The Five Pivotal Senate Races Haaretz Will Follow on Election Night

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RealClearPolitics electoral map for the U.S. Senate with toss-up states in grey
RealClearPolitics electoral map for the U.S. Senate with toss-up states in greyCredit: Screen shot | RealClearPolitics

Republicans and Democrats are currently tied, each holdig 47 Senate seats, as the 2020 U.S. election enters its final stretch. Democrats need to gain four more seats to reclaim a Senate majority for the first time since 2014.

Here are the five Senate races Haaretz will be monitoring on Election Night. These races could easily determine control of the Senate, but here’s a look at why they’re also specifically of interest to readers who care about Israel, Middle East policy and the American Jewish community.

Republican incumbent Sen. Lindsey Graham speaking to supporters during a campaign bus tour in Charleston, South Carolina, on October 31, 2020.Credit: Michael Ciaglo - AFP

South Carolina

Sen. Lindsey Graham is in a surprisingly competitive race against the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, Jaime Harrison, who has raised record-breaking sums in his effort to defeat the controversial three-term incumbent.

Harrison shattered congressional fundraising records, bringing in $57 million in the final quarter for his U.S. Senate campaign. Graham, who was once John McCain’s closest ally in the Senate and a fierce critic of Donald Trump, has since embraced the president and been instrumental in pushing through Trump’s Supreme Court picks in the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

In September, Graham made a public plea for fundraising, saying on Fox News that he was “getting killed financially.” He added that “the money is because they hate my guts.”

Graham is known as a hawk on Capitol Hill and was a leading opponent of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal. He co-sponsored the Taylor Force Act, the measure that withholds U.S. government funds to the Palestinian Authority until they cease paying the families of Palestinian prisoners convicted of terror attacks by Israeli courts. He also co-sponsored a resolution formally condemning UN Security Council Resolution 2334, concerning the legality of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.

Graham has kept his eye on the Middle East. In August, along with Democratic senators Ben Cardin (Maryland) and Bob Menendez (New Jersey), he introduced a resolution “praising” Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

Read Allison Kaplan’s Sommer in-depth breakdown of the race

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff speaks during a "Get Out the Early Vote" drive-in campaign event on October 29, 2020 in Columbus, GeorgiaCredit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP

Georgia

Georgia has an odd election year, with two different Senate races, two different formats and two different Jewish candidates. The southeastern state was considered a Republican stronghold in most recent elections, but things changed in 2018 as Democrats flipped a competitive House district in the Atlanta suburbs and only narrowly lost the gubernatorial race. 

This year, the state has two Senate elections: one a “regular” election, the other a special election to replace retired Sen. Johnny Isakson. Polling shows both races to be very competitive.

In the standard election, Republican Sen. David Perdue, 70, is seeking a second term against 33-year-old Jewish media executive Jon Ossoff. The challenger is well-known in the state after his failed bid to win a House of Representatives special election in 2017, and has been polling within the margin of error since July.

Ossoff turned in a blistering debate performance weeks ahead of the election, which resulted in Perdue pulling out of the third and final scheduled debate. Ossoff criticized Perdue for attacking his Jewish heritage, saying, “First, you were lengthening my nose in attack ads to remind everybody that I’m Jewish. When that didn’t work, you started calling me some kind of an Islamic terrorist. And then, when that didn’t work you started calling me a Chinese communist.”

“Instead of leading and inspiring, he stoops to mocking the heritage of his political opponents,” Ossoff later tweeted, with a clip of the exchange from the debate. If neither candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff election featuring just Perdue and Ossoff, without third-party candidates, will be held in January. 

In the special election, the format is different. There is first of all a “jungle primary” in which several candidates from both parties are competing. The two candidates who receive the most votes, no matter from which party, will then compete against each other in a runoff, head-to-head matchup in January.

The incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, was appointed to the seat by the Republican governor in 2020. Republican Congressman Doug Collins, a close Trump ally, is trying to run to the right of Loeffler – who’s also working overtime to secure the pro-Trump vote. However, the two appear to be splitting the GOP vote, leaving the leading Democratic candidate, Pastor Raphael Warnock, nearing 40 percent. His nearest Democratic challenger, Matt Lieberman, the son of former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is in the low single digits. 

If Warnock gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the primary, no runoff will be necessary and he’ll win the seat. But Lieberman’s presence in the race has decreased the chances of this happening, leading many Georgia Democrats to accuse him of being a spoiler candidate. 

Senate candidate Al Gross.Credit: Gross for Senate Campaign via AP

Alaska

In Alaska, Independent candidate Al Gross, 57, is challenging first term Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan in what has become an increasingly competitive race. Gross, who is supported by the state’s Democratic Party, is a former orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman, who once killed a bear in self-defense. He has raised almost $17 million compared to Sullivan’s $8 million in recent months.

While the (very) few polls conducted in the race have the Republican ahead, it’s worth noting that Sullivan only won the seat in 2014 by a little more than 2 percent. It was a low turnout year, which traditionally favors Republicans and is likely to be the opposite of 2020.

The final days of the campaign were marred by an ad Sullivan released, which was denounced as “antisemitic” for showing Gross, who is Jewish, holding $100 bills, with Chuck Schumer’s face over his shoulder and a tagline that read “Lower 48 liberals are flooding Alaska with millions.”

Read Chemi Shalev’s article on the unusual race 

Sara Gideon, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaking to students in Lewiston, Maine, October 30, 2020. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty,AP

Maine

Susan Collins is the last remaining Republican senator in New England, and her seat – which she has held since 1997 – increasingly looks like a likely pickup for the Democratic Party. University of Maine political science Prof. Amy Fried explains that one in four of Collins’ former supporters seem to be abandoning her, based on recent polls. 

Fried notes that throughout Collins’ long career, she has been very popular, regularly enjoying a 69 percent approval rating in a state that favors leaders with more independent and centrist positions. Collins regularly had support from labor, LGBT and environmental groups in the state, Fried says, but is losing the support of two-thirds of women and is down 30 percent with Democrats. This is mostly due to her 2018 vote for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and her support of Trump’s tax bill.

The Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, Sara Gideon, is running against Collins and has a small lead in most recent polls. Gideon was endorsed by the Democratic Majority for Israel in the primary, where she defeated an opponent who was a strong critic of Israel. Gideon’s sister, who is an author, teased in a memoir that Sara made a deal with her Jewish husband to convert to Judaism in return for him taking her last name.

Read Allison Kaplan Sommer’s dispatches from Maine: Jewish voters in Maine like Sen. Susan Collins – and can’t wait to vote against herMeet the tiny Jewish community that could tip the scales in U.S. election

Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly and his wife Gabby Giffords on the campaign trail in Tucson, Arizona, October 27, 2020.Credit: EDGARD GARRIDO/ REUTERS

Arizona

Arizona is another likely pickup for the Democrats. Martha McSally, 54, a former congresswoman and retired air force colonel – and the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat – has been running far behind retired naval pilot and astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly (who was once stationed in Houston with Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon).

Like Arizona’s other senator, Kyrsten Sinema, Kelly is a moderate Democrat and has been hailed by supporters of Israel within the party as a likely ally. He traveled to Israel just months before announcing his Senate run together with his Jewish wife, former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords – who survived being shot in the head during a mass shooting in 2011. 

McSally has raised over $56 million while Kelly has pulled in an astronomical $90 million, according to the latest Federal Election Commission data. That puts this on track to be one of the most expensive Senate races in U.S. history. 

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