NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Friday, November 13th, 2020

Scramble for the Senate: The results are in; here’s how the candidates and parties fared

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?

Arizona

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.

Colorado

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.

Maine

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.

Kansas

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

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.

Alaska

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

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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