WASHINGTON — No matter who wins the presidential election, the success of either Donald Trump or Joe Biden in getting an agenda through Congress will depend on a handful of other races on Nov. 3: The battle for control of the Senate.
The outcome of about 10 close Senate races will determine if Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will continue his reign as majority leader or if Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) will become the new leader.
"The presidential race is dominating just about everything, but as far as I'm concerned, the more important of the two is the Senate races," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid when he was the Senate majority leader.
Because the stakes are so high, hotly contested Senate campaigns are breaking records in raising and spending tens of millions of dollars, particularly by Democratic challengers to incumbent Republicans, resulting in more political television ads than ever before.
If Biden defeats Trump, for example, he could have a much better chance of getting his priorities passed if Democrats win the Senate majority and if as expected they retain the House majority. Biden would be stymied if Republicans keep their control of the Senate.
Similarly, Trump in a second term would be stymied by a Democratic-controlled Senate and House, which would pass legislation he can only stop with a veto. But Trump would get support from a Republican Senate, which would continue to block Democratic House bills.
And the party that controls the Senate would be able to further shape the Supreme Court, either by confirming or blocking nominees for as many as two potential vacancies or by restructuring the high court to expand the number of justices or end their lifetime appointments.
Republicans now control the Senate with 53 members. The Democratic caucus has 47. Democrats need a net four wins to gain control of the Senate, or a net three victories if Biden wins, enabling a Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the tiebreaker in a 50-50 vote.
Yet Republicans find themselves on the defensive.
Just 12 Democrats are up for reelection, and only two of them look vulnerable: Alabama Sen. Doug Jones trails in the polls and, unlike six years ago, he is not running against a compromised Republican. Michigan Sen. Gary Peters faces a tough race, though polls show him in the lead.
Republicans, however, have 23 of the Senate seats they now hold on the ballot. Veteran political analyst Charlie Cook rates 10 of those races as toss ups or leaning toward Democratic candidates. Polls of likely voters show a similar pattern.
Democrats say they have expanded the map for Democratic challengers.
Pundits and polls point to softer than expected support for Texas Sen. John Cornyn and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. Reliably Republican Kansas has a competitive race for an open seat. Both of Georgia’s Senate seats are in play in a regular election and a special election. There’s a possibility one or both seats could be determined in a January runoff.
Of those contests, the most-watched and closest races include Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana and North Carolina.
Here’s a rundown of those key contests, with dollar amounts raised through Sept. 30 according to the nonpartisan and nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. which tracks money in politics.
Arizona: Democrat Mark Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, has a lead that’s outside the margin of error in polls of likely voters in his challenge to Republican Sen. Martha McSally, a former two-term congresswoman appointed to replace the late Sen. John McCain in 2018. Kelly has outraised McSally $82 million to $50 million. Handicappers say the race leans to Democrats.
Colorado: Democrat John Hickenlooper, the state’s former two-term governor, has a big lead among likely voters, polls say, in his race against Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, a former state legislator and congressman who is seeking a second term. Hickenlooper, who has raised $36 million to Gardner’s $25 million, is favored to win.
Iowa: First term Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield are in a tight race — considered too close to call — with two recent polls showing Ernst ahead after several other polls had Greenfield in the lead. Greenfield has raised about $40 million, almost twice what Ernst has collected.
Maine: Republican Sen. Susan Collins, whose vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh stirred opposition, faces a tough race for a fifth term against Democrat Sara Gideon, speaker of Maine’s House. Local polls of likely voters give Gideon the edge, but handicappers waver between toss up and a lean Democrat rating. Gideon has raised $63 million, Collins $25 million.
Montana: Republican Sen. Steve Daines holds a slight lead, which falls within the margin of error, among likely voters over Democrat Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana. The race is rated a tossup with a lean to Daines. Bullock raised $37 million, Daines $25 million.
North Carolina: After news of an affair and sexting with a campaign worker, Democrat Cal Cunningham still clings to a slight lead over first- term Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. But the race is considered a tossup. Cunningham has raised $42 million, twice as much as Tillis.