The president of a major Democratic super PAC tasked with winning back control of the Senate feels emboldened about his party’s odds in key races next year, despite the daunting map Democrats face in 2018.
The Senate battleground looks tough for Democrats, who will have to defend 10 seats in states that President Trump won last year — including five Trump carried by double-digit margins. Democrats are offensively limited, too, with only two Senate seats held by Republicans considered to be vulnerable.
The question for many observers is not whether Democrats will lose seats in the Senate, but how many they’ll lose. But J.B. Poersch, the head of the Senate Majority PAC (SMP) who sat down with The Hill for an exclusive interview, is no stranger to tough races.
A veteran of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerDemocrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill Coons says White House could impose border fee for carbon-intensive products The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The omicron threat and Biden's plan to beat it MORE (D-N.Y.), he helped Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyBiden to have audience with pope, attend G20 summit Biden taps former Indiana Sen. Donnelly as ambassador to Vatican Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights MORE (D-Ind.) mount an upset victory in 2012. Six years later, Poersch is positioned to help Donnelly and other red-state Democrats win reelection.
While Democrats are feeling increasingly bullish about their prospects for taking back the House, the party has exercised more caution about the upper chamber. But polls showing Democratic incumbents in strong reelection positions, an open seat in Tennessee and a surprisingly competitive special election in Alabama have all helped boost Democrats’ confidence about the Senate.
“It’s too early to get excited about the possibility of majority. The map tends to sort itself out in the election year,” Poersch said, adding that, “All the data suggests right now the incumbents are winning, so it’s generally positive.”
Poersch points to historic midterm election trends that favor the party out of power, as well as generic ballot polls for House Democrats that show the party leading by an average of nearly 11 points.
Still, vulnerable incumbents like Sens. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE (D-Mont.), Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillLobbying world Ex-Rep. Akin dies at 74 Republicans may regret restricting reproductive rights MORE (D-Mo.), Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOn The Money — Powell, Yellen face pressure on inflation Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Dems seek to preserve climate provisions Democrats wrangle to keep climate priorities in spending bill MORE (D-W.Va.) and Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampVirginia loss lays bare Democrats' struggle with rural voters Washington's oldest contact sport: Lobbyists scrum to dilute or kill Democrats' tax bill Progressives prepare to launch counterattack in tax fight MORE (D-N.D.) face uphill battles in red states Trump carried in 2016. But Poersch insists that the targeted Democrats’ brands can help them withstand their states’ Republican shifts.
“They were hard states when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBudowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE ran for president,” Poersch said. “We don’t take any of them for granted, but these are candidates that are pretty well-defined and associated with their states.”
Democrats are also feeling optimistic about their two most likely pick-ups, Nevada and Arizona. Fierce GOP primaries are brewing in both states, with forces aligned with former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon set to face off against allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Memo: Trump's justices look set to restrict abortion Conservatives could force shutdown over Biden vaccine mandate Freedom Caucus urges McConnell to block government funding over vaccine mandates MORE (R-Ky.).
Republicans’ position on Trump has become a litmus test in contested primaries. Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeRubio vows to slow-walk Biden's China, Spain ambassador nominees Senate confirms Thomas Nides as US ambassador to Israel Flake, Cindy McCain among latest Biden ambassadors confirmed after delay MORE (R-Ariz.), an outspoken Trump critic, gave up his reelection bid amid concerns that his criticism of Trump meant he was doomed in the primary. Prior to Flake’s retirement announcement, SMP released a poll that showed him lagging behind opponents in both the primary and general election.
In Nevada, GOP Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerNevada becomes early Senate battleground Nevada governor Sisolak injured in car accident, released from hospital Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada MORE, who has been critical of Trump, is facing similar pressure from a Bannon-linked Republican candidate. Democrats feel that Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) would be in a good position to take on whoever emerges from the GOP primary.
Trump’s numbers are sky high in most Republican primary polls, while McConnell support has already proved to be toxic in some GOP primaries. That complicates the general election calculus for Republicans looking to take on red-state Democrats, considering that Trump scores significantly lower with the broader electorate.
“That’s what those primaries are about,” Poersch said. “It’s going to make the eight primaries that exist for them already pretty ingrained and pretty real.”
Some Democrats see a path to taking back the Senate through open seats, particularly in Alabama.
Republicans appeared certain to hold on to the deep-red seat until bombshell allegations emerged that GOP nominee Roy Moore initiated sexual contact with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Now, polls show the race well within grasp for the Democrats.
A source with knowledge of SMP’s thinking said the super PAC is still weighing options of how much to do in Alabama.
National Democrats have so far been reluctant to intervene in Alabama, despite the allegations. They argue that their involvement would take the focus away from Democratic nominee Doug Jones, hurting his bid by making him look like a Washington candidate.
“This race is not about Washington and party institutions,” Poersch said. “Simply, Doug Jones is the only person in this race fit to serve in the Senate.”
Democrats are also cautiously optimistic on Tennessee, with the retirement of GOP Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerCheney set to be face of anti-Trump GOP How leaving Afghanistan cancels our post-9/11 use of force The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her MORE, a Trump surrogate-turned-critic. Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in the state in nearly 30 years, but now they claim to see a possible path there, especially as Phil Bredesen, a popular former Democratic governor, weighs a bid.
“I can see how Tennessee could be competitive,” Poersch said. “We have to prove it, but we’ve got a year to prove that.”
With Election Day 2018 still a year out, both parties are bracing for expensive Senate races.
SMP is directly competing with the extensive donor network of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The brothers plan to spend $400 million in 2018.
One Koch group has already dropped $1.7 million targeting Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinWisconsinites need infrastructure that is built to last Wisconsin senators ask outsiders not to exploit parade attack 'for their own political purposes' Senate Democrats call on Biden to push for COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers at WTO MORE (D-Wis.), who is up for reelection in a state that Trump narrowly carried. SMP countered with its own seven-figure ad buy defending her.
SMP hasn’t publicly set a benchmark for how much the group plans to raise and spend in 2018. In the first half of 2017, the super PAC raised more than $4.5 million. In the 2016 cycle, SMP raised $92 million and spent $75 million on independent expenditures. The group expects to devote a “higher percentage” of its budget to digital advertising in 2018 than it did in 2016.
Poersch believes Republicans will get voter pushback on their efforts to repeal ObamaCare because they made a “conscious choice to try and dismantle rather than improve.”
Poersch says health care will be an integral part of Democrats’ messaging next year, something the party has already capitalized on after several failed repeal efforts.
“This is an argument that Republicans are now on the wrong side of,” he said.
Ben Kamisar contributed.