Analysts See Democrats Likely to Win the Senate, Opening the Door to Climate Legislation

Democrats mount strong challenges to Republican incumbents in Colorado, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Nov 1, 2020
With several tight Senate races, Democrats may have control of the Senate within reach, needing a net gain of just three seats—four if President Trump is reelected. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

With several tight Senate races, Democrats may have control of the Senate within reach, needing a net gain of just three seats—four if President Trump is reelected. Credit: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

In these final days of Lindsey Graham's surprising struggle to keep the U.S. Senate seat he's held for 18 years, it has come down to this: He's begging for money from Fox News viewers and being attacked by one of the conservative network's staunchest Trump supporters, Lou Dobbs.

Not long ago, Graham—the self-styled Republican climate champion with little to show for his rhetoric—looked as if he'd be a lock to win his fourth term in the Senate. 

But this fall, as tens of millions of dollars have poured into the campaign coffers of his Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, Graham has complained on Fox that "every liberal in America wants to take me out" and that "they hate my guts," while Dobbs wondered aloud why any South Carolinian would vote for Graham because he had not done enough to investigate former President Barack Obama.

With Graham tying his political fortunes to President Trump and both their political futures hanging in the balance, so is the Republican Party's six-year grip on the U.S. Senate.

The political analysts at the influential Cook Political Report concluded late in October that Democrats had become "the clear favorite to flip control of the Senate," due in part to Trump's own struggles amid a worsening pandemic that's once again killing more than 1,000 Americans every day. In the final week of the election, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight was giving Democrats a 78 percent chance of flipping the Senate. 

With Democrats needing a net gain of three seats—four if President Trump wins re-election—to flip the Senate, they are favored to beat Republicans in Colorado and Arizona and are either ahead, even or within the polling margin of error against GOP incumbents in Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina. 

Even more surprisingly, Democrats are behind, but within striking distance, of taking Republican seats in the solidly red states of Alaska, Kansas, Texas, and Mississippi.

Among 13 key Senate races profiled by InsideClimate News this fall, Democrats are likely to lose just one incumbent, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, to climate science denying Tommy Tuberville, a retired football coach who says climate is in God's hands.

Up Big in Colorado and Arizona, Democrats Seek Two Georgia Seats

Most scenarios for the Democrats taking back the Senate begin with former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper beating Sen. Cory Gardner and retired astronaut Mark Kelly knocking off Sen. Martha McSally in Arizona. 

Hickenlooper is up by eight points in the polls, and Kelly is ahead by six, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling averages. 

In Maine, four-term incumbent Sen. Susan Collins, with the strongest voting record on climate among Senate Republicans, has been behind in the polls to Democrat Sara Gideon since summer and currently trails by two points. 

Those three potential pickups alone could give the Senate to the Democrats if former Vice President Joe Biden wins, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, becomes vice president and Senate president, the chamber's tie-breaker.

Will There Be a Senate Shift in November?

Beyond Maine, in the other five toss-up states, Democrats are competitive in not one but two Senate races in the traditional Republican stronghold of Georgia, a state that has become more diverse and more progressive as the Atlanta area has added population. 

Democratic challenger Rev. Raphael Warnock, who preaches at the Atlanta church once led by the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has come on strong in recent weeks in a special election for the seat currently held by Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. In the latest poll, Warnock leads a wild, open-primary-like race with 20 candidates, with about 42 percent of likely voters, compared to Loeffler's 22 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.  Loeffler was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson, who resigned from the Senate in late 2019. 

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two will face off on Jan. 5.

"Warnock is well ahead of the other candidates in the race but is extremely unlikely to go above the 50 percent threshold to avoid a runoff," said Daniel Franklin, an emeritus professor of political science at Georgia State University.

In any runoff, Warnock's path to victory would be more difficult because Loeffler and her main challenger, Rep. Doug Collins, are likely now dividing the Republican vote.

Loeffler, a businesswoman and co-owner of the WNBA franchise in Atlanta, has voted with President Trump 100 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. Collins has voted with Trump 98 percent of the time.

For his part, Warnock has made climate change and environmental justice part of his campaign and has the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund. Last year, Warnock hosted an interfaith meeting on climate change at Ebenezer Baptist Church with former Vice President Al Gore.

"As a person of faith, I can think of nothing more important than honoring and protecting the only home we've been blessed with, for ourselves and our children," Warnock said when accepting the endorsement of the national environmental group. "Too often, fossil fuel lobbyists and politicians have taken advantage of the revolving door between corporate boardrooms and political backrooms so much that we cannot tell the difference between the two."

The other Georgia Senate race—with first-term Republican Sen. David Perdue running against challenger Jon Ossoff, a Democrat—is basically tied, with the polls this fall swinging back and forth, mostly within the margin of error. FiveThirtyEight has Purdue slightly favored in a state Biden is slightly favored to win. 

A winner in this race, which also has Libertarian Shane Hazel on the ballot, also needs to clear 50 percent or there will be a Jan. 5 runoff, something that the Cook Political Report described Friday as a real possibility, possibly delaying when we will know which party will control the Senate.

Purdue pulled out of a final debate with Ossoff that had been scheduled for Sunday night after the Democratic challenger sharply attacked him in a debate on Wednesday night, calling him a "crook" for allegedly making stock trades based on inside briefings he received about the potential severity of the Covid-19 pandemic before it struck the nation. 

Purdue's aides have said he has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the Senate Ethics Committee for the trades, which the senator has said were made by advisors.

The outcome of the race is likely linked to the presidential election, Franklin said.

"Increasingly, really since about 1980, voters in congressional races are tying the candidates to the national party. So I do think if Biden wins in Georgia so will Ossoff in the Senate race," Franklin said.

Close Races in Iowa, North Carolina and South Carolina 

In North Carolina, its Senate race was thrown into chaos when incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, went mask-less at a high-profile "super-spreader" political event at the White House, then came down with the coronavirus and went into quarantine, while his Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, acknowledged sharing intimate text messages with a woman who is not his wife. 

Still, polls show Cunningham maintains a lead in that race, and the FiveThirtyEight forecast has him "slightly favored" to win in a state that it also has Biden slightly favored to win.

In Iowa, incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst, the Republican, muffed a debate question about the break-even price of soybeans, something that senators in Iowa seem to need to know. The Real Clear Politics average of polls has Theresa Greenfield, a Democrat who nailed the price of corn in the debate, ahead by 1.5 percent, and FiveThirtyEight describes that race as a tossup in a state it also sees as a tossup between Biden and Trump.

The Democrats donors have sent torrents of money to Senate battleground candidates, including a flood that followed the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

That was the case in South Carolina, where Harrison has so far won the money race, raising $86 million compared to Graham's $58 million. Graham retains a narrow edge in most polls but Harrison has twice had slight leads.

The two went head-to-head on climate change in an Oct. 3 debate with both rejecting the Green New Deal, the Congressional resolution backed by some Democrats that proposes a massive shift in federal spending to create jobs and hasten a transition to clean energy by 2050.

Graham said, erroneously, that it would "do away with cars" and "do away with cows." 

"I believe in private sector solutions," Graham added.

Harrison said the Green New Deal would be too expensive, but added: "We've got to figure a way, though, because we have to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. That is something that all the scientists have said."

Races in Kansas, Montana, Alaska, Texas and Mississippi may also help decide which party controls the Senate. 

In Kentucky, McConnell appears to be maintaining a solid lead over retired Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath in his bid for a seventh term, despite a strong debate appearance by McGrath, and the fact that McGrath has hauled in a whopping $82 million in campaign donations compared to McConnell's $52 million.

"McConnell has made the election as much about his opponent as about him," wrote Al Cross, the University of Kentucky professor and longtime political columnist, in a recent analysis of the race. "McConnell's ads have put McGrath on the defensive in paid TV and down in polls."

First Chance for Climate Legislation Since 2010 

Climate change will likely land on the next Congress' agenda, regardless of which party controls the Senate, said Sasha Mackler, director of energy projects for the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.

"It has shown itself to be a top tier political issue in this campaign, and that is really the first time that has happened," he said. "Democrats in particular have defined climate as an issue that they are going to prioritize."

Climate activists are excited by all of the contested Senate races and what they see as the potential return of a Democratic majority, which would provide the first opportunity for significant Congressional action on climate since Barack Obama became president in 2008, accompanied by Democrats controlling both the Senate and the House of Representatives. 

But that is also when Obama lost his best chance of getting climate legislation through Congress, a cap-and-trade bill that passed the House but died in the Senate in 2010.

"We are working so hard to flip the Senate to be a pro-environment majority so they can go big on the climate crisis," said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs with the League of Conservation Voters. "And on clean energy, starting on day one, we hope and expect that is exactly what they will do," if Democrats are victorious in the Senate, House and White House, she said.

Biden has promised not to "tinker around the edges" of climate change with the $2 trillion clean energy transformation plan he unveiled in July that ties clean energy with jobs and economic growth.

But sky-high expectations need to be tempered with political realities, said experts who closely watch Congress on environmental and energy issues. Unless the Senate does away with requiring 60 votes to pass most legislation, they will almost certainly still need Republicans to join them with any climate legislation, they said.

"If they first move to roll back the filibuster, you could really push through something with the majority," said David Konisky, a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. "Then the full climate package could be on the table."

Whether that happens, he said, "is an open question."

Otherwise, he said, the Senate will try to pass as much as they can through an arcane budget process that does not require 60 votes, and attempt to put climate action in pandemic economic recovery bills.

Attorney Jeff Holmstead, who ran President George W. Bush's EPA Office of Air and Radiation and is a partner at Bracewell, said he believes a President Biden and a Democratic-controlled Congress could pass a national clean energy standard to reach net zero carbon emissions if lawmakers and Biden are willing to make compromises, such as ensuring some kind of role for nuclear power, natural gas and carbon capture and storage. But that would take leadership from Biden, he said. 

"The White House can really exert that kind of influence and pressure," Holmstead said, adding that he saw such a working relationship during passage of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 signed by President George H.W. Bush.

"There is a real possibility of movement, but it will be a slog," said Kate Konschnik, director of the Climate and Energy Program at Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Konschnik, who served as chief environmental counsel to Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island during the Senate's unsuccessful 2010 attempt to pass major climate legislation, said she remembers watching the process get bogged down by a myriad of competing, "legitimate concerns" voiced by everyone from senior citizens to heavy industry.

But a new Democratic majority in the Senate, she said, should find far greater awareness now about the threats posed by climate change and energy economics that are more favorable to action. 

Key industries that were opposed to climate legislation ten years ago now say they support dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases, Konschnik said, citing an increasing number of electric utilities that have made pledges to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Fortune 500 companies have also made major climate pledges and are starting to require the same of companies in their supply chains. The price of wind and solar energy has fallen, and those industries are now major employers, she added.

"As you get more and more people bought in, as beneficiaries of the change, that changes the political calculus," she said.

Plus, Konschnik said, with increasingly extreme weather and other disasters linked to climate change, "people are seeing the costs of doing nothing."

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