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Ratings change: Senate races shift toward Democrats

Gardner now an underdog, Shaheen safer, Collins more at risk

While coronavirus news is rightfully saturating the headlines, the 2020 elections are going to happen this fall and will arguably be more important than ever.

Even though most attention is focused on President Donald Trump, his White House’s response to COVID-19, and his reelection, the Senate majority remains firmly in play. Race rating changes in Colorado, Maine and New Hampshire — all toward Democrats — further solidify the Senate battlefield.

Some Republicans believe GOP senators could see a boost from the coronavirus crisis because it’s an opportunity to demonstrate tangible work being done by Congress, including dispersing cash. Only time (and future polling) will tell whether that scenario is playing out. It’s more likely that the most competitive Senate races are influenced by the voter sentiment toward the president, including his handling of the crisis.

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GOP Sen. Cory Gardner should be regarded as an underdog in Colorado, where the race has moved to Tilts Democratic from Toss-up. Republicans are confident they have the better candidate in the likely general election matchup between the senator and former Denver mayor/former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, but the numbers are working against Gardner.

He’s been trailing Hickenlooper for months, and it will be difficult for him to climb back with the state’s political lean working against him. Trump lost Colorado by 5 points in 2016, and he’ll likely struggle there again. Gardner can win this race but to continue rating it a Toss-up would be overstating his chances of winning a second term.

Gardner isn’t the first incumbent this cycle to be deemed an underdog. After his special election victory, Alabama Democrat Doug Jones faces a difficult election for a full term in a state Trump won by more than 25 points. His race has been rated Leans Republican since Inside Electionsinitial ratings for the cycle in January 2019.

In recent years, other incumbents have headed into Election Day as underdogs.

The Rothenberg Political Report shifted the Arkansas Senate race from Toss-up to Tilts Republican in December 2013. Democratic incumbent Mark Pryor lost reelection by 17 points. The Illinois Senate race went from Toss-up to Tilts Democratic in May 2015 and to Leans Democratic in May 2016. Republican Sen. Mark S. Kirk lost reelection by 15 points. And last cycle, the North Dakota Senate race shifted from Toss-up to Tilts Republican in July 2018. Four months later, Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp lost by 11 points.

Colorado is a more competitive state than Arkansas, Illinois and North Dakota were in those cycles, but that doesn’t mean Gardner is on even footing.

Collins a Toss-up

In Maine, Republican Susan Collins is in the middle of the most difficult Senate race of her career. Her personal and job approval ratings continue to deteriorate, and her advantage in ballot tests against Democratic state House Speaker Sara Gideon is slipping as well. Collins has disposed of credible candidates in the past, but this race will be more challenging. The Maine Senate race is now rated a Toss-up from Tilts Republican.

The New Hampshire Senate race is now rated Solid Democratic after having been Likely Democratic, leaving Republicans defending 10 of the 12 most competitive Senate seats in the country. That discrepancy is part of the reason why Democrats are within striking distance of the net gain of four seats they need for a majority. Democrats could also control the Senate by gaining three seats and winning the presidential race.

Even though Hillary Clinton carried the Granite State by less than one half of 1 percentage point in 2016, there’s little indication Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is in all that much trouble. Republicans have struggled to find a credible challenger to the senior senator, and even if they do unearth someone, there would still be a September primary, which would leave little time for the GOP to focus on Shaheen. Republicans would need Trump to win New Hampshire by a convincing margin to defeat her.

With seven months to go before Election Day, there’s still time for the races and the fight for the Senate to develop, particularly when it could be the beginning stages of a global crisis. Even if voters don’t blame Trump for the pandemic or fault his response, a weak economy would leave independent voters without a reason to overlook the president’s tweets and personal style. That would make it more difficult for Trump to recreate his 2016 victory and put pressure on GOP senators who need to outrun the president to win reelection.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

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