Senate battle hinges on four races

Democrats are racing to broaden their path to the Senate majority in November, while Republicans are spending heavily in an effort to hold their control over the chamber.

With 200 days to go until Election Day, the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority currently hinges on four states: Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, where Republican incumbents are fighting off challenges from well-funded Democratic opponents.

Democrats need to flip three or four seats, depending on which party wins the White House in November, to take control of the Senate. But one of their incumbents up for reelection this year, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), is in serious political jeopardy, meaning that Democrats will likely have to take at least four Republican-held seats — and hold back GOP challenges in nearly a dozen other states — to win a majority.

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Also weighing over the battle for control of the Senate are the presidential race and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the election cycle and now looms as perhaps the biggest variable in 2020.

“A presidential campaign always has the longest and most powerful coattails,” former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump, Biden intensify battleground focus as 2020 race tightens Biden allies express confidence as convention begins MORE (D-N.Y.) said. “If President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE is perceived to be doing well, it will retain the Senate Republican majority. If in October he’s underwater, then the Democrats could take the Senate.”

Democrats’ softest target may be in Colorado, where Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerBreaking the Chinese space addiction Trump dumbfounds GOP with latest unforced error Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden MORE (R) is facing changing political headwinds and a challenge from John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump previews SCOTUS nominee as 'totally brilliant' Cook Political Report shifts Colorado Senate race toward Democrat Willie Nelson playing at virtual fundraiser for Hickenlooper MORE, the state’s popular former Democratic governor and the prohibitive front-runner in a crowded primary field.

The party is also confident of defeating Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyOn The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami The Hill's Campaign Report: Presidential polls tighten weeks out from Election Day Mark Kelly: Arizona Senate race winner should be sworn in 'promptly' MORE (R) in Arizona. McSally already lost a bid against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in 2018 and took office only after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appointed her to fill the seat vacated by the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCrenshaw looms large as Democrats look to flip Texas House seat Analysis: Biden victory, Democratic sweep would bring biggest boost to economy The Memo: Trump's strengths complicate election picture MORE (R-Ariz.).

And in Maine, Democrats have it out for Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' Poll: 57 percent of Americans think next president, Senate should fill Ginsburg vacancy On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami MORE (R), a four-term senator whose vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughTrump plans to pick Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg on court Collins trails challenger by 4 points in Maine Senate race: poll SCOTUS confirmation in the last month of a close election? Ugly MORE in 2017 amid sexual misconduct allegations touched off a flurry of anger from the left. She’s widely expected to face Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, the Democratic front-runner, in November.

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Democrats are also looking to oust Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOvernight Energy: Trump officials finalize plan to open up protected areas of Tongass to logging | Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium | Dems question EPA's postponement of inequality training On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami Feds say offshore testing for oil can proceed despite drilling moratorium MORE (R) in North Carolina. He’s set to face off against national Democrats’ candidate of choice, Cal Cunningham, in November, and recent polls suggest a tight race.

A survey from the Democrat-leaning firm Public Policy Polling released this week showed Cunningham leading Tillis by a 7-point margin, while a poll from the conservative Civitas Institute out last week put Tillis ahead by 4 points.

Outside groups on both sides of the aisle have poured money into all four states in recent months.

The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic senator to party: 'A little message discipline wouldn't kill us' House to vote on resolution affirming peaceful transition of power Republican lawyers brush off Trump's election comments MORE (R-Ky.), booked a combined $43.7 million in fall ad reservations across the four battleground states late last month, along with another $32.6 million in Iowa and Kentucky.

And just this week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, invested some $33 million in advertising across seven states: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana and North Carolina.

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Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi slams Trump executive order on pre-existing conditions: It 'isn't worth the paper it's signed on' 3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Cruz blocks amended resolution honoring Ginsburg over language about her dying wish MORE (D-N.Y.), booked more than $56 million in fall ad reservations across the four key states, plus an additional $13.1 million in fall ad reservations in Iowa.

For now, Democrats appear to have the edge in fundraising. Federal Election Commission filings covering the first three months of 2020 showed Democrats in the four most contested states — Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina — outraising their Republican opponents by wide margins.

In Arizona, McSally’s likely opponent, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, raked in more than $11 million in the first quarter — roughly $4.6 million more than McSally.

In Colorado and North Carolina, Hickenlooper and Cunningham outraised their Republican rivals by about $1.6 million each. And in Maine, Gideon raised nearly three times more than Collins, bringing in about $7.1 million to Collins’s $2.4 million, federal filings show.

But with Jones looking particularly vulnerable in deep-red Alabama and the fate of the White House appearing uncertain, Democrats have little room for error if they hope to net the three or four seats they need to recapture a majority in the Senate.

A failure to flip even one of the four core seats — in Arizona, Colorado, Maine or North Carolina — and a potential loss by Jones could effectively kill the party’s chances of regaining control of the chamber in 2021.

Consequently, Democrats are hoping to bring a handful of other states into play, including Iowa, where Democrats say Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOn The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami Tillis appears to reinforce question about COVID-19 death toll The power of incumbency: How Trump is using the Oval Office to win reelection MORE (R) is increasingly vulnerable.

A Des Moines Register–Mediacom Iowa poll last month showed Ernst’s approval rating at 47 percent, down 10 points from a year ago. And while Ernst has outraised her top Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, over the past two quarters, Greenfield has kept the fundraising gap relatively tight. In the first quarter, for instance, she raised about $500,000 less than Ernst.

Democrats believe they can also bring a handful of races in more Republican-leaning states into play, including Montana, where Democratic Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockCourt removes Pendley from role as public lands chief On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami McConnell locks down key GOP votes in Supreme Court fight MORE is taking on Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOn The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power Credit union group to spend million on Senate, House races MORE (R); Texas, where MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West are locked in a runoff for the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. John CornynJohn CornynHillicon Valley: Productivity, fatigue, cybersecurity emerge as top concerns amid pandemic | Facebook critics launch alternative oversight board | Google to temporarily bar election ads after polls close Lawmakers introduce legislation to boost cybersecurity of local governments, small businesses On The Trail: Making sense of this week's polling tsunami MORE (R); and Kentucky, where Democrat Amy McGrath raised nearly $13 million in the first quarter of 2020 for her bid against McConnell.

Democrats also see an opportunity in Georgia, where Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerDemocrats ramp up pressure on Lieberman to drop out of Georgia Senate race The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements GOP, Democrats look to galvanize women with SCOTUS fight MORE (R), who was appointed late last year to fill the seat of retired Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonDemocrats ramp up pressure on Lieberman to drop out of Georgia Senate race Obama endorses Warnock in crowded Georgia Senate race Lobbying world MORE (R), is facing a challenge from Democrat Raphael Warnock as well as from Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsDemocrats ramp up pressure on Lieberman to drop out of Georgia Senate race The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden on Trump: 'He'll leave' l GOP laywers brush off Trump's election remarks l Obama's endorsements GOP, Democrats look to galvanize women with SCOTUS fight MORE (R-Ga.), a steadfast Trump ally who’s running to the right of Loeffler.

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Those races are likely to prove significantly more challenging for Democrats than the four core races in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, and party operatives are aware that they’ll have to choose their battles carefully as they look to regain the Senate majority.

“This isn’t a numbers game. This isn’t the House map,” one Democratic operative familiar with Senate campaigns said. “You’re talking about a very targeted set of races that we need to get back to the majority.”

With the exception of Alabama, Republicans have few pickup opportunities in 2020. The party is defending incumbents in 23 seats, compared with only a dozen for Democrats.

But they see an emerging opportunity in Michigan, where Republican John James, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018, is vying to take on Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersHillicon Valley: Subpoenas for Facebook, Google and Twitter on the cards | Wray rebuffs mail-in voting conspiracies | Reps. raise mass surveillance concerns Postmaster general says postal service can't return mail-sorting machines The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power MORE (D), a first-term senator whose relatively low name ID has bolstered the GOP’s hopes of ousting him.

James outraised Peters in the first quarter of the year, raking in $4.8 million to Peters’s roughly $4.1 million.

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But edging out Peters will likely prove difficult for the GOP. Polling in the race has been scarce in recent weeks, but virtually every public survey of the race shows Peters leading James.

At the same time, Democrats are pouring money into Michigan to bolster Peters. Between Dec. 1 and April 10, Democrats spent nearly $5.1 million on advertising in the state, according to data from the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Republicans, meanwhile, spent just under $2 million.

Peters may also get a boost from the presidential race. Democrats are eager to win Michigan in November after Trump narrowly carried the state in 2016. Recent polls, however, show former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick Bloomberg rolls out M ad buy to boost Biden in Florida MORE, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, with a slim lead in the state.