanites weighing their loyalties.
Incumbent Republican Senator Thom Tillis has had to walk a tricky tightrope this year, teetering between the opposing risks of alienating crucial suburbanite voters and enraging his right-wing base. His task was made even more difficult by the President’s mercurial style, and the Democratic Party’s willingness to throw untold sums of money towards unseating him.
The pandemic threw the odds even further against Senator Tillis.
The politicization of basic precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing by Trump and the Republicans made it even more difficult for Tillis to simultaneously appease conservatives and biconceptuals – especially since he supported slashing health regulations earlier in his Senate career.
He also had to contend with a scandal engulfing North Carolina’s other Senator, Richard Burr, who used secret Senate coronavirus briefings to enrich himself.
Yet, in spite of everything, Tillis squeaked out a victory (although it took until November 10th for enough votes to be counted before his win was projected).
Tillis’ against-the-odds victory cannot be ascribed to any personal charisma on the part of the candidate. Tillis was one one the least well-known senators in the country before Election Day. More likely, Donald Trump’s presence atop the ticket buoyed the Republican senator in the key battleground candidate.
Tillis was probably helped by the fact that his opponent, state Senator Cal Cunningham, was an utterly uninteresting candidate.
Cunningham relied on money from the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee to beat a progressive challenger to the nomination, and then proceeded to campaign as a completely forgettable “generic Democrat,” in the hopes that the “D” next to his name would be enough to push him over the line. Even a sexting scandal he got caught in seemed somehow rather boring.
Cunningham’s defeat in an easily winnable campaign should be a warning to Democrats for future campaigns that running candidates who voters don’t identify with is a recipe for watching a majority slip away.
The state of Kansas is about as deep-red as you can get, with Kansans sending Republicans to the U.S. Senate in every election since 1932.
However, in recent years residents of the Sunflower State have shown signs of souring on the Republicans.
This is partly due to national conditions – Donald Trump has spent the last four years alienating everybody but the most extreme right-wing bigots – but deeper local issues are also contributing to Kansans’ dissatisfaction.
The financially disastrous trickle-down economic policies pursued by state level Republicans, along with the almost freakish levels of xenophobia displayed by the Republican nominee for the 2018 gubernatorial race led to a shock victory for Democrat Laura Kelly (despite Kobach’s disenfranchisement of thousands of his constituents as Secretary of State).
Kobach’s return in 2020 to contend for the Republican Senate nomination threw the race into turmoil and boosted the candidacy of the Democratic candidate, Barbara Bollier. Bollier was a Republican until 2018 and is still to all intents and purposes a conservative, albeit one who refuses to slavishly praise Donald Trump.
Kobach was ultimately defeated by a less well-known (and less unpopular) pro-Trump Republican, State Senator Roger Marshall, but the unexpectedly bitter primary left Marshall weakened.
Although Marshall ultimately triumphed over Bollier, McConnell can hardly rejoice in his win. Unable to simply cruise to victory, Republicans were forced to spend resources in Kansas that could have been spent in much more contested seats.
Montana’s governor Steve Bullock had great ambitions for 2020; he was one of the over two dozen Democrats who launched campaigns for the party’s presidential nomination. However, like the vast majority of candidates in that competition, Bullock failed to make an impact – and was forced to drop out of the race ignominiously in December of 2019.
Bullock’s political aspirations did not end there, though.
He was quickly tapped by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) to run against incumbent U.S. Senator Steve Daines. Bullock was the perfect fit for the job – a two-term governor who won reelection despite his state voting for Trump by twenty points – and easily won his party’s primary
Despite Bullock’s high personal popularity in Montana (boosted by his strong response to the Covid-19 pandemic), the Governor was unable to repeat his 2016 trick of winning as a Democrat when Trump was on the ticket.
Despite Senator Steve Daines’ low approval ratings and lack of effort to distinguish himself (beyond praising Trump for attacking peaceful protesters back in June), Donald Trump’s popularity in the Big Sky State was able to carry the Republican senator over the line.
Despite the fact that the “Last Frontier” voted for Donald Trump in 2016 by a margin of 15%, Democrats had high hopes for winning Alaska’s Senate seat in 2020. The DSCC threw its support behind Dr Al Gross, an independent candidate with deep roots in Alaskan politics (Gross’ father served as the state’s attorney general). Gross has two decades of experience as an orthopedic surgeon, along with an even longer career as a commercial fisherman – a perfect résumé for a candidate seeking to win an election in Alaska during a pandemic.
Despite Gross’ strong résumé and backing from the anti-Trump group the Lincoln Project, Senator Dan Sullivan managed to hold on to his seat. Sullivan was helped by an endorsement from the United Fishermen of Alaska, who rejected Gross’ requests for an endorsement due to the fact that Sullivan had advocated for the industry during negotiations over the CARES Act. More infuriating for Democrats, Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting and the Postal Service probably had an impact on turnout in a state where many voters live in remote areas.
Georgia – once a reliably red state that has become increasingly purple over the years, as evidenced by Joe Biden’s projected win there – was the only state this cycle to have two seats in the United States Senate up for grabs this cycle.
The regularly scheduled election pitted incumbent Senator David Perdue against a familiar figure in Georgia politics, Jon Ossoff.
Ossoff, a thirty-three year old former Congressional staffer, investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker, rocketed to fame during the special election to Georgia’s 6h Congressional district in 2017. In the most expensive House race ever recorded, he narrowly lost to his Republican opponent.
Ossoff is young and charismatic, with an impressive campaign chest (boosted initially by the money he raised for his 2017 run). His time as a documentarian specializing in exposing corruption made him a lethal opponent to Perdue, who has a long and storied past in the world of international business.
Ossoff’s policy shift to the progressive left (especially over civil rights issues) helped him appeal to Georgia’s young and diverse population.
Although Georgia’s electoral system is thoroughly rigged to advantage Republicans, Ossoff managed to grind Perdue’s numbers down to less than fifty percent , meaning that the two will proceed to a runoff election in January.
Georgia’s other Senate seat will also ultimately be decided in January, with the state’s “jungle primary” system elevating the Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler, and a Democratic first-time candidate, Raphael Warnock. Loeffler – who faced a challenge from a fanatical right-wing U.S. Representative – ran as far to the right as humanly possible, even running an ad comparing herself to Attila the Hun!
Warnock, by contrast, ran a campaign that focused on the gains Stacey Abrams made in her 2018 gubernatorial bid and sought to turn out as many voters of color as possible.
Warnock ended up with 33% of the vote, while other Democratic candidates together receiving about 15.5%. The combined Republican vote was 49.4%.
The results of the Georgia runoffs could have major consequences for the demographics of the Senate as well as its politics. In a body that is overwhelmingly white and elderly, Warnock would be Georgia’s first Black U.S. Senator, while Ossoff would be the youngest member of the chamber.
Overall, the 2020 Scramble for the Senate was a disappointment for the Democrats. Although control of the Senate won’t be decided until the January runoffs in Georgia, whatever the final result is will be a far cry from liberals’ hopes of a blue tsunami washing up to a dozen Republicans out of their seats.
This election (like every election since the Republicans seized control in 2014) shows the necessity of reforming the upper chamber of Congress to be more representative and accountable to the people of the United States. It is simply not sustainable in a democracy for one party to continually lose the popular vote and maintain control over the most important institutions.