Campaign

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.

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 Israel (D-N.Y.) said. “If President Trump 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 Gardner (R) is facing changing political headwinds and a challenge from John Hickenlooper, 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 McSally (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 McCain (R-Ariz.).

And in Maine, Democrats have it out for Sen. Susan Collins (R), a four-term senator whose vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh 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.

Democrats are also looking to oust Sen. Thom Tillis (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 McConnell (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.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (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 Ernst (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 Bullock is taking on Sen. Steve Daines (R); Texas, where MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West are locked in a runoff for the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. John Cornyn (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 Loeffler (R), who was appointed late last year to fill the seat of retired Sen. Johnny Isakson (R), is facing a challenge from Democrat Raphael Warnock as well as from Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a steadfast Trump ally who’s running to the right of Loeffler.

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 Peters (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.

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 Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, with a slim lead in the state.

Tags Brett Kavanaugh Charles Schumer Cory Gardner Donald Trump Doug Collins doug jones Gary Peters Joe Biden John Cornyn John Hickenlooper John McCain Johnny Isakson Joni Ernst Kelly Loeffler Martha McSally Mitch McConnell Steve Bullock Steve Daines Steve Israel Susan Collins Thom Tillis
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