The door isn’t closed on President Donald Trump’s reelection, but time is running short.
Labor Day once marked the start of concerted general-election campaigning, but it comes with a far greater sense of urgency this year for Trump. Because of coronavirus-related changes in election administration across the country, more Americans than ever are expected to cast their ballots early this year, whether by mail or in person.
And Trump, who didn’t get the election-changing convention bounce he hoped for, still trails Joe Biden by a significant margin among voters nationally — and by varying, but mostly smaller, gaps in many of the key battleground states. The latest updates to POLITICO’s Election Forecast point to a relatively stable political environment, and that’s not what the president needs.
Even as turbulence pervades the news around politics, Biden is still staked to a lead and favored to win the presidency, as more than half a million absentee ballots were dropped in the mail last week in North Carolina and Minnesota prepares to open in-person early voting at the end of next week. Biden’s edge is not overwhelming, though, given Trump’s advantages in the Electoral College.
Meanwhile, the battle for the Senate is as tight as ever, with both parties fighting over a handful of hotly contested seats that will tilt what is likely to be a narrow majority for either side, even as Democrats could strengthen their already tight grasp on the House.
Presidential: Lean Democratic
Biden remains the favorite to be sworn in as the nation’s 46th president next January, but the swing-state battlefield is still up for grabs. There are still enough electoral votes in the four states rated as toss-ups — Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin — to tilt the race one way or the other.
But Biden’s edge comes from two states Trump carried in 2016, Michigan and Pennsylvania, leaning towards him along with other traditional battlegrounds, like Nevada and New Hampshire, which Hillary Clinton won. Minnesota also remains in the “Lean Democratic” category, though both campaigns are playing heavily there. Polls also show tight races in states like Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas, but those states are still leaning in Trump’s column — for now.
Two long-time battleground states, Colorado and Virginia, are almost entirely off the board for Trump. He is barely contesting the combined 22 electoral votes from both states, while Biden has booked a nominal amount of TV advertising for the final stretch just to be safe. Colorado and Virginia have moved from “Lean Democratic” to “Likely Democratic.”
And while polls currently point to a Biden victory that would be short of a landslide — Biden’s lead is slightly smaller than it was two months ago, when the forecast was last updated — a bigger Biden win that would expand the electoral map is still possible. Alaska and Montana, two Republican-leaning, idiosyncratic states, moved from “Solid Republican” to “Likely Republican,” as public and private polling shows the president underperforming his 2016 margins there.
Senate: Toss Up
Control of the Senate remains firmly up for grabs. Republicans currently hold 53 seats, plus the vice presidency.
If Biden and Kamala Harris win the November election, Democrats would have to flip a net of three seats to wrest away the gavel from Republicans. The GOP can pad its majority by an additional seat by ousting Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama; Jones’ race has been rated “Lean Republican” since the forecast debuted late last year.
Defeat in Alabama would put Democrats four seats away from the majority, but two GOP-held seats are now leaning in their direction. Colorado has joined Arizona in the “Lean Democratic” category: Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Democratic nominee, is consistently ahead of first-term GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, who is being weighed down by the president’s poor poll numbers in the increasingly blue state.
There are four toss-up races, all currently held by Republicans — Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina — and the party that wins the majority of them should control the chamber next year. Of the four, North Carolina is the most promising for Democrats, as the party’s nominee, Cal Cunningham, is leading GOP Sen. Thom Tillis in most polls.
In Maine, Democratic state House Speaker Sara Gideon has a narrow lead in public polling averages over long-time GOP Sen. Susan Collins, though Republicans are confident Collins’ independent image with Mainers isn’t a thing of the past, allowing her to win a fifth term. Iowa and Montana are considered a little stronger for Republicans, though Democrats are investing heavily in both races.
After that, Democrats have other options in races currently rated as “Lean Republican,” though they must overcome GOP advantages with less than two months to go. The two seats up in Georgia, where GOP Sen. David Perdue is sharing the ballot with a special election for the other seat, could end up in January runoffs if no candidate wins a majority in either race. Democratic candidates have struggled historically in those post-election runoffs, which Democrats criticize as vestiges of Jim Crow-era election rules in Southern states.
Joining the list of “Lean Republican” states are Kansas and South Carolina. In Kansas, the top national GOP super PAC is spending more than $5 million over the next four weeks to prop up the party’s candidate, GOP Rep. Roger Marshall, against state Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Republican-turned-Democrat who has excelled at fundraising. National Democrats haven’t fully engaged here, though perhaps they would have if the controversial Kris Kobach had won last month’s GOP primary. As it stands, the Democratic Party has remained focused strictly on the core battleground.
Similarly, neither party has dipped into South Carolina — but that’s because they don’t have to. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democrat Jaime Harrison have been two of their parties’ best fundraisers and won’t require any kind of outside intervention. Polls show Graham only narrowly ahead of Harrison, warranting a move to “Lean Republican.”
Meanwhile, Republicans aren’t content with Alabama as their only offensive opportunity. They are mounting a renewed charge to put Michigan — where first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters faces GOP repeat candidate John James — at the center of the map. But Peters still retains an advantage, keeping the race in “Lean Democratic.”
House: Likely Democratic
Democrats have fortified their House majority, benefiting from both from a national environment that resembles the 2018 midterm wave and strong fundraising from battleground incumbents in their 233-seat caucus.
In the current forecast, 217 seats are currently rated as “Solid,” “Likely” or “Lean Democratic” — right on the cusp of the 218 needed to win a majority.
Of the 26 seats moving in the latest forecast, 23 of them are towards Democrats. The list includes three House Democratic freshmen whose reelection bids moved from “Toss Up” races into the “Lean Democratic” category: Reps. Gil Cisneros in Orange County, Calif.; Lucy McBath in suburban Atlanta; and Elissa Slotkin in Michigan.
Meanwhile, six GOP-held seats moved from “Lean Republican” to “Toss Up”: Rep. David Schweikert’s seat near Phoenix; an open seat in the Indianapolis suburbs; Rep. Don Bacon’s Omaha, Neb.-based seat; party-switching Rep. Jeff Van Drew’s South Jersey district; an open seat on the South Shore of Long Island; and Rep. John Katko’s competitive seat near Syracuse, N.Y.
There are some bright spots for Republicans: Freshman Democratic Rep. Debbie Murcasel-Powell’s South Florida district and an open seat in Southeast Iowa moved from “Lean Democratic” to “Toss Up,” as both parties see close races in those places. Trump carried the Iowa district, which is being vacated by retiring Rep. Dave Loebsack. Murcasel-Powell’s district went heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but Trump’s improving numbers in South Florida have improved the party’s outlook here, as has the strong Republican recruit, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
The biggest prize of the 2020 gubernatorial landscape remains North Carolina, where despite tight races for president and Senate, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper remains ahead of his GOP challenger, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.
Despite Cooper’s high approval ratings on his handling of the coronavirus — 65 percent of voters said he was doing a good job in a Monmouth University poll last week, compared to 31 percent who said he was doing a bad job — Forest has been a harsh critic of the governor’s containment policies, calling them too restrictive. In a new ad that began airing this week, Forest pledged to open schools in the state, which are either conducting remote instruction, or a hybrid with some in-person attendance.
Forest’s strategy isn’t redounding to his benefit at the moment: He was trailing Cooper by roughly 10 points in the Monmouth poll.
Elsewhere, the most hotly contested races — based on where the parties are investing their resources — are in Missouri and Montana, with both currently rated as “Lean Republican.” In Missouri, Democrats are hopeful that state Auditor Nicole Galloway can unseat GOP Gov. Mike Parson.
Democrats are defending the governor’s mansion in Montana, with Gov. Steve Bullock term-limited and running for Senate. Republicans nominated the man Bullock defeated in 2016, now-Rep. Greg Gianforte, while the Democratic candidate is Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney. Bullock, Cooney and Democratic congressional nominee Kathleen Williams are all seeking to overcome that state’s GOP orientation at the presidential level, even though Trump is underperforming his 2016 numbers at present.
One state where Republicans are in a stronger position: Vermont. Despite the state’s bright-blue presidential outlook, GOP Gov. Phil Scott is well-positioned to win a third two-year term against Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, a member of the Progressive Party who won the Democratic primary this summer. The race moved from “Lean Republican” to “Likely Republican.”