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 GardnerMcConnell calls for Senate hearings on Russia sanctions GOP seeks separation from Trump on Russia Republican bill aims to deter NATO members from using Russian pipeline 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 TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short 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) TesterOvernight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee On The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee MORE (D-Mont.), Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinOvernight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices Dems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas MORE (D-W.Va.), Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds Fed chief lays out risks of trade war MORE (D-Ind.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Election Countdown: Senate, House Dems build cash advantage | 2020 Dems slam Trump over Putin presser | Trump has M in war chest | Republican blasts parents for donating to rival | Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders to campaign in Kansas Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds MORE (D-N.D.) losing to generic Republicans.

It also showed Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillOvernight Health Care: Trump officials explore importing prescription drugs | Key ObamaCare, drug pricing regs under review | GOP looks to blunt attacks on rising premiums | Merck to lower some drug prices Dems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions The Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s walk-back fails to stem outrage on Putin meeting 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 ToomeyOvernight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns Top GOP candidate drops out of Ohio Senate race 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 McConnellMcConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Overnight Defense: Trump inviting Putin to DC | Senate to vote Monday on VA pick | Graham open to US-Russia military coordination in Syria Senate to vote Monday on Trump's VA nominee 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 FlakeSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials Flake: Trump's Russia summit ‘truly an Orwellian moment’ 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 AlexanderDems pressure GOP to take legal action supporting pre-existing conditions Trump administration to explore importing prescription drugs Bipartisan bill would bring needed funds to deteriorating National Park Service infrastructure MORE (R-Tenn.), who will work to elect a Republican to replace retiring Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit Senate approves resolution warning Trump not to hand over US officials McConnell calls for Senate hearings on Russia sanctions 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 CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report — Russia furor grips Washington Overnight Health Care: Novartis pulls back on drug price hikes | House Dems launch Medicare for All caucus | Trump officials pushing ahead on Medicaid work requirements Senate panel to vote next week on banning 'gag clauses' in pharmacy contracts 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 ColeThis week: GOP mulls vote on ‘abolish ICE’ legislation GOP centrists face decision day on Dreamer petition Bipartisan support for medical research is good news for all 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.