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Democrats expand Senate map, putting GOP on defense

Voter angst over the coronavirus pandemic and anger at President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE have Democrats surfing a blue wave that has them positioned to sweep back the Senate majority for the first time in six years.

What began as an election cycle focused on a narrow handful of states has blossomed into a coast-to-coast battlefield in which Republican-held states that haven’t sent a Democrat to Washington for decades are suddenly in play.

In interviews with more than a dozen strategists and pollsters on both sides of the partisan divide, those active in the fight for control of the Senate said the carefully planned campaign centered on just a few states blew up when the virus began spreading in March, and expanded further when Democratic candidates began reaping an unexpected and unprecedented harvest of small-dollar donations fueled by activist outrage.

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Democrats need to gain a net of just three seats to recapture the majority. In the closing days of the campaign, as many as 14 Senate seats appear truly competitive — 11 of them currently held by the GOP.

Public polling shows Democratic challengers are poised to knock off Republican Senate incumbents Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTwo more parting shots from Trump aimed squarely at disabled workers Trump transition order follows chorus of GOP criticism The Memo: Trump election loss roils right MORE (Maine), Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyTrump nominee's long road to Fed may be dead end McSally, staff asked to break up maskless photo op inside Capitol McSally's final floor speech: 'I gave it my all, and I left it all on the field' MORE (Ariz.) and Cory GardnerCory GardnerHillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities Democrats vent to Schumer over Senate majority failure MORE (Colo.). Collins has not led a public survey this year; McSally has led only one poll, which was paid for by a conservative media outlet; and Gardner trails former Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperDemocrats frustrated, GOP jubilant in Senate fight Chamber-endorsed Dems struggle on election night OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  MORE (D) in the only survey conducted in Colorado in October.

Most polls have showed Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisNorth Carolina — still purple but up for grabs Team Trump offering 'fire hose' of conspiracy Kool-Aid for supporters Loeffler isolating after possible COVID-19 infection MORE (R-N.C.) in jeopardy too, despite a sex scandal that has plagued former state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D) in the final month of the race. Tillis has sought to turn the campaign into a referendum on Cunningham’s behavior, though the Democratic challenger has maintained a narrow lead in most public polls.

Those four seats alone would be enough for Democrats to capture control of the Senate, offsetting the likely loss of a seat in Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones (D) trails former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville.

But Democrats have planted bulbs in other, less-fertile states, and they are starting to see green shoots. Recent polling shows Republican incumbents in Iowa, Montana, South Carolina and Alaska running just ahead of or even with their well-funded Democratic rivals. An open seat in Kansas, a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since the height of the Great Depression, is also a close race.

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Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Down ballot races carry environmental implications | US officially exits Paris climate accord  GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte wins Montana governor's race Senate control in flux as counting goes forward in key states MORE (D), who has won election three times in the same year a Republican presidential nominee has carried his state, leapt from an unsuccessful presidential campaign of his own into a tight contest against Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesRick Scott tests positive for coronavirus Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Barrasso to seek top spot on Energy and Natural Resources Committee | Forest Service finalizes rule weakening environmental review of its projects | Biden to enlist Agriculture, Transportation agencies in climate fight MORE (R). And in Georgia, Democrats turned to a couple of candidates — investigative journalist Jon Ossoff, challenging Sen. David Perdue (R), and pastor Raphael Warnock, who faces a crowded field led by appointed Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerTrump set for precedent-breaking lame-duck period Feinstein departure from top post sets stage for Judiciary fight House Democrat accuses Air Force of attempting to influence Georgia runoff races MORE (R) and Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsMajority say they want GOP in control of Senate: poll The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans Georgia secretary of state says wife has received threatening texts about recount MORE (R) — in a pair of races that may stretch to a January runoff.

“Thanks to strong Democratic candidates expanding the map, we're heading into the election on offense in more than a dozen Senate seats, including tough red states, and with multiple paths to the majority,” said Lauren Passalacqua, the spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The biggest problem dragging down Republican incumbents is their toxic health care records and voting to gut protections for people with pre-existing conditions, even during a pandemic.”

Republicans have been more focused on defending their incumbents than expanding their opportunities. 

The party has been most optimistic about Michigan businessman John James (R), though public polls show him trailing Sen. Gary PetersGary PetersRepublican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race Hillicon Valley: YouTube suspends OANN amid lawmaker pressure | Dems probe Facebook, Twitter over Georgia runoff | FCC reaffirms ZTE's national security risk Democrats urge YouTube to remove election misinformation, step up efforts ahead of Georgia runoff MORE (D). Democrats are even more likely to keep the seat held by Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithSenate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls Smith wins reelection in Minnesota Democrats expand Senate map, putting GOP on defense MORE (D-Minn.). 

Just days before Election Day, neither Democrats nor Republicans will say they are confident about their chances of winning a Senate majority in the next Congress. But Democrats have expanded a map that was once focused on just a handful of states, giving them more paths back to controlling the gavel than either party would have expected two years ago.

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The instability in what once appeared to be a narrowly focused contest has come from a global pandemic that has disrupted Americans’ daily lives and their politics. Democrats have reprised their defense of the Affordable Care Act as the Trump administration challenges its constitutionality at the Supreme Court, even while a raging wave of infections sickens nearly 100,000 Americans every day.

“The [Republican] Party as a whole failed to understand nothing mattered until they got the virus under control,” said Shripal Shah, vice president of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “You can’t lie your way out of a pandemic.”

Republican senators have grown increasingly unhappy with Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, to the extent that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Acting Defense secretary makes surprise trip to Somalia As Biden administration ramps up, Trump legal effort drags on MORE (R-Ky.) avoided appearing at the White House over concerns that the administration was lax in protecting its own employees — a fear that proved well-founded after the president and several Republican senators got infected themselves.

“This has been as challenging a political environment as any for an incumbent party or for Republicans in general, and it’s a testament to the resilience of these Republican senators and the strategic decisions made on our side that there’s still a path to holding the Senate majority,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Back home, those senators tried to appear active in combating both the virus and its economic toll. They touted the distribution of emergency funds to the unemployed and to small businesses, even though conservatives made clear that a further round of emergency stimulus being negotiated by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGovernors take heat for violating their own coronavirus restrictions Spending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight Ocasio-Cortez, Cruz trade jabs over COVID-19 relief: People 'going hungry as you tweet from' vacation MORE (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinBiden's Treasury pick will have lengthy to-do list on taxes On The Money: Initial jobless claims rise for 2nd week | Dow dips below 30K | Mnuchin draws fire for COVID-19 relief move | Manhattan DA appeals dismissal of Manafort charges Mnuchin to put 5B in COVID-19 relief funds beyond successor's reach MORE was a non-starter.

“You had to have demonstrated some virus competence,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist who advises Gardner and Tillis. Voters “have to feel like you’re working at it, that it’s a priority.”

Democrats recruited a broad field of challengers they hope will fit a unique moment.

Against Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstThe Memo: Trump plows ahead with efforts to overturn election More conservatives break with Trump over election claims Peggy Noonan: 'Bogus dispute' by Trump 'doing real damage' MORE (R-Iowa), they chose a businesswoman who has never held office, Theresa Greenfield, in hopes of contrasting with an incumbent they want to portray as having gone Washington. In Alaska, Democrats backed an Independent candidate, Al Gross, with a uniquely Alaskan story about killing an attacking grizzly bear. In Kansas, they hoped to exploit internal Republican divisions by backing state Sen. Barbara Bollier, who until recently was a Republican herself

Perhaps no first-time candidate has surprised more than South Carolina’s Jaime Harrison (D), who has raised more than $100 million in his bid to take on Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRepublicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden Let's give thanks to Republican defenders of democracy Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts MORE (R). Graham remains the favorite, but Harrison’s cash haul has put him in the best position of any Democrat in recent memory in a state that hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since Fritz Hollings won reelection in 1998.

Harrison and Warnock are two of six Black Democratic candidates this year — the others are running in Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, and Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerSenate Democrats reelect Schumer as leader by acclamation  Hill associations push for more diversity in lawmakers' staffs Sanders celebrates Biden-Harris victory: 'Thank God democracy won out' MORE (D), who is skating to reelection in New Jersey.

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Harrison is the most successful fundraiser in a cohort that has shattered records. Late campaign finance filings show Greenfield has raised $47 million, Cunningham $46 million and Collins’s challenger Sara Gideon (D) $68 million. In Montana, Bullock raised $5.6 million for his presidential campaign — and about eight times as much, $42 million, for his Senate campaign.

That money has helped candidates fend off a barrage of outside attacks from the NRSC and the Senate Leadership Fund, the top Republican super PAC. That group has raised more than $300 million of its own this cycle, led by big-spending billionaires like the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam and the investors Ken Griffin, Stephen Schwarzman and Timothy Mellon. The super PAC’s Democratic equivalent, the Senate Majority PAC, has raised $254 million itself, according to the most recent filings.

“Candidate hard money is the most valuable commodity in politics, because it’s the only money that allows a candidate to go on TV and talk to the camera,” Todd said.