US election: will the Republicans or Democrats win the Senate?

Donald Trump’s unpopularity threatens to loosen the Republicans’ tight grip on the upper house

A man walks past the US Senate on Capitol Hill, Washington
Democrats hopes of winning the all-important upper house fade as Biden nears victory in battle for White House

With Joe Biden leading the race to secure the White House, Democrats are daring to dream that their party might also take control of the Senate.

And given that the Democrats are likely to maintain their majority in the House of Representatives, victory in the Senate would give a Biden administration unusual scope to act within the US system of checks and balances.

Why it matters

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The Senate has broad powers to frustrate a US president by refusing to enact his agenda, leading to the kind of legislative stalemate that characterised the latter years of Barack Obama’s time in office.

“The stakes are high,” says NBC News. “The party that controls the Senate will have power over the next president’s legislative agenda, cabinet officials and judicial appointments.”

Only if the Democrats win both houses of Congress as well as the White House would President Biden “have a chance to push through legislative priorities on everything from healthcare to climate change to pandemic stimulus without Republican obstruction”, adds the Financial Times.

A tightening race

Republicans currently hold 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats, and until recent months had been expected to see off the Democrats in next’s month election.

But now, amid growing anger over Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the “national atmosphere is toxic enough” that Republicans “no longer have a significant edge in their quest to retain control of the chamber”, says Politico.

Although the race remains “too close to call”, the news site adds, Democrats have built consistent leads in what had been toss-up states and “put new states firmly on the map” in previously Republican territory.

According to polling analysis site FiveThirtyEight, the party’s prospects have been improving steadily in recent weeks. On 10 September, its election model put the chance of a Democratic majority at 57%; today, that figure stands at 73%.

Even so, the margin of victory is likely to be narrow. “Many of the 35 seats up for grabs this year are uncompetitive,” says The Economist, “so control of the Senate depends on a handful of hard-fought contests.”

The race “is most likely to be decided in Colorado, Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and Iowa”, concludes NBC. “And there could be some surprises.”

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