Anti-establishment mood roils Senate Democratic primaries

Anti-establishment mood roils Senate Democratic primaries

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Democrat slams Donald Trump Jr. for ‘serious case of amnesia’ after testimony Skier Lindsey Vonn: I don’t want to represent Trump at Olympics Poll: 4 in 10 Republicans think senior Trump advisers had improper dealings with Russia MORE’s dominance in the Republican presidential primary has Democrats giddy about taking back the Senate, but the anti-establishment winds blowing nationally have also buffeted their candidates. 

The media’s fixation on Trump has overshadowed surprisingly competitive Senate Democratic primaries in key states such as North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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In North Carolina and Ohio, the establishment-backed Democrats are up in the polls but spending heavily ahead of the March 15 primaries. They’re expected to win, but they’ll enter the general election with considerably less cash on hand than their Republican opponents.

In Pennsylvania, Katie McGinty, the favorite of Democratic leaders in Washington, is trailing former Rep. Joe Sestak, who is angling for a rematch against Sen. Pat Toomey (R). 

A Franklin & Marshall College poll last month showed Sestak with a big lead over McGinty, scoring 21 percent support among Democratic primary voters, compared with 12 percent for McGinty. 

McGinty has an uphill climb to close the gap by the April 26 primary. Her allies told The Philadelphia Inquirer this week she will need outside groups to spend heavily on her behalf over the next seven weeks.

Senate Republicans have their own primary woes. The biggest headache is in Colorado, where the party has yet to unify behind a candidate to take on Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign GOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Schumer downplays shutdown chances over DACA fight MORE (Colo.), one of the most vulnerable incumbents. About a dozen Republicans are vying for the nomination.

“Democrats are widely recognized for our outstanding recruitment in Senate races, while the few places where the GOP had to recruit are absolute disasters,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua. 

In Florida, the mission to keep Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE’s seat in the GOP column is complicated by a multi-way Republican primary. Real estate mogul and self-funder Carlos Beruff is the latest Republican candidate to jump into that race. He’s running against Reps. Ron DeSantis and David Jolly, as well as Lieutenant Gov. Carlos López-Cantera.

Democrats could also have an unexpected pick-up opportunity in Indiana, where Rep. Marlin Stutzman is running and Rep. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungThe Hill's Whip List: Where Republicans stand on Senate tax bill Republican senators wrestle with their Roy Moore problem GOP mobilizes against Moore MORE has had trouble getting on the ballot because of a petition dispute. The Democratic Senate nominee is expected to be Rep. Baron Hill. 

But the burden is on Democrats to pick up at least four GOP-held seats if they are to regain control of the upper chamber. In the past, they have helped themselves tremendously by clearing the fields for their favored candidates. This year is shaping up differently. 

In North Carolina, a Public Policy Polling survey last month showed former state Rep. Deborah Ross, the candidate backed by the Democratic establishment, leading rival Chris Rey, a local mayor, with 22 percent support compared to his 10 percent. But the poll also found that 55 percent of Democratic primary voters were undecided. 

The DSCC endorsed Ross in January, but Rey picked up a key endorsement this week from the Winston-Salem Journal, which lauded him as “the most qualified to bring a sorely needed fresh perspective to Washington.”

Ross is trying to seal the deal by going up on the air with television and radio ads, but it’s costing her campaign. Her newly filed pre-primary Federal Election Commission report shows she’s raised $337,000 but spent $498,000 in the first two months of 2016. Her defenders argue her burn rate is so high because she entered the race only recently.

Also concerning for Ross is that her poll numbers have slipped from where they were in October. A PPP poll from that month showed her with 33 percent support and a 27-point lead on Rey.

In Ohio, former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland may limp into the general election after a tougher-than-expected battle with PG Sittenfeld, a fresh-faced 31-year-old Cincinnati city councilman who is promising new leadership and bold ideas.

Sittenfeld has the backing of former Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste and a super-PAC, New Leadership for Ohio, that last month launched three television ads attacking Strickland for flip-flopping on gun control, wavering on abortion and questioning his vitality. 

Internal polling shows Strickland comfortably ahead, but he’s spending a lot of campaign cash. His pre-primary report to the FEC shows he raised $480,000 and spent $477,000 in the first two months of this year. He has $2 million cash on hand, far less than the $13 million Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes MORE (R-Ohio) has stockpiled. 

The Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Akron Beacon Journal this past week endorsed Sittenfeld.

President Obama and Vice President Biden have swooped in to help Strickland. They both endorsed him Wednesday, and Biden will host a fundraiser for him in Cincinnati on March 22.

A January poll commissioned by the Ohio Democratic Party, which backs Strickland, showed him with 61-percent support compared to Sittenfeld’s 10 percent. 

The establishment-favored Democratic candidate has also faces a challenge in the Florida Senate race. 

Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy, who has the backing of Democratic leaders in Washington, is trailing in the polls to liberal firebrand Alan GraysonAlan GraysonEighth Franken accuser comes forward as Dems call for resignation Pennsylania Dems file ethics complaint against Rep. Barletta The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE. A PPP poll dated March 1 showed Grayson with 33 percent support among likely Democratic primary voters, while Murphy had 22 percent.

As in Ohio, Obama and Biden have come to the rescue, endorsing Murphy on Wednesday. Senate Democratic Leader Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidBill O'Reilly: Politics helped kill Kate Steinle, Zarate just pulled the trigger Tax reform is nightmare Déjà vu for Puerto Rico Ex-Obama and Reid staffers: McConnell would pretend to be busy to avoid meeting with Obama MORE (Nev.) last month called on Grayson to drop out and questioned his running of a hedge fund while holding office. 

One Democratic strategist noted that Murphy has a lot of time to make up gap because the primary isn’t until August.

Democrats argue that whatever turbulence their candidates may face in the upcoming primaries, it’s nothing compared to the headwinds that will batter Republicans if Trump or Texas Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzDebbie Wasserman Schultz marks 10 years as breast cancer survivor Foreign agent registration is no magical shield against Russian propaganda Let Trump be Trump and he'll sail through 2020 MORE is atop the GOP ticket in November. 

“Republicans are trying to distract from the fact that they're coming unglued by Donald Trump and that their vulnerable candidates refuse to stand up to him,” said the DSCC’s Passalacqua.