Daily Kos Elections releases initial Senate race ratings for 2020


Daily Kos Elections is pleased to announce our first set of Senate race ratings for the 2020 election cycle. Republicans currently hold the Senate by a 53-47 margin, meaning Democrats would need to pick up a net of three seats to gain control of the chamber if they also retake the White House (since a Democratic vice president could break ties in the party’s favor), or four if they do not.

In total, voters will cast ballots in 35 Senate races across the country this fall, including in special elections in Arizona and Georgia. Thanks in part to their strong performance the last time this Senate class was up for election in 2014, Republicans are defending 23 seats, while Democrats are defending just 12. A further 35 seats held by Democrats and 30 seats held by Republicans are not up for election in 2020.

For Democrats, the most plausible path back to the Senate majority starts with winning the presidency. Given how closely outcomes at the top of the ticket are tied to those farther down the ballot in today’s politics—a phenomenon known as polarization, and a theme you’ll see come up often in our write-ups below—it’s unlikely Democratic Senate candidates can win races in swing states if the party’s presidential nominee isn’t also carrying those same states, or at least coming very close.

With Alabama likely to revert to Republicans, Democrats would then need to flip four Republican-held seats to throw the Senate into a 50-50 tie. At the moment, their top pickup opportunities are in Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and North Carolina, with Georgia’s two seats just behind those in competitiveness. Beyond Alabama, Republicans have few realistic targets, with only Michigan standing out.

Our full chart rating the competitiveness of each contest is below (with Democratic seats in blue and Republican seats in red), along with a description of our ratings categories and an explanation of why we’ve rated each race the way we have. These ratings are also visualized in the map at the top of this post. To learn how we come up with these ratings, we invite you to explore our detailed statement of our methodology.

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These ratings represent our attempt to forecast the outcomes of this November’s elections, using the best information we have available. As circumstances warrant, we’ll issue changes in these ratings from time to time. To keep up with any changes, please subscribe to our free newsletter, the Daily Kos Elections Morning Digest, which we send out each weekday.

In brief, here’s how we define each of our ratings categories:

Tossup: Both (or all) parties have a strong, though not necessarily perfectly equal, chance of winning.
Lean Democrat or Lean Republican: One party has an identifiable advantage, but a win is possible for the other party.
Likely Democrat or Likely Republican: One party has a strong advantage and is likely to win, though the race has the potential to become more competitive, and an upset cannot be ruled out.
Safe Democrat or Safe Republican: Barring unforeseeable developments, one party is certain to win.

Below are brief explanations of our initial ratings, grouped by category of competitiveness and ranging from most competitive to least competitive. Note, however, that even within each category, not all races are equally competitive: One race in the Lean Republican grouping, for instance, might be on the border of being a Tossup, while another could be closer to Likely Republican.


Arizona (Special) – Martha McSally (R): Arizona is likely to be one of the most fiercely contested states in the Electoral College, and its Senate race to fill the final two years of the late John McCain’s term has already seen a deluge of money flood in on both sides. Republican Sen. Martha McSally was appointed to the post after losing a Senate race just last cycle, while Democratic challenger Mark Kelly, a former astronaut with nonpartisan appeal, has significantly outraised her so far. With McSally binding herself to Trump as tightly possible, it’s likely this race will go whichever way the presidential contest does in Arizona.

Lean Democratic

Colorado – Cory Gardner (R): As one of the best-educated states in the country, Colorado has transitioned from purple to blue over the past 15 years, a shift that’s accelerated during the Trump era. That makes Sen. Cory Gardner the most vulnerable Republican senator seeking re-election this year, and he’ll have to do so while sharing a ticket with Trump.

Limited polling has shown Gardner with a poor approval rating and losing by double digits to former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is the favorite of national Democrats and scared off nearly every other notable contender when he entered the primary.

Gardner has maintained his ultraconservative voting record since Trump’s victory, even though the threat of an intraparty primary has long since passed. That’s a possible sign that he’s pessimistic about his chances of re-election either way: Why abandon your beliefs if doing so won’t even help? With Trump on track to lose Colorado again, Gardner is the underdog in his bid for a second term.

Michigan – Gary Peters (D): Democratic Sen. Gary Peters easily won his first term over a credible opponent despite the 2014 Republican wave, but Michigan has shifted to the right in the Trump era, and it will likely be one of the most fiercely fought-over states in the Electoral College. Businessman and Army veteran John James is the likely Republican nominee, and he has been a strong fundraiser after losing by an unexpectedly close 52-46 margin to Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018.

With New Hampshire a faded opportunity for the GOP and Alabama apt to take care of itself, Peters is likely to find himself the target of hefty outside spending by Republicans eager to score a pickup. However, his incumbency, along with the realistic prospect that Democrats will retake Michigan at the presidential level, help make him a modest favorite.

Lean Republican

Georgia – David Perdue (R): Georgia’s blue trend became readily apparent after Trump’s soft 2016 performance there, and Democrat Stacey Abrams’ narrow defeat in the 2018 governor’s race gave Democrats a glimpse at their path to victory by running up the score in the highly educated and rapidly diversifying Atlanta metro area. However, Georgia remains a red-leaning state, and while it could be winnable for Democrats in the race for the White House, it’s an open question as to whether the party will compete at the top of the ticket in the Peach State.

Republican Sen. David Perdue, meanwhile, has largely stayed out of the limelight and avoided controversy during his first term. Democrats failed to land Abrams, who was their top pick, leaving them with a less well-known field that includes former Columbus Mayor Theresa Tomlinson, 2018 lieutenant governor nominee Sarah Riggs Amico, and investigative filmmaker Jon Ossoff, who came close to an upset in the famous 2017 special election in the 6th Congressional District. Perdue has the edge for now.

Georgia (Special) – Kelly Loeffler (R): Like Perdue, Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler starts off with the advantage of representing a state that isn’t quite a swing state yet, and her personal wealth gives her the resources to run a serious campaign. (She’s reportedly said she’ll spend $20 million and is worth far more.) However, several factors make her race quite different from Perdue’s

In the special election, in which Loeffler will be running to fill the final two years of former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson’s term, all candidates from all parties are running on a single November ballot. The top two vote-getters—regardless of party—will advance to a Jan. 5 runoff if no one takes a majority in the first round.

With multiple Democrats running, including DSCC-backed pastor Raphael Warnock, businessman Matt Lieberman, and former U.S. Attorney Ed Tarver, there’s virtually no chance any Democrat can avoid a runoff, for which turnout would likely be lower and more conservative. However, Loeffler also has little hope of averting a second round, because she’s facing a major challenge from the right in the form of Rep. Doug Collins, whom Trump had wanted for this seat (though he’s since stayed out of the fray).

Polling has been very limited here, so it’s hard to get a good sense of just how winnable this race is for Team Blue. With a tenure of months rather than years in D.C., Loeffler carries less baggage than Perdue, but at the same time, Collins will drive her far to the right. Given Georgia’s residual GOP strength and the likelihood of a runoff, though, Republicans maintain a modest edge.

Maine – Susan Collins (R): Republican Sen. Susan Collins has repeatedly won lopsided victories thanks to her once-strong support among Democrats and independents, but that era may finally be coming to an end this year thanks to the backlash Collins incurred by supporting the Trump agenda at every turn, most notably her decisive vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

National Democrats are supporting state House Speaker Sara Gideon, who has raised considerable money from Democrats across the country outraged at Collins’ Kavanaugh vote, and she’ll have ample resources to get her message out. Polling has been infrequent, however, so we don’t fully know the extent to which Collins has damaged her reputation with swing voters. Maine also moved sharply to the right in 2016 thanks to its large population of white voters without college degrees.

Collins has a modest edge at the moment, but the key here, as elsewhere, is partisan polarization. If Mainers vote a straight ticket in 2020, Collins will find herself in the most competitive race of her life.

North Carolina – Thom Tillis (R): North Carolina’s Senate race could very well be 2020’s “tipping-point” contest, as the party that wins it stands a good chance of winning control of the entire chamber. Even in the 2014 GOP wave, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis only managed a narrow victory, and his approval ratings have been middling over the course of his term. However, North Carolina is still a slightly red-leaning state at the presidential level, and if Trump carries it again, Tillis will benefit.

National Democrats were unsuccessful in their efforts to convince their first choices to run, but former state senator and Army veteran Cal Cunningham has earned the DSCC’s backing and proven himself a capable fundraiser, and polls show him poised to earn the party’s nomination. Tillis retains a slight edge for now, but both sides are all but certain to fight over North Carolina’s electoral votes once again, so the landscape could shift very easily.

Likely Democratic

Minnesota – Tina Smith (D): Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed to fill Al Franken’s seat, won her first election in 2018 by a convincing margin, and she’s running for a full term this year. Her likely Republican challenger is former Rep. Jason Lewis, who lost a suburban House seat at the same time that Smith secured the final two years of Franken’s term and has a long history of offensive, racist, and misogynist statements from his days as a conservative radio shock jock.

Trump lost Minnesota by an unexpectedly small margin of 1.5 points, but he’s not likely to come anywhere near as close this year, thanks in part to the state’s relatively high levels of education and affluence compared to its neighboring states. Smith is therefore favored.

New Hampshire – Jeanne Shaheen (D): New Hampshire’s last Senate race was exceptionally close, with Democrat Maggie Hassan unseating Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte by just 0.1% of the vote in 2016, but this year’s contest has shaped up very differently for Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen.

Republicans failed to land a top-tier challenger when popular Republican Gov. Chris Sununu declined to run, and the current GOP field consists of untested candidates, including retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, attorney Corky Messner, and former hard-line state House Speaker BIll O’Brien, all of whom have raised little money.

Limited polling has shown Shaheen with a dominant edge, and her financial advantage is just as daunting. New Hampshire should have been one of the GOP’s few offensive targets this year, but it looks like Republicans aren’t going to make a serious play here.

Likely Republican

Alabama – Doug Jones (D): It took multiple miracles for Democratic Sen. Doug Jones to pull off one of the greatest upsets in decades when he defeated Republican Roy Moore in the special election to replace Jeff Sessions three years ago, not least the revelation that Moore had been accused of preying on teenage girls. With Donald Trump atop the ballot in deep-red Alabama this year, however, it would take several more miracles for Jones to survive and be re-elected, and it doesn’t look like any are in the offing.

Unlike in 2017, Jones is almost certain to face a more mainstream GOP opponent, with polls showing Sessions (who is seeking a comeback), Rep. Bradley Byrne, and former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville all waging credible campaigns. Moore is running again and could give Jones an opening, but polling shows him far behind the pack.

Trump carried Alabama by 28 points in 2016, and he’s certain to win by a large margin again. Jones, who has generally aligned himself with mainstream Democrats and voted to remove Trump from office in the impeachment trial, would need to convince hundreds of thousands of Trump voters to split their tickets for him—an almost impossible prospect in this deeply polarized era. It’s exceedingly rare that we’d rate an incumbent as vulnerable as we have Jones, but then again, Jones’ win was just as rare a phenomenon.

Iowa – Joni Ernst (R): Iowa took a sharp turn to the right in 2016 thanks to Trump’s historic performance with white voters without college degrees, but Democrats rebounded in 2018, suggesting that the Hawkeye State isn’t out of reach for Team Blue. With Trump’s trade wars hurting farmers, he could struggle to rack up the same margin he did in 2016. A more competitive presidential race in the state would give Democrats an opening for the Senate, where the national party is supporting businesswoman Theresa Greenfield. Republican Sen. Joni Ernst has done little to distinguish herself from Trump one way or the other, and her fate is likely tied closely to the presidential contest.

Kansas – OPEN (R): Kansas has, by many decades, the longest streak of any state when it comes to electing Republicans to the Senate: It last sent a Democrat to the upper chamber in 1932. However, thanks in part to above-average educational attainment, Democrats made gains here in 2018, and they have an outside shot at pulling off a historic upset if their stars align. But whether state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a former moderate Republican who left her party last year and is now the likely Democratic nominee, has a chance depends on whether former Secretary of State Kris Kobach wins the Republican primary.

A leading architect of voter suppression schemes who earned a reputation for relishing the national spotlight rather than attending to his duties at home, Kobach was the Republican nominee for governor in 2018 and lost to Democrat Laura Kelly after running a campaign that GOP operatives excoriated for its incompetence.

National Republicans reportedly fear a Kobach redux so much that they’ve lobbied Trump to support his likely main rival, Rep. Roger Marshall. If Marshall or another Republican prevails, Kansas would revert to form and slip out of reach for Democrats. But if Kobach can sneak past his divided opposition—which polls suggest is eminently possible—he could help Republicans snatch defeat from the jaws of victory once more.

Texas – John Cornyn (R): Former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s narrow loss in 2018 to progressive bête noire Ted Cruz gave Team Blue a much-needed shot of optimism that Texas is progressing toward swing state status, but it isn’t quite there yet. Republican Sen. John Cornyn doesn’t have Cruz’s baggage, and he’s always been a strong fundraiser in what is a very expensive state. Polling, however, has found Cornyn relatively unknown to a large slice of the electorate, giving Democrats a chance to shape voters’ perceptions.

The field of challengers, though, will start with far lower name recognition and fundraising capacity. Air Force veteran MJ Hegar, who nearly won a historically red suburban House seat in 2018, has been endorsed by the DSCC and has raised the most money. Several other credible candidates are running, though, including state Sen. Royce West, activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, and former Houston City Councilor Amanda Edwards, making a primary runoff likely.

Whether this race will be viable for Senate Democrats will depend heavily on whether the Democrats’ presidential nominee can significantly improve on Hillary Clinton’s 52-43 loss. Cornyn therefore starts out as the favorite to win another term.

Safe Democratic

Delaware – Chris Coons (D): Republicans last won Delaware at the presidential level in 1988 and haven’t won a Senate seat there since 1994. Neither streak is about to end this year. Coons won convincingly even in the 2014 GOP wave, and he so far faces no noteworthy Republican opponent.

Illinois – Dick Durbin (D): Longtime Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin faces no noteworthy Republican challenger, and he should have little trouble prevailing again in a state where Trump is on track to lose by another double-digit blowout.

Massachusetts – Ed Markey (D): Massachusetts has long been one of the most Democratic states in the country, and that trend has continued in the Trump era. While Democratic Sen. Ed Markey faces a serious primary challenge from Rep. Joe Kennedy III (which early polls suggest is a tossup), either candidate will be a dominant favorite over whichever unheralded Republican wins the GOP nomination.

New Jersey – Cory Booker (D): New Jersey hasn’t elected a Republican senator since 1972, the second-longest such streak for Democrats in the nation after Hawaii, which last did so in 1970. With Democratic Sen. Cory Booker seeking re-election to a second full term, that long run will not come to an end.

New Mexico – OPEN (D): New Mexico isn’t an overwhelmingly blue state, but Republicans lack any heavyweight candidates and have failed to capitalize on any potential opening from Democratic Sen. Tom Udall’s retirement. Democrats have unified behind Rep. Ben Ray Luján, a powerful and well-connected member of the House who already represents one-third of the state. With the eventual Democratic presidential nominee poised to win New Mexico by a comfortable margin, Luján should have little to worry about.

Oregon – Jeff Merkley (D): Trump lost Oregon by double digits in 2016, and there’s no indication that his standing has improved there since. Republicans haven’t won a Senate race here since 2002, and with no prominent candidate to speak of in the race against Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, that’s not going to change in 2020.

Rhode Island – Jack Reed (D): Although Rhode Island saw one of the largest shifts to the right at the presidential level in 2016, it remains a solidly blue state. Longtime Democratic Sen. Jack Reed has never won by less than a 20-point margin and is safe for re-election.

Virginia – Mark Warner (D): Democratic Sen. Mark Warner had a shockingly close call in 2014, but his standing couldn’t be more different heading into the 2020 election cycle. Virginia transformed into a decidedly blue-leaning state in the Trump era, thanks in large part to its diverse and highly educated population. Warner’s only noteworthy GOP challenger, former Rep. Scott Taylor, dropped out of the race late last year to launch a comeback bid for the House.

Safe Republican

Alaska – Dan Sullivan (R): Alaska has backed every Republican presidential nominee by double digits since 1996, and there’s little to indicate that it could be competitive for the Democratic nominee against Trump in 2020. Several of the state’s Senate races within that time frame have been closer affairs, but Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan doesn’t have any obvious vulnerabilities. Although Democrats are supporting a well-funded challenge waged by orthopedic surgeon Al Gross, an independent who is running for the Democratic nomination, ticket-splitting (or a lack thereof) is the central issue. That makes this Sullivan’s race to lose.

Arkansas – Tom Cotton (R): Republican Sen. Tom Cotton has nothing to fear in a state that has stampeded from safely Democratic to safely Republican at the downballot level in the span of just a decade, quite literally: The lone Democrat running dropped out just hours after the filing deadline under murky circumstances.

Idaho – Jim Risch (R): Idaho was one of Trump’s very best states four years ago and will be near the top of the list again this fall. Republican Sen. Jim Risch has done little to alienate typical Republican voters and is a lock for another term.

Kentucky – Mitch McConnell (R): Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is one of the most reviled officeholders in the country at the national level, but he holds a huge advantage by representing a heavily white working-class state that backed Trump by a 63-33 landslide in 2016 and shows no sign of wavering.

While Marine veteran Amy McGrath, the likely Democratic nominee who ran a competitive House race in a red district two years ago, could very well raise tens of millions of dollars from progressives angry at McConnell, money alone can’t overcome partisanship. And while in years past implacable conservatives despised McConnell as a corrupt insider, they’ve grown to love him for protecting Trump from the consequences of impeachment and ramming his judicial confirmations through a divided chamber. That leaves McGrath with almost no way to wedge an opening.

Louisiana – Bill Cassidy (R): Louisiana has become implacably red at the federal level over the last decade, and Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, who lacks any notable opponents, has little to fear.

Mississippi – Cindy Hyde-Smith (R): Even in our polarized age, Mississippi stands out for its particularly small proportion of swing voters, meaning Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith should have no problem winning re-election with Trump heavily favored to carry the state by a comfortable margin once again. Hyde-Smith faces a rematch with former Democratic Rep. Mike Espy, but although her 54-46 margin was the worst showing by a Mississippi Republican in a Senate race in decades, it’s exceedingly hard to see how Espy can achieve a different result this time.

Montana – Steve Daines (R): Democrats had hoped to give Republican Sen. Steve Daines a strong challenge, but they failed to land the one candidate who could probably put this race in play, term-limited Gov. Steve Bullock (though Chuck Schumer is reportedly taking one last run at Bullock before the March 9 filing deadline). That leaves Democrats fielding a group of lesser-known alternatives, with nonprofit founder Cora Neumann by far the best-funded among them. Daines has avoided alienating Republican voters, and with Trump on track to comfortably win Montana once more, this seat should stay red.

Nebraska – Ben Sasse (R): Nebraska has become solidly Republican up and down the ballot over the last decade, and Republican Sen. Ben Sasse is the runaway favorite to win a second term.

Oklahoma – Jim Inhofe (R): Oklahoma is in contention for the reddest state in the nation, and Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe lacks any notable Democratic challenger.

South Carolina – Lindsey Graham (R): In an eye-blink, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has swiveled from castigating Trump as an unfit threat to the republic during the 2016 election to becoming one of Trump’s most sycophantic and zealous backers. That 180-degree turnaround has made him nationally infamous and in turn driven millions in donations to former state Democratic Party chair and likely 2020 nominee Jaime Harrison.

Harrison, however, will still be running against the reality of seeking office in a state that backed Trump by double digits four years ago. He’s giving Graham the most vigorous re-election challenge of his career, but Republican voters will be strongly inclined to stick with one of Trump’s staunchest allies.

South Dakota – Mike Rounds (R): South Dakota has stampeded to the right during the past decade, making it one of Trump’s best states nationally. Republican Sen. Mike Rounds will cruise to a second term.

Tennessee – OPEN (R): Democrats had their best shot to win a Senate race in many years in last cycle’s blue wave when popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen was Team Blue’s nominee for an open seat against hard-line conservative Republican Marsha Blackburn, but after Blackburn trounced Bredesen by 11%, it’s exceedingly difficult to see how Democrats could do any better in 2020. Democrats have a credible candidate in DSCC-backed Army veteran James Mackler, but former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty, who has Trump’s backing, is all but assured of winning both the Republican nomination and the general election.

West Virginia – Shelley Moore Capito (R): West Virginia was one of Trump’s best states in 2016, and it’s shaping up to repeat that performance in 2020. Although Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin narrowly won re-election in 2018 over a flawed Republican challenger, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito will be a far more formidable foe for Democrats, who this cycle will lack the benefit of incumbency and the luxury of running without Trump atop the ticket.

Former state Sen. Richard Ojeda, who ran an aggressive campaign for the House in 2018, gives Democrats a credible name if he wins the nomination. However, that prior bid, for an open seat with political leanings similar to the state as a whole, shows just how tough the Senate race will be, seeing as Ojeda lost that race 56-44. When Trump could again win the state by a more than 2-1 margin, there’s just no realistic path to victory.

Wyoming – OPEN (R): Wyoming was Trump’s best state in 2016 and will either repeat that performance or come close to it. With Rep. Liz Cheney taking a surprising pass on the race, former Republican Rep. Cynthia Lummis is the heavy favorite for the GOP nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Mike Enzi and to win the general in November.

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