Democratic leaders are deciding where to spend precious resources as they debate which Senate candidates can survive the Republican onslaught.
Eight states are emerging as the battlegrounds that will decide the margin of Senate control, according to interviews with Republican and Democratic strategists.
Republicans need a net gain of 10 seats to win control of the chamber.
Recent public polls show the Democratic and Republican candidates in dead heats in Illinois and Nevada.
A mid-September survey from a Democratic-leaning pollster shows Gov. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinDems struggle with abortion litmus test Senators push 'cost-effective' reg reform Congress nears deal on help for miners MORE (D) slightly ahead in West Virginia. A late-September poll by Rasmussen, a Republican-leaning firm, shows his opponent, John Raese, with a slight edge.
Recent public polls show the Republican candidates ahead by a few points in Pennsylvania and with a more comfortable lead in Wisconsin.
Late-September surveys by Democratic consulting firms working for the party show neck-and-neck races in Colorado and Missouri. Some public polling shows a similarly tight race in Kentucky but a Rasmussen poll out Thursday gave the Republican an 11-point lead.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) agree that Colorado, Illinois and Nevada will be among the closest Senate races in the country.
There’s also an unspoken consensus that Republicans will pick up Senate seats in Arkansas, Indiana and North Dakota.
In Colorado, Sen. Michael BennetMichael BennetTrump's FDA nominee clears key Senate committee Dems knock Trump on Earth Day Dem pushed plan for both sides to admit to abusing Senate rules: report MORE (D) and his conservative challenger, Ken Buck, are sure to get the help of party money up until Election Day. In Illinois, Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias and Rep. Mark KirkMark KirkThe way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump ObamaCare repeal bill would defund Planned Parenthood Leaked ObamaCare bill would defund Planned Parenthood MORE, the GOP nominee, will also receive substantial party support.
In Nevada, where TV airtime is relatively cheap, Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidDraft House bill ignites new Yucca Mountain fight Week ahead: House to revive Yucca Mountain fight Warren builds her brand with 2020 down the road MORE (D-Nev.) and conservative challenger Sharron Angle are prolific fundraisers awash in campaign contributions. They will not need as much party help as other candidates.
The DSCC has not reserved any television airtime in Arkansas, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina or Florida, according to Republicans who have tracked it.
The party committees can launch television advertisements at any time, but they often reserve time in advance to lock in lower rates. While strategists say the calculus may change, they believe the decision not to reserve time in those states signals that the DSCC has written off those races.
“The media buys of a presidential campaign or a national campaign like the Senate committee needs to run is the objective manifestation of their strategic intent,” said Tad Devine, a Democratic consultant who has handled media for 17 winning Senate races in his career.
“It sounds to me like those areas where the party has reserved time are critical for keeping as many seats as possible,” he said.
Democratic and Republican consultants interviewed by The Hill agreed that Democratic candidates have little chance of winning seats in any of the states where the DSCC has yet to reserve airtime. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid angering potential clients by passing judgment on various candidates.
Between the candidates in Colorado and Illinois who are certain to get party funding and those running in races no longer considered competitive, there are a bevy of incumbents and challengers vying for money from Washington.
DSCC Chairman Robert MenendezRobert MenendezTaiwan deserves to participate in United Nations The way forward on the Iran nuclear deal under President Trump Corruption trial could roil NJ Senate race MORE (N.J.) told reporters at the National Press Club on Thursday that he will not tip his hand.
“I don’t telegraph where I spend my money,” he said. But Menendez’s spending decisions to date show where he thinks Democratic candidates have the best chance of winning. The DSCC is running ads in Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report lists all of these races except Delaware as toss-ups.
A spokesman for the NRSC said California, Connecticut and Washington should also be considered Senate battlegrounds. The Cook Report also lists those races as toss-ups.
He pointed to a report published Thursday that the DSCC has purchased $250,000 in airtime in Connecticut — which a DSCC spokeswoman declined to confirm or deny.
The NRSC argues it has been willing to make more of a commitment to California and Washington than the DSCC has in Arkansas, Indiana or New Hampshire.
The GOP committee has pledged $2 million in coordinated spending to Republican candidate Carly Fiorina in California and reserved $3 million in television airtime in Washington for the month of October.
But a Republican political strategist with Senate ties is skeptical of knocking off Sens. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerAnother day, another dollar for retirement advice rip-offs Carly Fiorina 'certainly looking at' Virginia Senate run Top Obama adviser signs with Hollywood talent agency: report MORE (D-Calif.) or Patty MurrayPatty MurraySenate confirms Labor Secretary Acosta Dems unveil bill targeting LGBT harassment on college campuses Trump said he would create ‘more jobs and better wages’ — he can start with federal contractors MORE (D-Wash.) or winning Connecticut, given the dominance Democrats have shown in those states in recent years.
The NRSC disputes that Missouri and Pennsylvania are battlegrounds, noting the DSCC spent more than $6 million in those two states since the middle of August and the GOP candidates still lead in the polls. The committee says the Republican candidate is also pulling away in Wisconsin, pointing to recent polling.
Democratic strategists, however, argued that Democratic spending in Pennsylvania has been countered by a deluge of television advertising from outside groups allied with the GOP.
Outside groups have spent about $5 million worth of advertising against Rep. Joe Sestak (Pa.), the Democratic candidate, according to a Democratic tally.
The NRSC and GOP political consultants believe the Missouri and Kentucky Senate seats will stay in Republican hands because they are conservative-leaning states and the national political environment is a tough one for Democrats.
Two Democratic consultants interviewed by The Hill said they thought Missouri would be tough for Democrats to win, but the DSCC pointed to polling showing the Democratic candidate in a tight race.
Strategists also think the Democratic candidate in Kentucky, Jack Conway, has a shot because of controversial views expressed by Rand PaulRand PaulRand Paul to teach a course on dystopias in George Washington University Destructive 'fat cat' tax law a complete flop. It's time to repeal it. Trump must take action in Macedonia to fix damage done by Obama and Clinton MORE, the Republican nominee.
-- This story was updated at 12:13 p.m. on Oct. 1.