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Tuesday’s Down-Ticket Elections Are the Most Important in Generations

It’s not always about the top of the ticket. This year, of all years, is looking to prove that out.

People cast their ballots at a polling center in Washington, D.C., on October 27, 2020.

Presidential contests have a quadrennial way of sucking all the oxygen out of the room, to the detriment of the local races which matter as much, if not more, as the one atop the ticket. The media enjoy covering big shiny things, and covering the nearly 500 House and Senate elections happening on the federal level alone involves encompassing a vast array of details that don’t squeeze well into the two-minute dollops of wisdom proffered by the networks.

This year, of course, it isn’t even a fight. Five-term Senator Floopdoodle’s battle against a well-funded challenger makes for a stirring story, to be sure. It has trouble, however, competing for media space with a White House that has declared the COVID-19 pandemic to be over even as the U.S. reports 500,000 new cases in the last week alone. It has trouble competing with a Trump campaign that is already running Facebook ads declaring the president the winner of next week’s election. Both of those things happened yesterday, so yeah, Senator Floopdoodle can take a number.

The Floopdoodle kind of story is what local press is for, I suppose, though that precious institution has been withering and dying for years now. The down-ticket races are where the ballgame resides in terms of effective presidential governing, and this has never been truer than it is today. How we go forward as a nation, and as a species, is on the ballot this Tuesday right alongside every House member and a third of the Senate.

Three scenarios leap to mind: 1. In defiance of the polls (again), Donald Trump wins reelection and the GOP manages to maintain its Senate majority, after which COVID will continue to rage unchecked while vital issues like climate disruption remain unaddressed; 2. Joe Biden wins, but the Democrats fail to take the Senate, ushering in four years of nothing getting done; 3. Biden wins big enough to bring the Senate with him.

The possibilities that bloom under scenario #3 are almost too huge to contemplate, and not bereft of irony. Joe Biden — avatar and partial architect of the center-right drift the Democratic Party has taken over the last five decades — stands on the cusp of potentially becoming a genuinely transformative progressive president… if the voters give him a Senate majority to match the House. Whether Biden will rise to that occasion or get bogged down in the unilateral surrender of “bipartisanship” is a matter for a later article. It is the possibilities that tantalize at the moment.

A number of shoes have to drop before any of those possibilities can begin to see daylight. Democrats in the House of Representatives need to either hold or expand their majority control, which is precisely what appears to be happening. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already announced her intention to stand for the gavel again next term, and there appear to be no rivals with enough muscle to push her aside.

The Senate, then, is where the show is. The GOP controls 53 seats to the Democrats’ 45, with two seats held by Dem-caucusing Independents and Senate President Mike Pence holding the potential tie-breaking vote. There are 35 senators running for reelection: 23 Republicans and 12 Democrats, giving the latter a downhill-run advantage from the go.

The real Democratic advantage this year is Donald Trump, who campaigns in favor of his own resounding defeat better than any three other people combined. The simple existence of Trump at the top of the GOP ticket is a millstone around the necks of GOP senators hoping to keep their jobs, one that grows heavier by the hour.

“Democrats need a net gain of four Senate seats to win the chamber if Biden loses,” reports CNN. “Assuming Democrats lose Alabama — which CNN has consistently ranked the seat most likely to flip this year — they need to flip five other seats. But if Biden wins the presidency, they need a net gain of only three since the vice president breaks ties in the Senate. Again, assuming they lose Alabama, Democrats would need to flip four seats.”

Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina appear at present to be the most likely states to serve as that definitive four, should Biden prevail and the Democrats not lose more than Doug Jones’s seat in Alabama.

Martha McSally, Arizona’s incumbent GOP Senator, has been trailing her opponent, former astronaut Mark Kelly, in the polls since he first entered the race, and trails today by five, according to the latest Predictive Insights poll. Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, has also enjoyed a stupendous fundraising advantage over McSally from the beginning. Arizona is one of many states where Trump is dragging down every other Republican on the ballot.

In Colorado, GOP incumbent Cory Gardner is likewise facing a large polling deficit against his opponent, Democrat John Hickenlooper. The latest Morning Consult poll has Hickenlooper leading Gardner 50-42. That same poll shows Biden leading Trump in Colorado by a galloping 16 points.

In Maine, GOP incumbent Susan Collins is paying the price for her shameless flip-floppery during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation process last year, and for every other instance of the same over her three terms in office. An empty vote cast on Monday against Amy Coney Barrett may not be enough to salvage Collins’s seat, and the use this year of ranked-choice voting in her state makes her road even more difficult. Today’s Colby College poll has challenger Sara Gideon up by three, but Collins has been down from the beginning, and may not have the steam to complete a comeback.

In North Carolina, a sexting scandal surrounding Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham has not served to blow up his lead over GOP incumbent Thom Tillis. The latest CBS/YouGov polling has Cunningham leading Tillis by six points, while the presidential race in that state remains razor-close.

These races are potentially the four horsemen of the Trumpocalypse in the Senate. Iowa is close, with challenger Theresa Greenfield leading GOP incumbent Joni Ernst by a slim three points. Montana is close. Georgia is close. Minnesota is close, too. Even if (when) the Democrats lose Alabama and Doug Jones, there is still a significant opportunity for that party to take the Senate away from Mitch McConnell once and for all.

Oh, and not for nothing, but Lindsey Graham and challenger Jamie Harrison are tied in South Carolina as of yesterday.

It’s not always about the top of the ticket. This year, of all years, is looking to prove that out.

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