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Senate GOP: We will grow our majority in midterms

Senate Republicans say they are confident about expanding their majority even while their party faces strong political headwinds amid growing sentiment that GOP control of the House is in serious jeopardy. 

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerColorado must fight to protect net neutrality Senators demand info on unusual surveillance activity in DC Family, friends mourn death of Barbara Bush MORE (Colo.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), gave colleagues a pep talk during a private meeting Tuesday, pointing out poll numbers showing Republicans beating five vulnerable Democratic incumbents. 

“He said if the election were held tomorrow, we’d pick up five seats,” said a Republican senator who heard Gardner’s comments and said the “upbeat” outlook was based on public polling.

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Asked about the pep talk, Gardner pointed to the GOP tax bill in arguing Republicans in the Senate can expand their majority this fall, even as House Republicans increasingly worry they could be crushed by a blue wave.

“I think come November we will continue to build our strong economy message,” he said. “The benefits of the tax cuts are real. Today Democrats are advocating a massive tax increase at the Commerce Committee.”

The lawmaker who requested anonymity said Gardner’s comments reflect a prevailing view within the Senate Republican Conference that any possible Democratic wave is likely to be felt more in the House than the Senate. 

A significant reason for GOP optimism is the Senate 2018 map, where Democrats are defending 26 of the 35 seats up this fall. Among those 26 seats, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems add five candidates to ‘Red to Blue’ program White House notifies Russia that no new sanctions are coming: report Senators push HHS to negotiate lower prices on opioid overdose reversal drug MORE won five states by 18 or more points and five more by narrow margins. Republicans, meanwhile, have three tough races in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee.

Senate Republicans took note of the still-undecided race in Tuesday’s special House election in Pennsylvania, where Democrat Conor Lamb is narrowly ahead of Republican state Rep. Rick Saccone in a district Trump won by 20 points. Yet, they say they aren’t panicked. 

A survey by Axios and SurveyMonkey published last week showed five Senate Democratic incumbents losing if the election were held today.

The poll showed Sens. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenators grill alleged robocall kingpin GOP Senate hopefuls race to catch up with Dems Overnight Health Care: Rep. Debbie Dingell on the pain and tragedy of the opioids crisis | DEA moves to curb opioid oversupply | Dem says Trump pick opposes VA privatization MORE (D-Mont.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinSenate blocks bill that opponents say weakens water pollution rules GOP Senate hopeful convicted after mining disaster files to vacate conviction Senate repeals auto-loan guidance in precedent-shattering vote MORE (D-W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySenate blocks bill that opponents say weakens water pollution rules Senate GOP wary of new tax cut sequel GOP Senate hopefuls race to catch up with Dems MORE (D-Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampSenators, staffers lament the end of 50 Most Beautiful Senate blocks bill that opponents say weakens water pollution rules Senate GOP wary of new tax cut sequel MORE (D-N.D.) losing to generic Republicans.

It also showed Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillSenate blocks bill that opponents say weakens water pollution rules Senate GOP wary of new tax cut sequel GOP Senate hopefuls race to catch up with Dems MORE (D-Mo.) trailing Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley (R).

A second Republican senator, who confirmed Gardner’s comments, said there’s growing optimism about knocking off Tester because he faces competition from a Green Party candidate who could divide liberal voters in November.

The Associated Press, however, reported Tuesday that the Green Party candidate, Timothy Adams, was previously on the Republican Party’s payroll and heads a newly formed anti-tax group, which diminishes his credibility with the left.

Gardner is bucking up his colleagues as signs accumulate of a coming Democratic wave in November that could flip control of the House and possibly the Senate as well.

A spokeswoman for the NRSC declined to comment on Gardner’s private comments.

David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Gardner’s optimistic talk is actually a sign of growing desperation.

“Republicans can’t defend their higher health-care costs or their tax scam that benefits corporate executives at the expense of the middle class, and have lost a Senate seat in Alabama along with a congressional seat in a district Trump won by 20 points. No wonder they’re grasping at straws,” he said.

Senate Republicans say Lamb’s possible victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th District is concerning, but they’re hopeful that it is not a harbinger of things to come in the fall. 

“Obviously it’s not a good story when a district that I think I carried by 20 points and President Trump carried by 20 points is basically a tie,” said Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyWH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race Newly declassified memos detail extent of improper Obama-era NSA spying MORE (R-Pa.), who won the district handily in his 2016 reelection win.

But Toomey cautioned, “I’d be careful about extrapolating.”

“Every race has its own peculiarities, its own unique circumstances,” he added.

Saccone’s possible loss and the dismal showing by Republican candidates in state races in New Jersey and Virginia in November has underscored a feeling among Republicans that they are facing a political headwind because of Trump.

While Gardner is expressing confidence to his colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate blocks bill that opponents say weakens water pollution rules Pittsburgh police told to prepare for protests over potential Mueller firing: report Senate repeals auto-loan guidance in precedent-shattering vote MORE (R-Ky.) has been more circumspect. 

McConnell last month told The New York Times, “The odds are that we will lose seats in the House and the Senate.” He also acknowledged Democrats have a major edge in fundraising over the Senate GOP.

Historically, the president’s party loses seats in midterm elections, but some Republicans think that trend could be exacerbated by Trump’s polarizing style.

Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeTrump's NASA nominee advances after floor drama Senate GOP wary of new tax cut sequel GOP Senate hopefuls race to catch up with Dems MORE (R-Ariz.), a regular critic of the president, called the Pennsylvania special election “a wake-up call, and a big one.”

“This is a 20-point Trump district. A year later, we lose it,” he said, expressing hope that it would illustrate to fellow Republicans “the limits of Trumpism.”

“You can only drill down so hard on the base. You have to appeal to a broader electorate,” Flake added.

“Having the president come into town and ridicule Democratic members of Congress and encourage cheers of ‘CNN sucks’... right-thinking people are saying that’s not our view.”

Flake, who is not seeking reelection, said his colleagues are feeling more nervous about the midterms despite cheery talk from GOP leaders such as Gardner.

Other Republican senators say they’re not nervous but nevertheless realize they face an uphill battle because of historical trends.

“Any party in control needs to keep its eyes wide open as you approach the first midterm election in a new president’s term. That’s historically been the case, so we’ll just have to work harder,” said Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderSupreme Court weighs future of online sales taxes Senators press administration on mental health parity Overnight Health Care: Opioid crisis takes personal toll on Washington | Trump order targets public assistance programs | Trump to deliver speech on drug pricing MORE (R-Tenn.), who will work to elect a Republican to replace retiring Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerDems give muted praise to Pompeo-Kim meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report Corker won’t campaign against Democrat running for Tennessee Senate seat MORE (R-Tenn.) later this year. 

Alexander said that Trump has proven he has rock-solid support among the Republican base, but the challenge will be to broaden that enthusiasm for GOP candidates to swing and independent voters. 

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTrump's NASA nominee advances after floor drama Family, friends mourn death of Barbara Bush Amid struggle for votes, GOP plows ahead with Cabinet picks MORE (R-Maine) said party strategists should pay close attention to the result to make course corrections ahead of the midterms, if necessary. 

“I don’t think there’s any need to panic but certainly we should take a look at the results and why people voted the way they did,” she said. 

Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeMcCarthy faces obstacles in Speaker bid This week: House GOP plots path forward Ryan leaves legacy of tax cuts and deficits MORE (R-Okla.), a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Senate Republicans are probably in better shape than House Republicans in this midterm elections.  

“The map, no matter what happens, still leans in our direction, so I think they have a better than even chance to actually pick up a seat or two,” Cole said of Senate Republicans and the favorable battleground map.