Battle for Senate Suddenly Looks Less Daunting for Democrats
(Bloomberg) -- Once seen as a scant possibility, Democratic hopes of retaking the U.S. Senate have brightened with just eight weeks left before the midterm elections.
The shifting fortunes are starkly illustrated in Texas, where Senator Ted Cruz is confronting surprisingly strong competition from Democratic Representative Beto O’Rourke.
O’Rourke has chipped away Cruz’s poll lead enough to spur outside GOP groups to mobilize spending and President Donald Trump to plan a campaign rally in what should be a reliably Republican state.
In another sign of Democratic momentum, two incumbents in states Trump carried overwhelmingly -- Joe Manchin in West Virginia and Joe Donnelly in Indiana -- have shown strength in some recent polls that make them seem better bets for re-election.
At the same time, Democrats have a chance to pull off upsets in states once thought safely in the Republican column, particularly in deep-red Tennessee where popular former governor Phil Bredesen is running ahead in polls.
Setting the Agenda
At stake is control of the national agenda. Democrats would need a net gain of two seats in the Nov. 6 elections to gain a Senate majority. Independent analysts already give Democrats a solid shot at seizing control of the U.S. House.
The party holding the Senate will decide the fate of Trump appointees, including possibly one or more Supreme Court picks that could cement a conservative high court super-majority for decades to come.
Republicans still have the advantage, even if it has shrunk. Chief among them is that Democrats have 26 seats on the line in November compared to just nine for Republicans -- one of the most politically skewed Senate-election maps in history. Ten of Democratic-held seats are in states won by Trump two years ago.
Democrats “have to win a considerable number of states that Trump carried in the presidential election and they also have to more generally win 28 of 35 races that are contested this year,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball election forecast at the University of Virginia. “That’s a very high number. It’s a challenging path, but it’s not impossible either.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been raising alarms about the closeness of the Senate contest -- in part to motivate Republican donors and voters -- but other GOP officials are dismissive of a Democratic surge.
Chris Hansen, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he remains confident of holding or even expanding the GOP’s Senate advantage. He said recent polls in Tennessee and Arizona are showing the Republican candidates on the rise.
“I think things in these races have gone towards us demonstrably,” Hansen said.
Democratic leaders are cautious with any predictions.
“All the polling and surveys show we have a lot of grassroots energy on our side,” said Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen, who leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “We’ve said all along that we have a path, but it’s a very narrow path.”
Democratic hopes start with Nevada, where first-term Representative Jacky Rosen is seeking to unseat Senator Dean Heller, the only Republican incumbent running in a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. A September poll of the race by Suffolk University shows that Heller, who won a three-way 2012 race with just 46 percent of the vote, trails Rosen by 1 percentage point, well within the margin of error.
Trump’s intra-party feuding has also helped Democrats’ chances by contributing to the retirements of two of his biggest GOP critics, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee.
In Arizona, where Trump won by 4 percentage points, Representative Martha McSally emerged from a bitter Republican primary to face Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema, who has established herself one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. Sinema had a 3-point lead in a Sept. 8-11 Fox News poll, also within the error margin, though another recent poll showed her trailing by the same amount.
The Tennessee race between Bredesen and tea party-aligned Representative Marsha Blackburn has also bedeviled the GOP. Bredesen has clung to narrow leads in several recent polls, despite running in a state that Trump won in a 26-point blowout.
The question is whether Bredesen’s personal popularity can hold up under an onslaught of outside ads and visits from Trump in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since Al Gore was re-elected in 1990. Blackburn hasn’t been helped by Corker’s warm comments about Bredesen, an old friend from Corker’s days as the mayor of Chattanooga.
Texas typically isn’t in the conversation in Senate races, but this isn’t a normal year. Trump, who defeated Cruz in the Republican presidential primaries, is making a bid to put him over the top by promising to hold a rally next month in “the biggest stadium in Texas we can find.”
In recent polls, Cruz is running just a few points ahead of O’Rourke, who has been a fundraising powerhouse and social media superstar. Notably, a recent Emerson College poll found that Cruz is just one percentage point ahead of O’Rourke, while Texas Governor Greg Abbott, also a Republican. has a 20-point edge in his own re-election campaign.
In a reflection of the intense interest in the race among Democrats, O’Rourke has raised $23.6 million through June, compared with the $13.2 million Cruz raised for this two-year election cycle. O’Rourke had about $14 million left to spend on the November campaign, while Cruz had $9.3 million on hand.
Winning just two of those four battleground seats would net Democrats the majority if all their incumbents win, but that won’t be easy given so many of their races are in heavily Republican states.
Polling suggests most red-state Democrats are holding their own, with none yet favored to lose by independent analysts. There’s some potential for a repeat of 2006, when all Democratic incumbents prevailed in a “wave” election year that gave Democrats control of both chambers, Kondik said.
Manchin and Donnelly have stayed competitive in part by building images based on independence. Both have taken pains to embrace Trump at times. Donnelly even cut a TV ad touting his support for Trump’s wall on the border with Mexico. Meanwhile, Jon Tester of Montana, who also heralds from a Trump-won state, is in a contest now rated “likely Democratic” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Not every Democrat is doing as well. Florida Senator Bill Nelson has been trailing in some polls against deep-pocketed two-term Governor Rick Scott, who is spending tens of millions to get himself elected. Democrats Heidi Heitkamp trails Republican Kevin Cramer in North Dakota and Claire McCaskill’s race in Missouri remains a toss-up.
Trump’s role remains a wild card. While unpopular nationally, he still has strong appeal to many GOP voters and is planning rallies in places where he might provide an edge. The NRSC’s Hansen pointed to Heitkamp and Donnelly as among Democrats using the president in their own campaign ads.
“The proof is in the pudding. When the Democrats make campaign ads, they use footage of Donald Trump,” he said.
Flood of Money
With just weeks left before balloting, money has been flooding into these pivotal contests. The Florida and Missouri contests so far have attracted the highest levels of spending by outside groups.
That spending has exceeded $27 million in the Missouri race. The Senate Majority PAC, a super political action committee led by allies of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, has spent $10 million in the contest so far, about $8.7 million of that to defeat Republican Josh Hawley, now the state’s attorney general, and $1.4 million to aid McCaskill’s candidacy.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent $5.2 million against McCaskill and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire Charles Koch, has spent $3.9 million to defeat her.
In Florida, outside groups have spent $16.7 million both for and against Nelson, with New Republican PAC -- a super-PAC that was once led by Scott -- making up nearly half of that amount. New Republican PAC has spent $8.4 million to defeat Nelson so far, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. Senate Majority PAC has stepped in to provide about $6 million to aid Nelson.
Senate Majority PAC and another Democrat-aligned group, Priorities USA Action, said Wednesday they’re about to begin an $18 million digital advertising effort in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. Separately, SMP said it would run a $3 million digital ad program supporting Democratic Senate candidates in Montana, Nevada, Tennessee and West Virginia.
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