This State Will Decide 2020

Guest Write: James C. Pearce


James C. Pearce completed his PhD in 2018 at Anglia Ruskin University. Pearce has conducted research in the Russian Federation since 2015 on matters related to historical memory in the public space and education, the discipline of history as well as Russian foreign policy in the twenty-first century. He has taught Political Science, History, and International Relations at three institutions in the United Kingdom and Russia, and presented his research at multiple international conferences in two languages. James currently teaches in Moscow and is developing his research on the role of historical memory in Russian elections, and Russian students’ attitudes towards the new historical narratives. He is author to the recent book "The Use of History in Putin's Russia". We absolutely recommend you to check it out here.


The White House and Senate will be decided in just a handful of states this election cycle by small margins. With Democrats expected to maintain the House, control of the Senate is essential for Donald Trump or Joe Biden to get any sort of agenda passed. Should either come up short in the Senate, the deciding votes could be cast by its presiding officer – the VP.

Both the Senate and presidential elections are more interesting than usual this year. Changing demographics means the old swing states are out. New Mexico and Colorado have grown darker blue thanks to growing suburban areas and or larger minority populations. Arizona, Georgia and Texas' demographic trends also favour Democrats and are starting get competitive. On the flip side, Iowa and Ohio, once also considered toss-ups, are expected to stay red. Pennsylvania (where Biden is from), Michigan and Wisconsin will be hotly contested. Trump carried all three by the slimmest of margins, and he needs them again. He is also targeting Minnesota, which he barely lost in 2016, but currently trails in all four states.

Republicans control the Senate 53-47 and are slight favourites to maintain control. But the Democrats stand a real chance of snatching it – and it is already on a knife edge. Four states that Trump either lost or barely won in 2016 have vulnerable GOP senators up for re-election. Polling in Arizona, Colorado and Maine shows the Democrat leading consistently.

A handful of other states are also looking very competitive: Democrats have nominated strong candidates in Montana, Georgia, Kansas and Iowa. Certain polls show Biden leading Trump in Georgia and incumbent GOP Senator Kelly Loeffler is in real trouble following a recent scandal involving her stocks. Montana's popular Democratic governor also leads the GOP incumbent in two polls.

The GOP, meanwhile, has just one realistic pick-up chance: Alabama. In Michigan, the incumbent Democratic Senator Gary Peters is up for re-election, but he has maintained a comfortable lead and huge cash advantage.

Of course, this could all change come November, but the other toss-up state will likely come down to a whisker. This one will decide control of the Senate and seal Trump's fate. This state lies in the South and is where the GOP's convention was scheduled. It voted for both Trump and Obama: North Carolina.

The Old North State

The Senate, White House and governor's mansion are all up for grabs in North Carolina this year, which was also recently affected by redistricting.

GOP Senator Thom Tillis is running for re-election against veteran Cal Cunningham. Plenty of polling has been conducted, and all of it shows the race to be neck and neck. North Carolina's other Republican Senator, Richard Burr, also got into hot water over selling stocks to benefit from the coronavirus epidemic, causing him to resign as chair of the Intelligence Committee.

The GOP is clearly worried about North Carolina. Super PACS connected to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell poured millions into the state's Democratic primary to support Cunningham's left-wing challenger. The hope was someone from the Sanders-Warren wing of the Democratic Party would prove an easier opponent for Tillis, especially if Bernie Sanders were to win the nomination. Alas, neither was meant to be.

Recent ads have seen Tillis and the Senate GOP trying to link Cunningham with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and paint him as an out of touch liberal. Cunningham is a fairly middle of the road Democrat, however. He is presenting himself as fiscally sensible, focusing on small and medium sized businesses getting necessary relief after the coronavirus, but also maintaining accountability.

More recent worries have surrounded the August convention in Charlotte, however. It was supposed to be a big opportunity for Trump to kick off the campaign and hit the ground running in a key swing state he carried by just three points in 2016. But Charlotte was badly hit by the coronavirus and the Democratic governor, taking no chances, has crashed that party. At the start of June, he told the GOP the full-scale convention Trump wanted is 'very unlikely'.

Trump has repeatedly attacked Gov. Roy Cooper on Twitter over the convention, and then declared he would seek another venue. Cooper has brushed these attacks off, saying he is listening to the science and putting the safety of citizens first. Cooper has a 76% approval rating for his handling of the Coronavirus and is widely favoured to win re-election in November. No room for error

The Senate and Presidential elections are a numbers game. Trump's current lead in North Carolina is slim and he is polling behind Biden in other key states such as Florida, Michigan and Arizona. Recent polls from Missouri, Texas and Utah show a closer than expected race (4%, 5% and 3% respectively). Although those states are unlikely to flip, Trump and the Senate majority is in real danger – and the GOP knows it.

North Carolina may be the one swing state that holds out for Trump, and if it does, could push him over the line. Trump can afford to lose one, perhaps two, of the three Midwestern states that sealed the presidency for him. But if North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes goes with them, Trump loses. Even if Trump wins in Florida, he will need another state with enough electoral votes to stay in the White House. North Carolina is no sure thing, but it seems to be his safest bet.

Concerning the Senate, Republicans can lose the three seats in Arizona, Colorado and Maine; a pick up in Alabama means they would maintain control. But, if Democrats take North Carolina as well, the Vice Presidency will decide control of the Senate. If Democrats hang on in Alabama or make gains elsewhere, the Senate is theirs.

Trump and the GOP have no room for error this election cycle, and North Carolina shows it like nothing else. Returns early on election night will be very telling, although the Senate will likely not be declared until the next day.

How to win North Carolina?

Republicans have traditionally done well in the western part of North Carolina and Democrats are stronger in the urbanised east. Obama (and Biden) won North Carolina in 2008 by 0.32%, Mitt Romney by 2% in 2012, and Trump by 3% in 2016. Obama campaigned and spent aggressively in the state, but ran up higher vote margins in the cities to win. Trump and Romney, on the other hand, cleaned up in the suburbs. This is both good and bad news for Democrats. They have a lot of work to do in those suburban areas to swing things back in their favour, but Trump polls poorly among suburban women. Money, campaigning and a higher than usual turnout will be important. Both Senate candidates have already spent millions here, and it cost Obama $15 million and 15 visits in 2008. Obama also had a lot of help from the black vote; 95% of registered black voters turned out and an unprecedented 100% of black women in the state voted for him.

As well as an increasing urban and suburban population, North Carolina is still a predominantly white state. Identity politics and hot button issues like abortion will not hugely favour the Democrats here. Both Cunningham and Governor Cooper avoid it. A smart VP pick would not only help Democrats to win this Senate seat, but Biden's only hope of carrying North Carolina is to pick a centrist with a hard to criticise voting record. Following the death of George Floyd and the protests it ignited across US cities, the likelihood of this being a black woman has increased; Florida Rep. Val Demings, anyone?

It would be a smart move on Biden's part and not that unsurprising. In 2016, Hillary Clinton's running mate was Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. Another middle of the road Democrat, he was popular among blue collar voters and spoke fluent Spanish. In brutal terms, Kaine did not lose Clinton any votes to Trump. What did was her lack of campaigning in key states, and if Biden writes North Carolina off too soon, it could hand Trump re-election.

Trump just needs to keep this race close. In practice, this means turning out his base en masse and hoping enough disillusioned voters either stay home or split their votes down the ballot. This happened in Michigan in 2016, where thousands of voters left the box for president blank despite voting in every other race down the ballot. Although Trump is looking slightly better in North Carolina for the time being, moving the convention puts him off to a rocky start.

Simply put, this is Trump's state and the Senate GOP's seat to lose – and they might.

Disclaimer: This article has not been edited by The Politician Independent Newspaper. To find out more, contact the newspaper here.

The Politician Independent Newspaper, created in 2020