Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Democrats Scramble to Wrest Control of US Senate

Experts are eyeing tense contests in a handful of states that threaten to topple powerful Republicans like Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, although the earliest results showed both candidates in the lead.

(CN) — Democrats remain in the running to take control of the U.S. Senate, but the path was narrowed Tuesday by Republican wins in South Carolina and Iowa.

Democrat Mark Kelly has a strong lead in Arizona, and if he prevails and Vice President Joe Biden wins the presidential race, Democrats will need two additional wins to control the upper chamber. That’s still possible, with North Carolina, Maine, Montana and two Georgia seats in play.

Democrats scored the first flip of the night with Colorado Democrat John Hickenlooper winning the Senate seat held by a Republican incumbent, while Republicans flipped a seat in Alabama that they were widely expected to win.

Experts eyed tense contests in a handful of states that threatened to topple powerful Republicans like Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Susan Collins, R-Maine. The night ended with Collins ahead and Graham re-elected.


Republican Tommy Tuberville won the seat held by Democrat Doug Jones. The loss, which was widely expected, means Democrats need an additional win to take control of the Senate. 

Jones narrowly eked out a 2017 win over Republican incumbent Roy Moore — and that was in a race where multiple women had accused his opponent of pursuing sexual relationships with them when they were teens. Now, Jones now faces an uphill battle in a challenge from Republican Tommy Tuberville in a state that voted heavily in favor of Trump in 2016. Tuberville, a retired football coach at Auburn University, beat former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a March primary.


Michigan typically leans Democratic on Senate races, but incumbent Democrat Gary Peters was trailing in his race with Republican Army veteran John James. James lost a 2018 race to unseat Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow. But as of late Tuesday night, Peters trailed by about 300,000 votes, with approximately 70% of the vote counted.

“It’s pretty clear we’re not going to know the results until sometime tomorrow,” Peters said at a Tuesday night campaign event. “A number of jurisdictions are still processing this massive amount of absentee ballots. ... Stay tuned.”

South Carolina

Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham reacts after marking his ballot electronically while voting in the general election, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at the Corinth-Shiloh Fire Dept. in Seneca, S.C. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Republican Lindsey Graham won another term in the U.S. Senate after a close race with Jaime Harrison, the first Black man to chair the state Democratic Party. Both Graham and Harrison each individually raised more money during this election than any other candidate in South Carolina history.

Harrison worked as a high school teacher and later as a lobbyist with the Podesta Group. He also headed a nonprofit dedicated to helping low-income kids attend college. He has called for expanded Medicaid, federal action on a Covid-19 relief package and the legalization of cannabis.

Like Senator Collins of Maine, Graham worked across the aisle for many years of his career. Graham is a politician who is used to facing primary challenges, not fighting credible threats in November. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Graham had sharp criticism for Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign — but that all changed after Trump was elected. In 2020, amid nail-biter races where many Republican candidates scrambled to distance themselves from the White House, Graham sent out mailers announcing he was “proud to have the support of President Trump.” An attorney who has held his position as U.S. Senator for 17 years, Graham’s about-face on closely supporting Trump and his policies unsettled voters and opened him up to Harrison’s vigorous challenge.

As chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee, Graham led the push to confirm U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a former Notre Dame law school professor with no judicial experience. Barrett was sworn in just five weeks after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and a week before the presidential election. Graham’s push was a 180-degree turn from his position in 2016, when he maintained the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia nine months before the general election was far too close to the presidential election for the Senate to confirm Merrick Garland, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and President Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia.


During their final debate before Election Day, Graham warned voters that Harrison would be a reliable vote for Democrats like Senator Chuck Schumer.

“Don’t bring that here,” Graham told Harrison, who grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, at their final debate before Election Day. “Don’t bring that to South Carolina.”

Danielle Vinson, professor of Politics and International Affairs at Furman University in South Carolina, said that was Graham’s attempt to “take a tough guy approach.”

“But he’s also not noticing what kind of Democrat Jaime Harrison is — that he’s going to realize how far South Carolina will go — or take it back to the state and explain why they should go further.”

Vinson said that’s an approach Graham should recognize.

“I remember Lindsay Graham talking about climate change,” Vinson said. “I remember Lindsay Graham talking about the need for compassionate immigration reform during the George W. Bush years. I remember him coming back and explaining to the state why we needed to support his positions. And I think that’s why it has been so jarring to see Lindsay Graham fall so neatly in line with President Trump over the last four years.”

Despite Harrison’s loss, Vinson said the race signaled a change in South Carolina politics.

The state is expected to have a final result on Wednesday. Absentee ballots cannot be received after Election Day, and officials began counting ballots early Tuesday morning.

“Jamie Harrison has energized voters who have felt for years now that their vote doesn’t matter very much,” Vinson said. “Whatever happens tomorrow, this race puts people on notice that Democrats can compete. It means Republicans had better be careful about not taking those voters for granted.

North Carolina

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., right, speaks as Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham listens during a televised debate Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020 in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, Pool)

With almost all votes counted, Republican incumbent Tom Tillis led Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham by about 10,000 votes. Tillis, former speaker of the state house, was elected in 2014 on promises to work across the aisle. Then Trump was elected. 

Tillis co-authored the Mueller Protection Act, which would have prevented the firing of Robert Mueller as special prosecutor. He also opposed Trump’s plan to use military funding to build his wall on the border with Mexico. But after a primary scare, Tillis did an abrupt about-face, appearing with Trump in a North Carolina rally on the night after the death of Justice Ginsberg, and telling the crowd he would vote for whoever Trump appointed to fill Ginsberg’s seat.

After potentially alienating the independents who were key to his election, Tillis faced a challenge from Cal Cunningham, a moderate military veteran who emphasized the need for access to health care during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Then, one month before the election, Tillis was diagnosed with Covid-19.

He was one of the attendees at the White House nomination party for Amy Coney Barrett, which turned out to be a super-spreader event that infected Trump and numerous aides and allies. At the party, Tillis was photographed indoors without a mask.

During the final days of his campaign, Tillis voted to confirm Barrett and appeared publicly with heavyweight republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

After text messages surfaced showing that Cunningham was embroiled in an extra-marital affair, the candidate began barring the press from his meetings with voters. He stopped taking media questions on Oct. 9. He appeared to be riding out his campaign based on strong early support among voters.


Two Republican races up for election are close enough to trigger likely runoffs. Incumbent Senator David Perdue is facing a challenge from Democrat Jon Ossoff that is likely to end in a runoff, if neither candidate secures 50% of the vote. With an estimated 82% of the vote tallied, Perdue is ahead by over 300,000 votes.


And incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler is facing an open primary with challenges from Republican Representative Doug Collins and the current leading democrat, Raphael Warnock. That race is also likely to trigger a runoff, probably between Loeffler and Warnock, who are both ahead of Collins.

Loeffler, whose husband heads the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange, was the subject of a scuttled Senate ethics probe. The Justice Department and the Senate committee both dropped investigations into accusations from the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which claimed Loeffler used information from private Congressional briefings on Covid-19 to unload stocks nearly $20 million in stocks in late February — before markets tanked.


Former astronaut Mark Kelly has a big lead over incumbent Senator Martha McSally. With over three-quarters of the vote counted, Kelly is ahead by 10 points. McSally, a big Trump supporter and former military pilot, was appointed to fill John McCain’s seat after his 2018 death from brain cancer. Kelly campaigned on the premise that he would be more of an independent vote for Arizona than a traditional Democrat. He has championed gun control since his wife, former Representative Gabby Giffords, survived an assassination attempt in 2011.

The race highlights the state’s shifting demographics, including a big increase in college-educated whites and the growing power of the state’s Latinx voters, who have turned out in ever-greater numbers with each successive election. If Kelly wins, both of the state’s two senators would be Democrats for the first time since the 1950s.

McSally claimed during her campaign that Kelly would help enact “radical socialist” measures like those McSally claimed were championed by Representative Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. She said Kelly would be a reliable supporter of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and accused him of carrying a Chinese flag to space — a claim that isn’t true. Kelly carried a flag from an annual U.S./China relations event, not a Chinese flag.

"I'm not questioning your patriotism, Mark,” McSally said in an Oct. 6 debate with Kelly. “I'm questioning your judgment."

For his part, Kelly faulted McSally for voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and said she should have stood up to President Trump during his many public attacks against Senator McCain. Kelly also blasted McSally for taking money from pharmaceutical companies and later voting for corporate tax cuts and against drug price negotiations.

"Bottom line," Kelly said at the Oct. 6 debate. "Senator McSally isn't working for us. She's working for somebody else."

Would a win by Kelly’s mean the ground is shifting in Arizona? That what was once a Republican stronghold is now in the hands of Democrats? Barbara Norrander, professor of political science at the University of Arizona, said that depends.

“It could be that Kelly is simply perceived as a better candidate,” Norrander said. “What’s really the tell is what happens in the state legislative race.”

Controlled by Republicans for decades, Arizona’s statehouses could flip blue this cycle. If that happens, it could mean shifting demographics have remade the state’s political calculus.


Republican Sen. Susan Collins speaks to workers at Reed and Reed, a contracting company, while campaigning Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in Woolwich, Maine. Collins is seeking re-election against Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, the speaker of the Maine House. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

Susan Collins is facing the toughest campaign of her 24-year career as a Republican senator. With about 80% of votes tallied, Collins was ahead by nearly five points. After cultivating a reputation as an independent vote when her chamber faced big decisions, Collins enraged supporters in 2018 by voting to confirm Brett Kavanaugh as a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court. That may have given state House Speaker Sara Gideon the opening to topple Collins’ 24-year career.

It certainly energized Democratic donors — who contributed millions to the campaign against Collins before Gideon had even announced her candidacy. As speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Gideon sponsored legislation to expand abortion access. She has called for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and supports universal background checks for gun registration, as well as restrictions on high-capacity magazines.


Maine has just over 1 million registered voters. About half were expected to vote absentee. Officials got a head-start counting those votes, with processing beginning as much as a week ago in some of the state’s larger cities. Officials said voter turnout was higher than usual, with 69% turnout in South Portland as of 3:00 p.m., according to Susan Mooney in the city clerk's office.


Former Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper won his bid to be U.S. Senator, displacing Republican incumbent Cory Gardner.

In polls leading up to the election, Hickenlooper was reliably ahead, apparently unfazed by reports from a state ethics commission that found he twice violated the state’s gift ban when he was governor. During a 2018 conference in Italy, Hickenlooper accepted meals and a limo ride, the commission found. And the commission said Hickenlooper should not have accepted a ride in a private jet from a private developer.

Gardner trailed Hickenlooper by 8% in multiple polls, including one released just before mail-in ballots arrived in voters’ mailboxes, compiled by the American Politics Research Lab. 

Gardner focused most of his campaign on efforts to distance himself from President Trump. But Hickenlooper and other critics pointed out Gardner’s strong support of Trump’s policies, including efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and the vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

Hickenlooper’s lead in polls neatly paralleled that of former Vice President Joe Biden — highlighting a common theme for republicans facing reelection in close races for U.S. Senate seats.

“Trump’s underwater in this state and Gardner is facing an uphill battle trying to run away from Trump,” said Anand Sokhey, associate professor of political science at The University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the American Politics Research Lab.

And the race is critical to Democrats’ quest to flip the chamber, Sokhey added.

“I would call it a must-win,” Sokhey said. “If it doesn’t happen here it’s probably not going to happen at all.”


Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a one-term incumbent, won another term, easily surpassing Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. Ernst rode Iowa’s 2016 pro-Trump wave to victory, and has maintained close ties to the White House.

Ernst, the incumbent, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the National Guard. She served in Iowa’s state Senate before running for national office and was both the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate and Iowa’s first female U.S. Senator. She opposes legal abortion and the Affordable Care Act and has worked to defund Planned Parenthood.

Greenfield is a former urban planner and real estate developer who raised two children alone after her first husband, an electrician, was killed in a workplace accident. In 2018, she ran as a candidate to represent Iowa in the U.S. House of Representatives, but withdrew from that race when it was revealed that her campaign manager had falsified some of the signatures needed to qualify her for the ballot. Greenfield supports Social Security and other government safety nets, citing her personal experience as a single mother as having developed her understanding of the need for those programs. 


Montana is unusually receptive to a Democratic senator with this year’s run by Montana Governor Steve Bullock — who has gained widespread support due to his competent handling of the state’s Covid-19 response. Even so, the race is a longshot for Bullock, predicated mostly on shrinking support among Montana voters for President Trump. Bullock trailed by six points with over 80% of votes counted. 

A former operations manager with Procter & Gamble who served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 2014, Republican Steve Daines has introduced bills that would require the U.S. to balance its budget within 10 years, opposed statehood for the District of Columbia, and called for an end to legal abortion, except in situations where the procedure is necessary to protect the life of the mother. Daines also rejects scientific consensus showing that climate change is caused by humans.

Bullock, a centrist Democrat who was legal assistant to the secretary of state of Montana before he launched his political career, vetoed measures to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks and has called for active work to fight climate change. He also supports the death penalty “in limited circumstances” such as terrorism, and opposes mandatory gun registration.

Follow @@karinapdx
Categories / Politics

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.