GOP confidence in Senate majority builds

GOP confidence in Senate majority builds

Republicans are growing much more optimistic about their chances of saving their Senate majority.

Less than 100 days before the election, unconventional Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York state Senate candidate charged in riot Trump called acting attorney general almost daily to push election voter fraud claim: report GOP senator clashes with radio caller who wants identity of cop who shot Babbitt MORE has yet to become the albatross many Republicans feared.

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He and Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden says Russia spreading misinformation ahead of 2022 elections Highest-ranking GOP assemblyman in WI against another audit of 2020 vote Women's March endorses Nina Turner in first-ever electoral endorsement MORE are running about even in most polls, though Democrats hope their candidate will get a boost after their convention. 

In the critical states of Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, GOP candidates are running as strongly as they were before Trump became the party’s presidential nominee.

“If the election were held today, it’d be exactly like a midterm election. Good campaigns are going to win. There’s no landslide,” said David Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist. “The bases are baked in. I don’t see dramatic shifts anywhere.”

Republicans and Democrats say the fight to win control of the 115th Congress will start in earnest this weekend, now that both parties have laid out their markers during national conventions.

“Democrats haven’t really started the process of tying Trump around Republican necks,” said Jon McHenry, a prominent Republican pollster. “The swing state Republicans who hold their seats this fall will be those with a good story of vision and accomplishment to tell that allows them to run independently of Trump.”

The Hill interviewed more than a dozen strategists involved in the battles for the House and Senate in reporting this story. Those strategists laid out two starkly different paths each party is pursuing: Democrats hope to nationalize elections by tying Trump to every Republican running for office. Republicans hope to localize races by focusing on issues specific to their constituents.

Republicans hold 54 seats in the Senate, which means Democrats must win four seats and the White House to reclaim control of the Senate, or five seats to win an outright majority.

Democrats are favored to win back Republican-held seats in Illinois and Wisconsin, and both sides' surveys show Democrats ahead in Indiana. Polls show the three critical states at the fulcrum of Senate control — Ohio, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania — effectively tied. If a backlash against Trump does hurt Republican candidates, Democrats are closely watching GOP incumbents in Missouri, Arizona and North Carolina, too.

The GOP holds 247 seats in the House, meaning Democrats must claw back an improbable 30 seats to win control.

Neither party’s internal surveys show evidence of a developing wave, but the tumult and turbulence of an unpredictable year could tilt the field at any time.

“This is a fascinating time to be in this business, because at any moment, something can happen that shakes things up, at least for a while. The shelf life of a poll to me has gotten shorter and shorter,” said Ann Selzer, who conducts polls for media outlets across the country. “People keep thinking that the normal rules apply.”

Both sides are honing their messages ahead of the 100-day stretch run. 

Democrats say their pitch to voters will reflect the mood of this week’s convention in Philadelphia, where Clinton, President Obama and Vice President Biden laid out a decidedly more optimistic vision of the country than Trump and fellow Republicans did last week in Cleveland, while simultaneously eviscerating Trump.

“This isn’t a referendum on Trump; it’s more than that. It’s very much a vision to move the country forward,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman. “These [Republican] candidates were vulnerable even before we all took the nomination of Donald Trump as an option.”

Republicans expect to spend more of their time focusing on distinctly local issues, rather than their presidential candidate. Ohio Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanThe 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Trump slams Romney, Senate GOP over infrastructure deal MORE and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyottePoll: Potential Sununu-Hassan matchup in N.H. a dead heat  Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal Sununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate MORE have highlighted the growing opioid epidemic claiming lives in their states. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey has attacked Democratic rival Katie McGinty over sanctuary cities.

“Republicans are running their campaigns like they’re running for sheriff. Their messages are specific, targeted and local,” said Greg Blair, an spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We will make sure that voters are casting their ballots in Senate races based on Senate candidates, not whatever might be happening up, down or sideways on the ticket.”

Both parties have begun placing television advertising buys ahead of November’s elections, offering revealing clues about each side’s priorities. 

The DSCC has reserved airtime in eight states, six of which are held by Republicans: Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The committee has also reserved time in Colorado and Nevada, seats Democrats currently hold.

The NRSC has made reservations in New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where they are defending vulnerable incumbents, and in Nevada, where Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidWhite House seeks to shield Biden from GOP attacks on crime issue Lobbying world Warner backing 'small carve-out' on filibuster for voting rights MORE is retiring.

In Wisconsin, polls show GOP Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGrassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa Sunday shows preview: Bipartisan infrastructure talks drag on; Democrats plow ahead with Jan. 6 probe Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines MORE trailing former Sen. Russ Feingold, the Democrat he beat in 2010, and a prominent outside group backed by the network of conservative donors led by billionaires Charles and David Koch recently canceled advertising time in the state, a strong signal that Republicans believe Johnson may not be savable. 

Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE trails Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D) in Illinois. Notably, the NRSC has yet to reserve airtime there. But senior Republican aides on Capitol Hill say the NRSC has recently begun including Kirk’s race in PowerPoint presentations to major donors, a potential sign of renewed confidence that the race may not be over yet.

Internal surveys conducted by both Democrats and Republicans show former Sen. Evan Bayh (D) leading Rep. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungThe 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (R) in Indiana after Bayh made a late re-entry into the race this month. Neither side has fully engaged, but Republicans say they are preparing an advertising blitz to paint Bayh as a Washington insider.

After those three seats, the Democratic path to 51 becomes more complicated.

Both sides are aggressively focusing on five states: Ohio, where polls show Portman and former Gov. Ted Strickland (D) essentially tied; Pennsylvania, where Toomey holds a slight lead over McGinty; New Hampshire, where polls show Ayotte in a dead heat with Gov. Maggie Hassan (D); Florida, where Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats join GOP in pressuring Biden over China, virus origins Senators introduce bipartisan bill to expand foreign aid partnerships GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden MORE (R) leads his likely Democratic opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D); and Nevada, where Rep. Joe Heck (R) is battling former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D) for retiring Reid’s seat.

All five Senate seats are in presidential swing states, making it imperative that Democrats and Republicans lock in advertising rates before Trump and Clinton begin snatching up available airtime. 

That has spurred both sides to reserve advertising time early: The DSCC and the Senate Majority PAC, which backs Democratic candidates, have bought up a combined $30 million in Ohio alone. The NRSC and the three largest Republican-backing outside groups have bought $30 million in Ohio airtime as well. Democratic groups have reserved $20 million in tiny New Hampshire, while Republican groups have booked $27 million on Ayotte’s behalf.

The sheer amount of money flooding into key states will allow Senate candidates on both sides to craft an independent image for themselves, strategists said, an important factor given that both Trump and Clinton are seen unfavorably by a broad swath of voters.

“These Senate campaigns are just entities in and of themselves. In terms of your image as a candidate, your campaign can control that in a way that we haven’t been able to at any point up until the last four years,” said Josh Holmes, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: 'It never occurred to me' convincing Americans to get vaccinated would be difficult The 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal MORE (R-Ky.).

Beyond the most competitive races on the map, Democrats and Republicans are looking to three more states where a wave election could jeopardize incumbents. 

Both sides say Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrThe 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Senators say they have deal on 'major issues' in infrastructure talks MORE (R-N.C.) faces a real race against former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D); Democrats have yet to make a financial investment in the race, but even Republicans acknowledge they are worried about Burr’s low name identification. 

Republicans are cautious, too, about Sen. Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntThe 17 Republicans who voted to advance the Senate infrastructure bill Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Eight Republicans join Democrats to confirm head of DOJ environmental division MORE’s (R) chances for reelection in Missouri. Blunt has aggressively raised money for the NRSC in recent years, but if he finds himself in an unexpectedly close race, some Republicans worry the committee will have already committed too many resources to states like Florida and Indiana to ride to Blunt’s rescue. A Mason-Dixon survey conducted for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Friday showed Blunt leading his Democratic rival, Jason Kander, by a slim 47 to 44 percent margin.

And in Arizona, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMeghan McCain on Pelosi, McCarthy fight: 'I think they're all bad' Democrats seek to counter GOP attacks on gas prices Biden nominates Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey MORE (R) has voiced concerns about the impact Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric may have on his prospects, especially among Hispanic voters. McCain faces a conservative challenger in Arizona’s August primary, and he is likely to face Rep. Ann KirkpatrickAnn KirkpatrickDemocrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Surgeon who treated Gabby Giffords after shooting launches House bid in Arizona These House lawmakers aren't seeking reelection in 2022 MORE (D) in November.

Buoyed by polling that shows Trump running close to Clinton in key states, Republican senators who were once leery of Trump’s presence on the ticket have thawed in recent weeks. Portman endorsed Trump and spent time in Cleveland during the Republican National Convention, though he did not appear on stage. Toomey told young Republicans in Pittsburgh he was getting closer to backing his party’s nominee.

If Democrats have any serious advantage 100 days out, it is an organizational edge that Republicans will struggle to match. The Clinton campaign has been coordinating with Senate campaigns in battleground states for months, sharing data, voter lists and even offices: The Clinton campaign shares a headquarters with Feingold in Wisconsin, has four joint offices with Democratic campaigns in North Carolina and 18 offices shared with McGinty’s campaign in Pennsylvania.

The nature of the Senate map, in which Republicans are defending more than twice as many seats as Democrats, always meant the GOP would be playing defense this year. But the Trump-led disaster that Republicans once feared has yet to develop, which has party strategists in high spirits.

“If you’d have given Senate Republicans this exact situation in January 2015, they would have taken it before you got the last word out of the sentence,” Holmes said.