Chamber of the United States Senate
The Senate chamber (U.S. Congress photo)

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.

Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords
U.S. Sen­ate can­di­date Mark Kel­ly and his wife, for­mer Con­gress­woman Gab­by Gif­fords (Cam­paign photo)

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.

John Hickenlooper speaks to Iowans during his presidential campaign
John Hick­en­loop­er speaks to Iowans dur­ing 2019 (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

Senator Susan Collins
Susan Collins, U.S. Sen­a­tor, (R.-Maine), U.S. Sen­ate speak­ing at For­tune’s Most Pow­er­ful Women sum­mit. Pho­to­graph by Stu­art Isett/Fortune Most Pow­er­ful Women

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.

North Carolina

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.

Thom Tillis was virtually unknown until this year.
Sen. Thom Tillis was vir­tu­al­ly unknown until this year. (Pho­to: Gage Skid­more, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

To top it all off, in ear­ly Octo­ber Tillis test­ed pos­i­tive for the coro­n­avirus after attend­ing a “super spread­er” event at the White House.

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.

Jon Ossoff and Rep. John Lewis
Jon Ossoff and Rep. John Lewis (Pho­to: Jon Ossoff, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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!

Rev. Warnock addresses supporters
Rev. Warnock address­es sup­port­ers (Pho­to: Raphael Warnock, repro­duced under Cre­ative Com­mons license)

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.

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