US Senate building

With November quickly approaching and intense get-out-the-vote efforts by Republicans and Democrats alike, the U.S. midterm elections have been heating up across the country. Both parties face incredibly high stakes as election day draws closer. The Democrats are attempting to win-back a Congressional majority and the Republicans are fighting to maintain the one-party rule they have reaped the benefits of in the past two years.

With all of the House seats and one-third of Senate seats up for reelection, however, it is impossible to follow each race. Here are five of the most contentious Senate races that could determine what party holds the majority to look out for this November:

1. Missouri: Claire McCaskill vs Josh Hawley

Running for re-election in a state that has historically favored Republicans, the Democratic incumbent, Claire McCaskill, is facing one of the most intense races of her political career against the young Republican candidate, Josh Hawley. Hawley, at just 36, is Missouri’s current attorney general and has proven to be one of the most formidable challengers McCaskill has faced yet.

Missouri, a largely rural state, has consistently voted Republican in most national elections, with President Trump most recently winning by 19 points in 2016 or, 57% of the vote. Consistent with many other Republican candidates across the country, Hawley has embraced President Trump’s support in hopes of using the momentum of that 2016 win. However, Trump’s approval rating has been dwindling in the state. According to Morning Consult, 51% of Missourians approve of Trump as of September 2018, 6 points down from his winning numbers in 2016.

As of October 1, a CNN poll found voters’ favorable approval ratings at 49% for McCaskill and 43% for Hawley. With just a small lead, McCaskill’s seat is certainly not secure and the race has continued to tighten as the election draws closer. McCaskill has run largely on her image as a common Missourian who, as a former state auditor and county prosecutor, is tough on law and order. This won her Republican votes and her seat in 2006, despite her own party affiliation. Her seat was threatened in 2012 by opponent Todd Akin, however, following his controversial comments that women could rarely get pregnant from “legitimate rape”, she easily won re-election.

The race has continued to intensify as Hawley’s campaign focuses an increasing amount of ad time to attacking McCaskill and her family. McCaskill’s husband, Joseph Shepard, heads a business that develops low-income housing by utilizing government subsidies. Various attack ads claimed that McCaskill has used her position in Washington to increase subsidies to Shepard’s business.

As polls show increasing favorability to Republicans maintaining their Senate majority, Democrats have little room for error. McCaskill’s ability to defend her seat is critical for Democrats if they want to at least maintain the same number of seats, keeping the Senate at 51-49 with a Republican majority.

2. Texas: Ted Cruz vs Beto O’Rourke

Ted Cruz, the Republican incumbent who ran an unsuccessful Presidential campaign in 2016, is facing Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke. O’Rourke has gained national media attention, with publications such as Town and Country Magazine calling him “Kennedyesque” and speculating a 2020 presidential bid. Democrats across the country have been energized by his charisma and progressive message, The party is eager to take down Cruz, who has held the seat since 2013.

Texas is traditionally a Republican stronghold and has not had a state-wide seat held by a Democrat since 1994. For the past year, however, O’Rourke has come closer than any other Democratic candidate has in years to win the Texas seat. In a surprising move, the Houston Chronicle endorsed O’Rourke on October 19th. The Chronicle had endorsed Cruz in 2012, but the publication cited O’Rourke’s “unaffected eloquence and his eagerness to reach out to all Texans” for their endorsement. In regards to Cruz, The Chronicle argued that he has been “running for president since he took the oath of office” and that he consistently puts his personal ambitions first and the needs of his constituents secondary. He has shattered fundraising records, raising over $38 million from donors across the country in just 3 months.

Despite his opponent’s national attention and impressive fundraising effort, Cruz has maintained a lead in the polls. In an October 19th poll conducted by The New York Times, Cruz maintained a 51% favorable rating, 8 points over O’Rourke’s 43% favorable rating.

Additionally, President Trump has been extremely vocal in his support for Cruz and visited  Texas to speak at a massive rally on October 22, with eager supporters lining up over a day in advanced. However, with just under 2 weeks to go until election day, a lot can still change. President Trump’s presence is likely to invigorate both sides and despite trailing in the polls, the O’Rourke’s campaign has shown little sign of slowing down. Publications like the Cook Political Project still deem the Texas race a “Toss-up” and it will most certainly be one to watch on election night.

3. Florida: Bill Nelson vs Rick Scott

Democrat Bill Nelson is facing a tough race from challenger Rick Scott, the current Republican governor who is now running for a seat in the Upper House. Scott has run an aggressive campaign around economic policy and thrown Nelson into the race of his 18-year long career as Senator of this state. However whatever incumbent advantage he has held in the past has dwindled as he suffers from low name recognition. He has even been deemed by The New York Times as the underdog of the race. Contrary to Scott’s intensive campaigning and notable past races, including his failed Presidential campaign in 2016, Nelson is notorious for keeping a low profile, throwing the party into a scramble to save his seat.

In 2016, Trump won Florida by only 2 points with 49% of the vote and his popularity has fluctuated ever since. His approval rating has decreased by 7 points since January 49% approval in September, which could be good news for the Nelson campaign

Nelson is also still leading in the polls, with FiveThirtyEight giving him a 5 in 8 chance of winning. Nelson’s lack of name recognition has been mitigated in part by Florida’s other high-profile gubernatorial election. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate, gained national attention after winning a surprise victory in the primaries against the front-runner, Gwen Graham. However, Florida does lean on average 5.4 points in favour of Republicans, which Scott’s campaign could capitalize on and work to appeal to the state’s voters who supported Trump in 2016. Keep an eye out for last-minute momentum by both the Scott and Nelson campaigns as election day comes closer.

4. Arizona: Kyrsten Sinema vs Martha McSally

The race to fill Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s seat is bound to make history as the two candidates fight to become the first female senator elected in the state of Arizona. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has run an effective campaign in the typically red state, deemed by The New York Times as “one of the best races in the country.” She has been playing the Arizona political field well, remaining an ardent centrist throughout the race in an attempt to appeal to more moderate Republican voters.

Martha McSally, the Republican candidate, has largely aligned herself with President Trump. Trump won the state by a relatively small margin of 5 points in 2016, and the McSally campaign has worked to appeal to those same voters that nudged Trump to victory. McSally has used her experience as the first female fighter pilot in active combat to focus her campaign on national security issues and has utilized high-profile endorsements, such as Mitt Romney, to assist on the campaign trail as well.

Sinema has held onto a slim lead in the polls and The Cook Political Report has deemed the race a toss-up During a heated debate on October 15, McSally accused Sinema of “Being OK with treason” as she highlighted her past anti-war activism. Following the debate, McSally gained a small momentum in the polls with some showing McSally taking the lead. If the McSally campaign can maintain this newfound momentum throughout the next few weeks, Republicans will have a formidable shot of taking the seat and further solidifying their Senate majority.

A lot can happen in the next few weeks leading up to the election and with McSally’s latest gains in the polls, the race is sure to keep us on the edge of our seats until results are in.

5. Tennessee: Marsha Blackburn vs Phil Bredesen

When Republican Senator Bob Corker announced his retirement last September, he sparked a fierce battle for his seat. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican Congresswoman, is facing former governor Phil Bredesen in the increasingly contentious race. Blackburn has capitalized on President Trump’s relative popularity in the state, which he won by 26 points in 2016. She has consistently voiced her support for the President and was a part of a group of politicians who nominated Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching out to North Korea.

Democrat Phil Bredesen, using a similar strategy as Sinema in Arizona, has positioned himself as a staunch centrist who is not afraid to break from party lines. In an attempt to win over more conservative voters, Bredesen has vocally criticized the Democratic party, announcing that he would not vote for Chuck Schumer as majority leader if the party takes the majority and that he would have voted yes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh.

The race has continued to tighten with various polls displaying conflicting predictions. In one poll, Blackburn is leading with a 54% chance to win the election. A new poll by Vanderbilt University, however, has Blackburn and Bredesen tied at 45%. In that same poll, 13% of Republicans said they would vote for Bredesen, while only 5% of Democrats said the same for Blackburn — this could be a good sign for Democrats.

Both sides need to maintain a strong support from their bases while winning over the 8% of undecided and independent voters who are evenly split in their preferences.

Blackburn’s ardent support of President Trump will help her appeal to the 58% of Tennesseans who approve of Trump’s presidency. That being said, Bredesen’s history of successful political endeavours, including his experience as mayor of Nashville, and then as governor of the state, has provided him with significant name-recognition. His moderate stance has also appeared to appeal to some Republicans, as outlined by the Vanderbilt poll. The contentious nature and conflicting results in polls of the race has made it one of the most important in the country for both parties.


In the week leading up to election day, campaigns across the country will be fueling all of their remaining resources into their respective races. Each race will play a substantial role in determining the makeup of the Senate and with Democrats needing to acquire just two seats to flip the Senate, both parties have little room for error. Candidates will be focusing on both mobilizing their bases with get-out-the-vote efforts while also winning over undecided voters. Balancing their base appeal with independent voters is necessary in securing the most competitive seats come November 6.

Read the rest of our US midterm election coverage here.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Feature image by Greg Willis, via Flickr Creative Commons.