US Elections: Key Senate & House of Representatives Races

United States Capitol dome with dramatic clouds

In addition to the Presidential election, Congressional and State elections will also take place on November 3rd. Democrats or Republicans – who will control US polity in the medium term? What is going on, and why does it matter? 

US Senate

What: This year, 35 Senate seats are up for election. 33 were last contested in 2014, and 2 are special elections to fill vacant seats in Arizona and Georgia. Senators are elected for 6-year terms, but elections are staggered so that one-third of Senate seats are elected every 2 years.  Each state has 2 senators. As there are 50 states, there are 100 senators.

Where: In 34 states. In Georgia, both seats are up for election, one for a 6-year term, the other to fill a vacancy for 2 years. 

How: 31 states will use first past the post, the 2 Georgia seats and Louisiana will use a two-round system and in Maine, Ranked Choice Voting.

Who: As the House, candidates in most races are those who won their party’s primary. Notable Senators up for re-election include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

Political make up: Of the 35 seats being contested, 23 are held by Republicans, 12 by Democrats.

State of the Senate: The Senate currently has 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats (including 2 Independents). 

To win

 In 50-50 ties, the Vice President casts the deciding vote. So, if Kamala Harris becomes Vice-President, Democrats need a net gain of 3 seats to take control of the Senate, if Mike Pence is VP they need a net gain of 4. Similarly, to keep control of the Senate, with Harris as VP, Republicans can only afford to suffer a net loss of 2 seats. If its VP Mike Pence, they can afford a net loss of 3. 

Vulnerable Republican Seats 

Maine and Colorado are vulnerable as they are states that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. If Biden is doing well in the Presidential race, Arizona, North Carolina, possibly both seats in Georgia, even Texas and Iowa come into play. Also, regardless of the Presidential race, it’s a competitive race in Montana where popular incumbent Democrat governor Steve Bullock is running. In South Carolina, polling suggests Democrat Jaime Harrison is competitive against Republican Lindsey Graham. That’s a total of 10 Republican-held seats that could conceivably be in play.

Vulnerable Democrat Seats

Alabama is a special case. In 2017 in extraordinary circumstances, Doug Jones, a Democrat, won the seat in a special election by just 1%. Even with incumbency on his side, it’s going to be difficult for Doug Jones to be re-elected against Republican candidate Tommy Tuberville in a presidential election year with a higher Republican turnout than in 2017 and in a very pro-Trump state especially when Jones voted to remove Trump from office in February. New Hampshire where elections in New Hampshire are always close. In 2014 the incumbent Democrat won by just 3%, and in 2016 Clinton won New Hampshire by just 0.3%. Michigan, this is vulnerable as it’s a state won by Trump in 2016, so were Trump to win Michigan again, Republicans could gain the Senate seat too. 

Democrat Republican Trump Biden Win Election SeatForecasts

These are closely tied to the Presidential races as many voters vote for all Democrats or Republicans on the ballot. Some states even provide a “straight ticket” voting option where voters can tick one box to vote for all Democrat or Republican candidates.

Realistically there are three possible outcomes, all almost equally plausible: 

  • Republicans keep control of the Senate and expand or keep their number at 53.
  • Republicans lose seats but still have enough to have either 50 or 51.
  • Democrats win the Senate, either very narrowly (50-51 in total) or comfortably (55-56). 

Why these Elections Matter

To pass legislation, the Senate needs to approve it. The Senate has key powers independent of the House, which includes the power to convict and remove an impeached President from office, or as they did this year to acquit them. The Senate alone can approve or block Supreme Court nominations. This was crucial in confirming Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, quickly to the Supreme Court. Yet in 2016 Senate Republicans chose to block Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland.  

If President Biden does not control the Senate or only has a narrow Democrat majority, it could be hard to govern, as it would be for a re-elected President Trump were Republicans to lose seats or lose the chamber to Democrats.


US House of Representatives

What: All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are up for election. Apart from Minnesota’s 2nd District where the election has been postponed due to the death of a candidate.

Where: The 435 districts are allocated among all 50 states based generally on its population at the last census. Seven states (Vermont, Delaware, Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota) have just 1 seat. More populous states like California has 53, Texas 36, and Florida and New York 27 each.  

How: All 435 districts elect 1 representative. 45 states use first past the post, California, Washington, Georgia and Louisiana use different versions of a two-round system and Maine uses Ranked Choice Voting (also known as Preferential Voting). 

Who: Most candidates are chosen in party primary elections held in the months leading up to November.  Most are Republican or Democrat although Libertarians, Greens, Independents and other parties will contest some seats. Most “drama” in the House elections occur in the primaries because most districts are safe for Republicans or Democrats. This year, several incumbent House members, despite some being in; ’safe districts’ lost their party primary to another candidate from their own party. 

Last election: In the 2018 elections, Democrats took control of the House from Republicans. Democrats won 235 seats, Republicans 200, a net gain of +41 for the Democrats compared to 2016. 

To win: Republicans need a net gain of 18 seats, Democrats can afford a net loss of 17.

Key districts: According to the Cook Political Report, 26 House seats are toss-ups, Ballotpedia has identified 41 competitive races and a total of 89 seats where the winning margin in 2018 was 10% or less.  

Democrat Republican Trump Biden Win Election SeatPotential Outcomes

Much depends on the Presidential race, but the two most likely outcomes, even if Donald Trump wins, would be either an increased Democrat majority or a smaller one. However, there is an outside chance, in the event of last-minute shifts that Republicans could regain the House but at the moment this is unlikely. 

Why These Elections Matter

 To pass any legislation, it must go through the House of Representatives. If a President’s party does not control the House, pushing through laws can be very difficult. The House can as we saw in 2019/2020 impeach the President. Therefore, it would be important for a Biden Administration for Democrats to keep control of the House and a re-elected Trump presidency, while ideally wanting a Republican-controlled House, may find even a reduced Democratic majority easier as it may force Democrats to compromise more. Whereas a re-elected Trump presidency but with more House Democrats (which is possible), could lead to further gridlock and animosity. 

Top 6 Districts

Here are TNL’s top six districts to watch for importance: 

Oklahoma’s 5th district: A reliably Republican voting district until Democrat Kendra Horn’s 3,338 vote win in 2018 shocked many. Can she hold on or will Republicans win it back? 

Georgia’s 7th district: The closest result in 2018, held by the Republicans by a margin of 0.15%. Can Democrats win here? 

Minnesota’s 1st district: A district Republicans gained from Democrats in 2018 against the national trend. Can Democrats win it back? 

California’s 25th district: Republican from 1992 until the Democrats won in 2018. However, Republicans took the seat back in a 2020 special election in March. Will it revert to being reliably Republican? 

Texas 23rd district: A district that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but also re-elected Republican Will Hurd in 2016 and by less than 1000 votes in 2018. However, Hurd is retiring. Can Democrats win now? 

Maine’s 2nd district: In 2018 this was gained by Democrats due to Ranked Choice voting (The Republican would have won under first past the post). Will the voting system prove crucial again?  

Anything else?

6 non-voting members will be elected in Washington DC and five US territories. These representatives cannot vote in the Chamber but can vote on committees and speak in chamber debates. Currently, 4 members from Washington DC, Guam, North Mariana Islands and US Virgin Islands are allied to the Democrats, 2 from American Samoa and Puerto Rico to Republicans.

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