Senate Republicans set sights on blue state ‘sleeper’ races
Republicans are eyeing Senate races in a handful of blue states they believe have the potential to come into play ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, underscoring the confidence the party is feeling as it seeks to reclaim the upper chamber.
In an interview with The Hill last week, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said that the GOP was poised to take back the Senate majority in November, and suggested that the party could eventually expand its prospects beyond the handful of already established battlegrounds and into states currently considered safe for Democrats.
“I think we’re going to have some sleepers, where people are going to say, boy, we didn’t anticipate that one,” Scott told The Hill.
Asked which states he believes could become competitive in the coming months, he pointed to Colorado, Washington and Vermont.
“You look at Colorado, I think we have an opportunity potentially in Colorado. We have a great candidate in the state of Washington,” he said.
To be sure, Democrats are still heavily favored to win the Senate contests in each of those states, which are all deep blue and have handed Democrats statewide victories for years. The fight for control of the upper chamber is far more likely to center on well-established battlegrounds like Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Scott himself acknowledged that there was no guarantee of victory for Republicans, saying that the party still needs to “work your butt off to win.”
Still, President Biden’s sagging approval ratings, combined with the fact that the party in power tends to lose ground in Congress in midterm elections, has Republicans looking for new offensive opportunities.
“It’s dependent on Biden’s numbers essentially staying where they are or falling even further,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said. “If 65 percent of voters going into Election Day feel the country is still on the wrong track, they’re going to blame the Democratic president, Democratic House and Democratic Senate.”
“The more that goes on, the more the map expands for Republicans,” he added. “It’s not necessarily about predicting victories, but as these numbers continue [for Democrats], opportunities for Republicans are only going to increase.”
Heye and other Republicans pointed to Colorado as the clearest example of a blue state with the potential to come into play for the GOP down the road. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) is up for reelection this year, and while he remains the heavy favorite to win, Republicans say there’s reason to believe he could become vulnerable.
“As it stands right now, he’s not going anywhere,” one Republican operative with ties to Colorado said, noting that the GOP has yet to coalesce around a challenger to Bennet. “But I think you can imagine a scenario where we get a good candidate, Biden’s numbers keep tanking – then we would have a real race.”
The operative also pointed to a recent survey from the Republican polling firm Cygnal showing Bennet statistically tied in a head-to-head matchup with a generic GOP candidate. Democratic polling has painted a very different picture, with Bennet leading by double-digit margins.
Nevertheless, The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, shifted the Senate race in Colorado from its “Solid Democrat” column into its “Likely Democrat” column last week, a relatively small move, but one that underscores the fluid nature of this year’s Senate map.
“Despite the uncertainties in the GOP field, it’s clear this race merits watching – and while this move doesn’t indicate it’s competitive just yet, it clearly has the potential to do so in what’s shaping up to be a difficult year for Democrats, and incumbents like Bennet – even in a state like Colorado – will not be immune,” Jessica Taylor, The Cook Political Report’s Senate and governors editor, wrote of the handicapper’s decision to shift the Colorado Senate race.
It’s likely to take quite a bit more to bring the Senate races in Washington and Vermont into play.
While former U.S. Attorney General Christina Nolan is the only Republican to have formally announced a bid for retiring Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D) seat in Vermont, the state’s longtime at-large Rep. Peter Welch (D) is seen as the heavy favorite to succeed Leahy, given his high name ID, Vermont’s Democratic tilt and the fact that he has already won elections statewide before.
Still, Scott noted that Vermont has a Republican governor, arguing that it isn’t outside the realm of possibility for the Senate seat to come into play down the line.
“We’ve got … a brand-new candidate in Vermont — Christina Nolan,” Scott said. “And, you know, they have a Republican governor, so it’s not far-fetched to believe that a Republican can win in Vermont.”
In Washington, meanwhile, Sen. Patty Murray (D) is also likely to prove difficult to beat. The longtime Washington Democrat has already won five Senate races in her state, scoring an 18-point victory in 2016, the last time she was on the ballot. At the same time, Washington voters haven’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1994.
Still, Republicans see some potential there. The party has largely coalesced around former triage nurse Tiffany Smiley as their candidate, and a recent survey from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found Murray with only a 9-point lead over her GOP rival.
Republicans need to flip only one seat in the Senate this year to regain their majority in the upper chamber. Nevertheless, Republicans are facing their own set of challenges.
While the GOP is playing offense in Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire and Nevada, the party is also defending Senate seats in states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin. At the same time, the party is riddled with internal disagreements over former President Trump and his baseless claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
And though they may be facing historical headwinds this year, Democrats aren’t ceding any races to Republicans.
“While Senate Democrats are fighting for working families, flawed Republican candidates are stuck in vicious primaries and running on a disastrous agenda: raising taxes on seniors, ending Medicare and Social Security and pushing the interests of big corporations that get rich by keeping prices high,” said David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This is a dynamic that will lead their campaigns to defeat across the country.”
Still, one Republican strategist with deep experience in Senate campaigns said that by eyeing races in bluer states, the goal isn’t necessarily to flip those seats, but rather to put Democrats on notice. Even if the party falls short in those long-shot races, the strategist said, it could still force Democrats to shift some resources away from key battlegrounds as they look to bolster their incumbents.
“If it’s the week after Labor Day and Democrats now have to spend extra money in Colorado, that affects other races as well,” the strategist said. “If the NRSC and the DSCC in the six weeks before the election are reallocating resources, it’s most likely because Republicans see opportunities and Democrats see vulnerabilities. That’s the expanding map.”