Democrats expand Senate map, putting GOP on defense
Voter angst over the coronavirus pandemic and anger at President Trump 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.
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 Collins (Maine), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (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 Hickenlooper (D) in the only survey conducted in Colorado in October.
Most polls have showed Sen. Thom Tillis (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.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (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 Daines (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 Loeffler (R) and Rep. Doug Collins (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 Peters (D). Democrats are even more likely to keep the seat held by Sen. Tina Smith (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.
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 McConnell (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 Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin 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 Ernst (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 Graham (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 Booker (D), who is skating to reelection in New Jersey.
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.