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Decision 2020: 14 Southern U.S. Senate seats on November ballot, with 4 possible flips

Races in North Carolina, Alabama on national radar; Lindsey Graham faces stiff challenge in South Carolina

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

Fourteen Southern U.S. Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, putting half of the South’s seats in play with control of the chamber very much up for grabs.

Of these seats, one presents a likely pickup opportunity for Republicans, while three Republican incumbents are facing stiff challenges. Three other seats are somewhat competitive but with incumbents still favored, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s race in Kentucky.

Five senators — four Republicans and one Democrat — are cruising toward re-election, with Republicans also likely to keep an open seat in Tennessee. A special election in Georgia with candidates from both parties running in the same race is a wild card that will be difficult to predict — and could potentially decide which part controls the Senate when the dust clears.

Here is your guide to the 2020 Southern Senate races.

Possible Flips

1. Alabama: U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D) vs. Tommy Tuberville (R)

Jones has had a target on his back since he won a special election in 2017 over Republican Roy Moore, whose candidacy imploded in a sex scandal. Jones was the first Democrat elected to a Senate seat in the Yellowhammer State since 1992; his vote to convict President Donald Trump in his impeachment trial has put his continued tenure in jeopardy. Tuberville, the former head football coach at Auburn University, is making his political debut, impressively taking out a field of prominent Republicans in the primary, including Jeff Sessions, who held this seat for 20 years before leaving to join the Trump administration. If Jones somehow manages to hang on, it will be perhaps the biggest surprise on election night.

2. North Carolina: U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R) vs.  Cal Cunningham (D)

Cunningham, an attorney who served a single term in the legislature 20 years ago and made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2010, was recruited by Democratic leaders in Washington to run against Tillis, who is seeking a second term after ousting former Democratic Senator Kay Hagin in 2014. This seat was once held by Jesse Helms, and no one has managed to win a second term since he gave it up in 2002. Cunningham has raised $15 million, slightly more than Tillis, and has led consistently in polls. The outcome of the presidential race in this battleground state may be key here. If Donald Trump wins, Tillis is likely to keep his seat as well; if he doesn’t, Cunningham will be in the driver’s seat.

3. South Carolina: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R) vs. Jaime Harrison (D)

Over the past four years, Graham has become one of Trump’s biggest cheerleaders, after spending much of the 2016 campaign trashing him. That about-face spared him from the kind of primary challenge he had to beat back in 2014, but Harrison, a former state Democratic party chair, is hoping Graham’s association with the president will turn off enough Palmetto State voters to put him over the top. Harrison has raised a staggering $30 million — an unheard of sum for a Democrat in South Carolina — to stay even with the incumbent in the money chase. While polling shows the race is competitive, Trump is expected to carry the state, and the universe of Trump-Harrison voters may be too small to flip this seat.

4. Georgia: U.S Senator David Perdue (R) vs. Jon Ossoff (D)

It’s been a long time since Georgia has been competitive in a presidential or senatorial contest, but polling has shown Ossoff within striking distance of Perdue, who is seeking a second term. Ossoff built a national profile by raising more than $30 million for a special U.S. House election in 2017 that he narrowly lost. He hasn’t raised anywhere near that kind of money this time around, and Perdue enjoys a 2-to-1 fundraising advantage. Democrats insist that the Peach State’s changing demographics and an influx of newly energized, newly registered Democratic voters will lead to victory for Ossoff and Democratic nominee Joe Biden; Republicans scoff at such a scenario as delusional. If Biden makes a serious play for Georgia, it could help Ossoff; if Biden wins, Perdue will need to run ahead of Trump to survive.

Less Competitive

1. Texas: U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R) vs. MJ Hegar (D)

Democrats had high hopes for flipping this seat, particularly after Beto O’Rourke nearly took out Ted Cruz in 2018. But O’Rourke passed on the Senate race to make a quixotic bid for president, and Hegar, a former military chopper pilot and Afghan war veteran who lost a House race in 2018, had to spend time and money fighting her way through a primary runoff. Cornyn entered the fall campaign with the benefit of incumbency and a huge financial advantage, in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1988. This could turn out to be a might-have-been race for Democrats — what might have been if O’Rouke had run instead.

2. Kentucky: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) vs. Amy McGrath (D)

Democratic leaders recruited McGrath for this race, enthused by her prodigious fundraising during an unsuccessful House race in 2018. But running against McConnell in Kentucky is a tall order, and she has not always seemed up to the task. Her campaign had an unsteady launch when she flipped positions on confirming Brett Kavanaugh, and she very nearly lost the Democratic primary after mishandling her response to racial justice protests that have roiled Louisville. After an uneven campaign, she decided change campaign managers in August, which is never a good sign. There’s a reason Mitch McConnell has been a senator since 1985 — he is perhaps the wiliest politician of his generation. His tenure in Washington seems likely to endure.

3. Mississippi: U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) vs. former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy (D)

This race is a rematch of 2018, when Hyde-Smith beat Espy by 8 points in a special election runoff, running nearly 10 points behind what Trump did in 2016. Espy was encouraged enough by his showing to try to take her down again, hoping that the energy unleashed by social justice protests will galvanize black voters, who make up 37percent of the state’s electorate, the highest percentage in the country. However, if he couldn’t beat Hyde-Smith in a lower turnout midterm election, beating her with the presidential election on the ballot, in a very pro-Trump state, is likely to be a tall order.

Wild Card

Georgia: U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler (R) vs. U.S. Rep. Doug Collins (R), Raphael Warnock (D) and Matt Lieberman (D)

In this special election to fill the seat vacated by Johnny Isakson, candidates from all parties run in the same race, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a December runoff. Loeffler is trying to keep this seat after being appointed to the post by Gov. Brian Kemp, who opted to pick the political newcomer instead of Collins, one of Trump’s biggest champions in the House. Collins defied the governor to run against Loeffler, splitting Peach State Republicans into two camps.

On the Democratic side, Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has drawn support from the party establishment who see him as the best option to win the seat. But Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman, has resisted pressure to leave the race in favor of Warnock, and polls have shown him remaining competitive. If Warnock and Lieberman split the Democratic vote, it could clear the way for both Loeffler and Collins to meet in an all-GOP second round. If one Republican and one Democrat get through, the outcome of the race is likely to depend on who those two candidates are.

Shoo-Ins

Arkansas: U.S. Senator Tom Cotton (R) faces no Democratic competition after the lone Democrat who qualified abruptly left the race. The only person standing between Cotton and re-election is Libertarian Ricky Harrington.

Tennessee: Republican Bill Hagerty, the former U.S. ambassador to Japan, has a much easier path to Washington after the Democrat recruited and financed by party leaders to challenge for the seat lost his primary. He will now face Marquita Bradshaw, an environmental activist from Memphis who harnessed grassroots support to win the primary.

West Virginia: U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito (R) is not expected to have much trouble against Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin, an environmental activist who gained national exposure when her 2018 race against the state’s other U.S. senator, Joe Manchin, was featured in the Netflix documentary “Knock Down The House.”

Oklahoma: If U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R), as expected, wins a fifth full term over Democrat Abby Broyles, he will be 92 when this term ends in 2026. Broyles, a former TV reporter in Oklahoma City, has run a spirited campaign in which she’s needled the senator for refusing to debate her.

Virginia: Giving the Old Dominion’s increasingly Democratic tilt, U.S. Senator Mark Warner (D) is a clear favorite over Republican Daniel Gade, a former Army officer who was wounded in Iraq and now teaches at American University in Washington.

Louisiana: U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy (R) is competing in a jungle primary in November and will face a runoff in December if he doesn’t clear 50%. He avoided any major Republican opposition; the biggest Democratic name in the race is Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins.

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Ebenezer Baptist pastor Raphael Warnock enters Georgia U.S. Senate special election

Warnock gets an early boost from Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost a governor’s race in 2018

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com

ATLANTA — Atlanta pastor Ralphael Warnock, who holds the historic pulpit where both Martin Luther King Jr. and his father preached, has entered the special election race for a U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, giving Democrats a high-profile candidate for a seat they have high hopes of flipping.

“I’ve committed my whole life to service and helping people realize their highest potential,” he said in a video announcing his campaign. “I’ve always thought that my impact doesn’t stop at the church door — that’s actually where it starts.”

U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia

Warnock’s campaign launch came with a full-throated endorsement from Stacey Abrams, who energized Democrats nationally in a unsuccessful race for governor in 2018.

“Wherever there is need, Reverend Warnock can be found on the front lines,” Abrams said in a letter sent to her supporters. “And that’s where we need him at this moment. On the front lines of the battle for the soul of America.”

Since 2005, Warnock has been senior pastor at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, from which King helped lead the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The Senate race is his first run for political office.

Loeffler was appointed to the Senate seat in December by Governor Brian Kemp to replace Republican Johnny Isakson, who retired due to ill health. Georgia voters will decide in November who fills the remaining two years of Isakson’s term; candidates from all parties will run in a special election, with the top two voter-getters facing each other in a runoff if no one gets a majority.

Warnock’s entry into the race further complicates Loeffler’s effort to hold the seat. She is already facing an intra-party challenge from U.S. Rep. Doug Colllins, who was passed over by Kemp when he filled the Senate vacancy.

Four other candidates will be competing with Warnock for Democratic votes: Matt Lieberman, a businessman from Cobb County and son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman; Ed Tarver, a former state senator and federal prosecutor from Augusta; Richard Winfield, a philosophy professor at the University of Georgia; and Tamara Johnson-Shealey, a nail salon owner and law student from DeKalb County.

The next wrinkle in the Senate race may take place in the Georgia legislature, where Collins supporters — with the backing of Democrats — are trying to push through a change in state law to hold party primaries instead of an all-parties special election, setting up a one-on-one match-up between Collins and Loeffler in a Republican-only electorate.

The change would also ensure that a Democrat would get a clean shot at either Loeffler or Collins, rather than battling them both.

Kemp has threatened to veto the bill. However, House Democrats have indicated they may support the change, which could create a veto-proof majority with just 45 out of the 104 Republicans in the House.

Georgia’s other Senate seat, held by Republican David Perdue, is also up in 2020. And while Georgians haven’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since 2000, the two Georgia seats could be key to Democrat’s hopes of overturning the GOP’s three-seat majority.

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Georgia U.S. Rep. Doug Collins gets into U.S. Senate race, igniting GOP squabble

Trump champion will challenge Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat in December

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

ATLANTA (CFP) — Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Colllins, one of President Donald Trump’s staunchest defenders in Congress, will run in a November special election against the state’s newly minted U.S. senator, Kelly Loeffler, defying the man who appointed her, Governor Brian Kemp, and triggering an intra-party squabble with potential implications for Senate control.

“We’re getting ready for a good time down here to keep defending this president, keep him working for the people of Georgia,” Collins said in a Wednesday morning appearance on “Fox & Friends” where he confirmed his candidacy. “We just need to have a process that let’s the people decide. Let them choose for themselves how they want to see this vision.”

In December, Kemp appointed Loeffler, a wealthy Atlanta business executive who had not previously held political office, to the seat vacated by veteran Republican Johnny Isakson, rebuffing furious lobbying by conservatives who preferred Collins, a Gainesville Republican serving his fourth term in the House who has led the charge against Trump’s impeachment as ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Georgia, announces Senate bid on “Fox & Friends” (From Fox News Channel)

The question that will now hang over the race is whether Trump will buck Kemp and the Senate Republican establishment and endorse Collins over Loeffler, the incumbent. The president was reportedly cool to Loeffler’s appointment before it was made, although he has since singled her out for praise.

Asked if he expected Trump’s support, Collins said, “I think that’s up the president.”

Even with Trump’s support, Collins will have to battle against what is likely to be Loeffler’s significant financial advantage. He starts the race with less than $1.4 million in his campaign account, while she is expected to tap $20 million from her own fortune for the campaign.

Collins decision to run against Loeffler immediate drew fire from the Senate Republicans’ campaign organization and a political action committee allied with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“The shortsightedness in this decision is stunning,” said Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a statement. “Doug Collins’ selfishness will hurt (Georgia U.S. Senator) David Perdue, Kelly Loeffler, and President Trump. Not to mention the people of Georgia who stand to bear the burden of it for years to come. All he has done is put two senate seats, multiple house seats, and Georgia’s 16 electoral votes in play.”

“It’s so selfish of Doug Collins to be promoting himself when President Trump needs a unified team and Senator Loeffler is such a warrior for the President,” said Steven Law, president of the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, in a statement. “As we’ve said before, Senator Loeffler is an outsider like Trump, not just another D.C. politician. We’ll have her back if she needs us.”

Collins fired right back on Twitter, employing one of Trump’s favorite phrases to deride McLaughlin’s comments: “This is FAKE NEWS coming from the head of a Washington-based group whose bylaws require him to support all incumbents, even unelected ones.”

In addition to Loeffler’s seat, Perdue is also up for election in 2020. The two Republican-held seats in Georgia will be key in Democratic efforts to overturn the GOP’s three-seat Senate majority.

The next act in the Collins-Loeffler race may take place in the Georgia legislature, where Collins supporters — with the backing of Democrats — may try to change the rules governing the November special election to his advantage.

As state law now stands, candidates from all parties will run in November, with the top two vote-getters advancing to a runoff if no one gets a majority. However, some Republicans in the House, with the support of Speaker David Ralston, are pushing to create regular party primaries for seat, which would set up a one-on-one match-up between Collins and Loeffler in a Republican-only electorate.

Kemp has threatened to veto the bill. However, House Democrats have indicated they may support the change, which could create a veto-proof majority with just 45 out of the 104 Republicans in the House.

In addition to possibly helping Collins, a party primary would ensure that a Democrat would get a clean shot at either Loeffler or Collins, rather than battling them both.

Democrats, not surprisingly, were gleeful about Collins’s decision to enter the race and upset Kemp’s best-laid plans.

“This expensive, protracted brawl — already playing out on the front page — will force unelected mega-donor Senator Loeffler and Trump ally Congressman Collins into a race to the right that reveals just how out-of-touch both are with Georgia voters,” said Helen Kalla, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in a statement.

Four Democrats have already gotten into the race against Loeffler, including Matt Lieberman, a businessman from Cobb County and son of former Connecticut U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman; Ed Tarver, a former state senator and federal prosecutor from Augusta; Richard Winfield, a philosophy professor at the University of Georgia; and Tamara Johnson-Shealey, a nail salon owner and law student from DeKalb County.

Raphael Warnock, the high-profile senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, is also expected to join the race.

Collins, 53, was a lawyer and Baptist pastor before being elected to Congress in 2012. He is also a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force reserves.

His 9th District, which covers the state’s northeastern corner, is heavily Republican and is likely to stay in GOP hands after his departure, though his pursuit of the Senate will likely trigger a competitive primary in the five weeks remaining before the filing deadline.

Before being appointed to the Senate, Loeffler, 49, worked as an executive at Intercontinental Exchange, the parent company of the New York Stock Exchange; she is married to Jeffrey Sprecher, the company’s founder and CEO.

Loeffler is also co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, which she purchased with a partner in 2010.

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