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Eight weeks out: Dems see narrow path to Senate majority
Eight weeks out from the midterm elections, both Republicans and Democrats find themselves with a path to a Senate majority.
For Democrats, it is a surprising development given this year's difficult political map: The party is defending nearly two-dozen seats, including 10 seats in states won by President Trump in 2016.
Yet if the party can sweep every race considered a toss-up, it would end up with a 52-48 majority in the next Congress - even while losing Texas, where Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D) is giving GOP Sen. Ted Cruz a stronger-than-expected challenge.
The path for the GOP remains easier - and much more realistic.
If Republicans win just two of the eight races considered by The Cook Political Report to be toss-ups - which include five seats held by incumbent Democrats, one held by an incumbent Republican and two GOP seats where the incumbent is retiring - they would keep the Senate with a 50-50 margin and Vice President Pence's tie-breaking vote.
Republicans hope they will actually add to their 51-49 margin given the fact that five of the eight races rated as toss-up by Cook are in states that Trump won by double-digits in 2016: North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia and Tennessee.
For now, the most likely scenario envisioned by Republicans and Democrats is one in which the GOP only slightly extends their majority, with an outside chance that a blue wave would sweep Democrats into both the Senate and the House if all the pieces align just right.
"Republicans remain the favorite, but the fact that we're even talking about Democrats having a chance of taking over the majority is astounding and speaks to the problems of the Republican Party and Trump," said Doug Thornell, who previously worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"I'm optimistic we can keep our losses to a minimum or even win the majority," he added.
Republicans began the cycle with visions of building toward a filibuster-proof margin for Trump given the favorable map.
Those dreams quickly fell to the wayside with Trump's low approval ratings and a huge upset last year in a special Senate election in Alabama, where Democrats cut into the GOP majority with a victory by Doug Jones.
"I think a Democratic takeover is a stretch because of the map, but the environment probably prevents Republicans from picking up more than one or two seats," said a Republican Senate strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely.
A number of Democratic Senate seats in Trump states are now seen as long shots, and Republicans are playing defense in Nevada, which was long seen as a battleground given Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's 2016 victory there, but also in Arizona and Tennessee.
In Arizona, Democrats have heralded Rep. Kyrsten Sinema as a top recruit and one who's been able to define herself as an independent with no pushback for months as Republicans fought it out in a contentious primary.
Few would have thought Democrats would have any hope in Tennessee, which Trump won by 26 points, but the party recruited a strong candidate in former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D). He faces a Trump ally, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R).
Bredesen remains a popular candidate and has campaigned as a centrist Democrat; the latest survey from NBC News-Marist showed him up by 2 points. But he'll still have to sway enough Republicans in a red state that ultimately powered Trump to a 26-point win in 2016.
In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson (D) is facing what could be the toughest reelection bid of his Senate career. He faces a challenge from the state's Republican governor, Rick Scott, a wealthy former health-care executive who was urged to run by national Republicans.
Nelson has faced a spate of headlines in recent months describing a sleepy reelection bid, and Scott has brought in million of dollars to his campaign - much of it coming from his personal fortune.
But Democrats are quick to point out that polls continue to show a tight race, with Scott failing to gain much traction despite drastically outspending the three-term incumbent. And Nelson just recently began punching back after weathering months of attack ads.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) faces an equally challenging race against Missouri's Republican attorney general, Josh Hawley. Trump won the state in 2016 by more than 18 points, and a recent NBC News-Marist poll shows McCaskill and Hawley tied at 47 percent.
McCaskill is far outpacing Hawley in the money race, raising more than $20 million compared to the Republican's roughly $4.75 million. But Hawley is seeking to make the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court a wedge issue, with McCaskill yet to say whether she will vote to confirm him.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) is another red-state Democrat looking increasingly vulnerable as she faces off against Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) in a state Trump won by nearly 36 points, though she remains personally popular among constituents.
Democrats are feeling more comfortable with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), who started the year as two of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate but are now leading in the polls.
Manchin, a longtime staple in West Virginia politics, has gone after Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey over his support of an anti-ObamaCare lawsuit, employing a strategy used by Democrats in races nationwide.
Manchin's ad shows him shooting a lawsuit signed by Morrisey that seeks to block the health-care law's implementation.
A MetroNews-Dominion Post poll released in August showed Manchin leading Morrisey by 8 points, even though the state went for Trump by more than 40 points in 2016.
And in Indiana, a recent NBC News-Marist poll put Donnelly ahead of Republican businessman Mike Braun 49-43 percent, with the survey also showing Donnelly leading Braun by 20 points among independent voters.
It's possible the race could be decided by contests that are not considered toss-ups at the moment.
Democrats are increasingly bright-eyed in Texas, where O'Rourke is running a high-profile race against Cruz.
The Lone Star State remains heavily Republican and most public polls show Cruz slightly ahead, but the conservative senator's lead has narrowed in recent weeks and Republicans have taken notice.
The New York Times reported on Saturday that White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney warned donors and party insiders at a recent closed-door event that Cruz could lose in November, and Republicans and outside groups are having to step in to help out the senator, including an upcoming rally from Trump.
Just as Democrats are eyeing Texas, Republicans are likewise targeting an unexpected prize in New Jersey, where Sen. Bob Menendez (D) appears in trouble as he remains dogged by a corruption case that ended in a hung jury, with federal prosecutors ultimately throwing out the charges.
Menendez is facing off against Bob Hugin, a former pharmaceutical company CEO and Trump's finance chairman in New Jersey, who has poured in $15 million of his own money into the race.
All in all, the races are showing a Senate race unexpectedly in flux, leaving Republican strategists bracing for last-minute surprises that could alter their path to keeping the majority.
"Republicans need to prepare themselves for surprise changes and priorities in the last couple of weeks," the GOP strategist said.
"You'd like to think with a map like the one Republicans were given you'd see across the board campaigns that are being run at the top level. You're just not."