The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bostock v. Clayton established federal protections for employees, under the Civil Rights Act, with respect to sexual orientation and gender identity in matters of employment. But when it comes to a whole host other issues like housing, access to public accommodations or service, your rights as an LGBT person depend entirely on where you live. In an effort to level the playing field — and to say that discrimination is wrong, no matter where you live — congressional leaders have introduced the Equality Act.
The bill itself has existed, in some iteration since the 1970s, but only last year, after Democrats swept to a majority in the House of Representatives, did it finally earn a vote. It passed by and overwhelming margin and then it went to the Senate where it still sits. The Equality Act is not alone: Over 400 pieces of progressive legislation have passed the House only to sit idle in the Senate.
So, yes, we need a new president, but we also need a new Senate. In order to take back the Senate — assuming that Sen. Doug Jones loses his race in Alabama which, sadly, looks likely — Democrats at least four seats and the presidency. A net of five seats total would swing the balance of power back to the Democrats and hopefully, compel movement on the issues of top concern to our communities.
While it’s hard to muster up any optimism in 2020, the map looks favorable for achieving a Democratic majority: both FiveThirtyEight and Real Clear Politics give Democrats a slight edge to win. To that end, I’m looking at the top five senate races that I think could shift the balance of power and six other races that could pad the Democratic majority for 2021.
After narrowly losing her 2018 Senate race to out-bisexual Kyrsten Sinema, Martha McSally was appointed to fill the seat left vacant by John McCain’s death and Jon Kyl’s resignation. That’s notable for two reasons: first, whomever wins this Senate race will have to run again in 2022, as part of their regular class. Second — and more importantly — it means that if Mark Kelly wins this race, he can join the Senate by Nov. 30. Kelly could come in and make an impact during the lame duck session, particularly if Amy Comey Barrett’s nomination is still under consideration.
Kelly, who America first met as the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, comes into the Senate race with a massive cash advantage. McSally was once so concerned about her fundraising deficit, she asked supporters to “fast a meal and give what that would be.” An analysis of Kelly’s 2019 fundraising showed him outraising McSally in unexpected areas, like the suburbs of Phoenix and Tucson… areas where McSally beat Sinema in 2018. It’ll be interesting to see if McSally’s support of Barrett — while mollifying the base — continues to erode her support in those suburban districts.
My concern about Arizona? The presidential race is within the margin of error. If the Trump campaign ramps up their presence in the state, is that enough to help McSally overcome her lagging poll numbers?
Last year, former Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper, announced his campaign to seek the Democratic nomination for president. His campaign was short-lived — it lasted less than six months — and most of those six months were spent asking Hickenlooper why he’d opted to join a crowded presidential field instead of challenging Cory Gardner in the state’s Senate race. A week after he ended his presidential campaign, Hickenlooper finally took everyone’s advice and announced his bid for the Senate.
It was always going to be tough for a Republican to hold this senate seat — after all, Hillary Clinton won the state in 2016 — but Gardner has not helped his cause. Though he feigns “bipartisanship” now, Gardner has voted 89 percent of the time with the president… a president whose approval ratings are perpetually underwater in Colorado. It’s like Gardner was struggling to stay afloat and then decided, “wow, let me grab onto this anvil, maybe that’ll help.”
It’s hard to imagine Gardner having the wherewithal to turn his sinking campaign around. Gardner’s support for the confirmation of new Supreme Court justice only further ties him to Trump, an issue that Hickenlooper was more than happy to attack him over.
Sometimes, it takes a while for the full scope of the harm caused by a legislator’s work to become fully known to the public. Unfortunately for Thom Tillis, the full scope of the harm caused by his work as Speaker of the NC House is becoming fully known just as he’s running for re-election to the US Senate. As Speaker, Tillis oversaw the implementation of a voter suppression bill that targeted “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” He also oversaw the overhaul of the state’s unemployment system, making draconian cuts to the number of weeks the jobless could collect benefits (from 26 weeks to just 12), slashing the maximum benefit (from $530 to $350) and building a system that was so woefully insufficient that only 1 in 10 claimants received benefits. It was always an awful system, but as a result of Tillis’ handiwork, North Carolina was one of the worst places in the country to experience the pandemic.
Throughout his career, Tillis has been a ferocious fundraiser — earning the fealty of Republican lawmakers by filling their campaign coffers — but in this race, Cunningham has managed to keep pace at first. But in the last two fundraising periods, the Democrat’s fundraising machine has shifted into overdrive, blowing past Tillis and producing back-to-back record breaking hauls. Without any support from PACs, Cunningham managed to take in a staggering $28.3M in the third quarter. That largely has gone to a robust TV campaign, touting Cunningham’s military service and attacking Tillis for standing in the way of accessible healthcare (both as Speaker and as a member of the Senate).
Two recent events threaten to upend the North Carolina Senate race: First, Tillis tested positive for the COVID, following his attendance at the White House superspreader event, sidelining him from campaigning for, at least, the next 10 days. Then, the opposition research dropped: text messages leaked suggesting — and subsequently confirming — that Cunningham engaged in an extramarital affair. Since the news broke, the Cunningham campaign has gone dark, leaving outside Republican groups to fill the vacuum with their innuendo. The impact that this will have on race is still TBD.
For a long time, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ advocacy group and political lobbying organization, tried to maintain a veneer of bipartisanship by endorsing a handful of Republicans. Among them? Susan Collins, the self-proclaimed moderate senior senator from Maine. In each of her first three Senate campaigns — in 2002, 2008 and 2014 — Collins earned the HRC’s endorsement even when her opponents performed better than her on the HRC’s own Congressional Scorecard.
But this year, the HRC stopped equivocating: endorsing Collins’ opponent, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, for Senate. Finally, the group was willing to admit that Collins’ milquetoast attempts to curry favor with the LGBT community — like being the lone Republican sponsor of the Equality Act — were insufficient if she was also going to support Mitch McConnell, who’s preventing the Equality Act from coming to the Senate floor for a vote. HRC’s president, Alphonso David, said Collins’ “endorsement of Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court and failure to hold Donald Trump accountable, is simply untenable.”
As polls in the state have tightened, though, with the latest poll giving Gideon just a one point edge. Collins’ early opposition to a vote on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement seems to have stemmed any immediate blowback so it’ll be interesting to see if that holds, as Senate Republicans push towards a confirmation. Also, a last-second coronavirus stimulus package — which the president both rejected and promised to deliver on Tuesday — could prove benefiicial to Collins.
Of the Democratic women running for Senate this year, Theresa Greenfield has, perhaps, garnered the least amount of attention; due in large part to who the other women are running against: MJ Hegar in Texas, Amy McGrath in Kentucky and Sara Gideon in New Hampshire have monopolized that conversation.
But while Greenfield’s race against first-term incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst might be flying under the radar, the Iowa Senate race has quitely become the second most expensive race in the country (behind North Carolina) and represents a great pick-up opportunity for the Democrats.
Iowa’s an increasingly challenging environment for Democrats but in Greenfield, a novice politician who works as a community planner, they found the ideal candidate. Like Ernst, Greenfield grew up on a farm in Iowa but, unlike Ernst, she hasn’t forgotten where she came from. When Greenfield was 24, her husband was killed at work and she and their kids were left to fend for themselves, surviving on her husband’s union benefits and Social Security. Greenfield’s entire run is predicated on keeping the social safety net — the same one that kept her family out of poverty — in tact for Iowa families; Ernst, on the other hand, has spent her six years in Washington trying to undo that safety net. It’s clear that Greenfield’s attacks on Ernst’s record have struck a chord with Iowa voters because after proudly proclaiming six years ago that she wanted to repeal Obamacare, Ernst joined a group of beleagured Republican senators in voting for a bill opposing the administration’s support of a Supreme Court challenge to the Affordable Care Act.
Her shift, however slight, on Obamacare, reflects an Ernst that just isn’t the independent voice she claimed she’d been when she ran back in 2014. She’s sided with the president, 90% of the time, and like him, is prone to repeating baseless conspiracy theories she reads on the Internet. That this race, in a favorable environment for Ernst, is a toss-up speaks volumes about these women and their candidacies.
THE TOSS UPS
Like John Hickenlooper, when Gov. Steve Bullock announced his campaign for the presidency he was met with a resounding cry: “why don’t you just run for Senate?” It made sense: the only Democrat to win statewide office in a state that voted for Trump in 2016. After a seven-month presidential run and three months of prodding from Democratic leadership, Bullock listened and announced his intent to challenge incumbent Sen. Steve Daines. The two-term governor instantly turned the race into a dogfight.
Of all the Senate races, Montana’s probably the one being the most impacted by the coronavirus response. On the one hand, there’s the federal response which threatens to be an albatross around Daines, an unrelenting Trump defender. But on the other hand, there’s Steve Bullock, the sitting governor, whose handling of the coronavirus in the state has led to the highest approval ratings of his career.
Lindsey Graham has won each of his re-election bids handily — by 15% in 2008 and 2014 — and came into the 2020 race, expecting to repeat his past success. He wasn’t worried about fundraising and the possibility that he’d lose was such a ridiculous proposition, he likely didn’t even entertain the notion. But Jaime Harrison was thinking about all those things… while Graham was golfing with the president, Harrison was putting in work: building the biggest Senate campaign South Carolina has ever seen. And lest you think the polls are inflating Harrison’s viability in South Carolina, look to Graham’s recent appearances on Fox News, where he’s literally begging for supporters to send him money. Lindsey Graham is in trouble and he knows it.
Graham, clearly, believes that pushing through the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett will save his candidacy but, as Harrison showed in their recent debate, even the consideration of Barrett’s nomination just proves how untrustworthy Lindsey Graham is.
* In the spirit of full disclosure: I previously worked for an education non-profit where South Carolina Senate candidate, Jaime Harrison, was a board member.
Back in 2017, after Tom Price was confirmed as the Trump administration’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, there was a special election held to fill his seat in the House. Republicans were widely favored to fill the seat once held by Newt Gingrich so it left the race wide open for Jon Ossoff, a Congressional aide turned investigative journalist/film producer. With Democrats still smarting from the loss in the presidential race, the GA-06 race offered the Party an opportunity for redemption. Ossoff would, of course, go on to lose that race, but the voters he registered and the enthusiasm he created sustained itself and created fertile ground for Lucy McBath’s successful run in 2018. Sometimes even the most heartbreaking political losses yield some silver linings.
The same, I think, is true of the Stacey Abrams run in 2018. A tough “loss,” to be sure, but much like Ossoff did with his House race in 2017, I think it’s laid the foundation for a real sea change in Georgia politics. People are registered and they’re engaged… and coupled with the president dragging down Republicans with suburban women, there’s real potential to see Georgia turn purple… or even a bright shade of blue.
And lest you doubt the progress that Ossoff has made in making that a reality, just watch his opponent, Sen. David Perdue, and his attempts to rebrand himself less than a month before the election. Instead of touting the fact that he voted with the president 95% of the time, Perdue’s on the stump claiming to be a “bipartisan problem solver.” Good luck with that.
RCP Average: Warnock, +2.5
538 Forecast: Republican, 76-24
This summer, as people took to the streets to protects the extrajudicial killings of George Floyd, Breona Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Kelly Loeffler found “her voice.” The incumbent senator who was facing a strong challenge from her right from Rep. Doug Collins (GA-9) and from her left from Rev. Raphael Warnock, began to speak out fervently about the protests, chastising Black Lives Matter protesters and spewing racist bile. What’s worse: I’m not even sure Loeffler means any of it… I think she desperately wants to win this Senate race and was willing to sink to the lowest of lows to accomplish that.
Loeffler’s plan seems pretty clear: first, to draw the ire of the left and boost her standing with conservatives and Trump supporters, in particular… which would allow her to outflank Collins on the right. Her second goal was to draw more progressive attention to the race and have the left coalesce around one candidate. That would allow that Democrat (Warnock, in this case) to leapfrog a weakened Collins and advance to the potential January runoff… and, undoubtedly, Loeffler feels better about her chances of beating Warnock in a one-on-one race than Collins. It’s a dastardly plan that plays to our basest instincts but, sadly, it’s working.
The thing that Loeffler’s plan doesn’t anticipate, however, are the changing demographics of Georgia and how the electorate’s been reshaped by Stacey Abrams. She didn’t anticipate what’s happening in the Perdue/Ossoff race or how that landscape might impact her run-off in January. Loeffler seems to think she can just cross that bridge when she gets to it but by then, it may be too late.
I should note, for the record, there are multiple non-Republican candidates in this race, including Matt Lieberman, the son of former Sen. Joe Lieberman, and former US Attorney Ed Tarver. While they’ll be on the ballot, I don’t view them as viable candidates to win this Senate seat.
Politically, most folks know Texas as a deep red state but that’s not truly the case; Texas is a voter suppression state and that, more than anything directs the state’s political fate. We’ve already seen evidence of it this year: last week, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order limiting counties to one location for ballot drop-offs and permitting poll watchers to observe the process. Today, the Republican majority on the Texas Supreme Court prohibited the state’s largest county from sending absentee ballot request forms to registered voters.
But, nevertheless, they persist: this year Texas added 1.5 million new voters to the rolls. If MJ Hegar can harness those new voters and they’re able to overcome the roadblocks Texas Republicans place in front of them, there’s evidence that Texas could turn that dark shade of purple it’s always truly been.
At the root of Gross’ gaining support is a uniquely Alaskan scandal: in 2014, the Obama administration shelved an effort to create a massive open-pit copper mine in the Southwest Alaska (known as Pebble Mine), over Sullivan’s objections. The Trump administration resurrected the proposal and, unsurprisingly, put the plan on fast-track to approval. As opposition to the proposal has grown more fervent — nearly two-thirds of Alaskans are opposed to Pebble Mine — Sullivan’s changed his tune publicly on the proposal, becoming increasingly critical. But while he was telling one thing to Alaskans, Sullivan was telling the CEOs behind Pebble Mind that he had their support and accepted their political contributions.
We’re just starting to see the fallout from this scandal but if the latest polls are any indication, Democrats could pick up an unanticipated win.