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Dems sound alarm on Senate majority

Dems sound alarm on Senate majority
© Greg Nash

The campaign chairman for Senate Democrats on Wednesday warned his colleagues that if the elections were held today, the party would gain only three Senate seats, according to lawmakers who were in the room.

That outcome would leave Democrats one seat short of the majority, should the party’s presidential nominee, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' Hillary Clinton: There must be a 'global reckoning' with disinformation Pelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights MORE, win the White House.

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One lawmaker stressed that Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterAmericans for Prosperity launches campaign targeting six Democrats to oppose ending filibuster Overnight Defense: Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform | US troops begin leaving Afghanistan | Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform MORE (D-Mont.) made the statement to motivate his colleagues to work harder to raise money and mobilize voters, adding that he said winning back the Senate is still possible.

Yet the remark from the leader of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), made during the caucus’s weekly lunch, reflects real fears among Senate Democrats that they could fall short in November.

While Senate Democrats have a favorable electoral map, they say a deluge of spending from outside groups has buoyed vulnerable Republican incumbents such as Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanHouse panel advances bipartisan retirement savings bill Democrats confront difficult prospects for midterms Biden, GOP set to find out if US wants activist government MORE (Ohio), who had been a top target.

The DSCC and Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, recently canceled advertising buys in Ohio.

Tester sees Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as three slam-dunk races for the parties. But other states — New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio — are turning out to be much tougher than anticipated.

Republicans scored a coup in June when they convinced Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioTim Scott sparks buzz in crowded field of White House hopefuls The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her  Crist launches bid for Florida governor, seeking to recapture his old job MORE (R) to run for reelection, greatly boosting their chances of keeping his Florida seat.

A second lawmaker who attended the lunch interpreted Tester’s comments as meaning Democrats are guaranteed to pick up at least three seats and that more are within reach, including toss-up races in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

It became apparent during the discussion that Democrats are more worried about the battle for the Senate than for the White House.

Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOn The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package Overnight Defense: Gillibrand makes new push for military sexual assault reform | US troops begin leaving Afghanistan | Biden budget delay pushes back annual defense policy bill MORE (D-Va.), Clinton’s running mate, made a surprise appearance and delivered an optimistic appraisal of the presidential campaign that left Democrats feeling confident about beating Republican presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpVeteran accused in alleged border wall scheme faces new charges Arizona Republicans to brush off DOJ concern about election audit FEC drops investigation into Trump hush money payments MORE.

Tester told reporters before the lunch that he’s not taking anything for granted.

“The way we’re approaching it at the DSCC is every race is in the mix and we’ve got to work our butts off and make sure the candidates are working their butts off,” he said. “We’ve got a good chance of getting the majority, but it’s not a slam dunk.”

Behind closed doors, Tester, Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerHow to fast-track climate action? EPA cutting super pollutant HFCs On The Money: How demand is outstripping supply and hampering recovery | Montana pulls back jobless benefits | Yellen says higher rates may be necessary Senate Democrats announce B clean bus plan MORE (N.Y.) — who would likely become majority leader if Democrats recapture the Senate — and retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidBiden's first 100 days is stylistic 'antithesis' of Trump The Memo: Washington's fake debate on 'bipartisanship' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - CDC in limbo on J&J vax verdict; Rep. Brady retiring MORE (Nev.) offered a sober view of the likelihood of winning back the upper chamber, lawmakers said.

They painted a worrisome picture of a political landscape awash with advertising dollars from Republican-leaning outside groups such as the Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, which reported raising $42 million in August alone.

Members of both parties have been known to sound the alarm about races in private meetings to galvanize fundraising.

During the lunch, Schumer told Democrats he is transferring $2 million from his own campaign account to boost the majority effort, according to The Washington Post, sending another signal to donors that help is urgently needed.

One number that popped out at the meeting is the $14 million Republicans have spent to help Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyotteSununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate Lobbying world Overnight Defense: NATO expanding troops in Iraq MORE (R) in New Hampshire, a state with just 1.3 million people.

A DSCC official said Tester concluded Wednesday’s meeting by predicting that Democrats would ultimately regain control of the Senate, even though it will be a tough fight.

“Sen. Tester was expressing his belief that we will ultimately win back the majority, but there’s never any guarantees, and with all the GOP outside money, we need the fundraising support of our caucus to fight back,” the official said. “We expanded the playing field, and now we have to continue expanding the resources to match.”

Many big-dollar Republican donors decided to write off the presidential campaign after Trump won the nomination and shift their focus to keeping the Senate.

They have steered their contributions to outside groups linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell: Taliban could take over Afghanistan by 'the end of the year' McConnell alma mater criticizes him for 1619 comments McConnell amid Trump criticism: 'I'm looking forward, not backward' MORE (R-Ky.), giving Republican Senate candidates more support than in past presidential election years.

The third-party spending has kept Ayotte and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) even with their opponents, despite Clinton’s advantage over Trump in their states.

“I think we’ll retake the majority, but it will be tough in some areas because they are just swamping us with money. McConnell’s sent $14 million to New Hampshire,” said Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinAmerica's Jewish communities are under attack — Here are 3 things Congress can do Schumer 'exploring' passing immigration unilaterally if talks unravel On The Money: Incomes, consumer spending soared in March | Harris, senators work behind scenes on jobs package | Biden cancels some border wall construction MORE (D-Ill.).

Ayotte and Toomey are within a percentage point of their Democratic challengers, according to an average of recent polling margins compiled by RealClearPolitics.

Clinton is beating Trump by an average of 8 points in New Hampshire and 6 points in Pennsylvania.

Ohio and Florida, two Senate seats that Democratic strategists saw as likely victories earlier in the cycle, have moved further toward the GOP’s column in recent weeks.

Durbin said Republican groups have spent $40 million against former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, the Democratic candidate in that state.

A recent Florida Atlantic University poll showed Rubio ahead by 5 points, and a recent CBS News survey showed Portman winning by 7 points. Clinton is winning Florida and Ohio by an average of 3 points, according to RealClearPolitics.

Senate Democrats who attended Wednesday’s lunch expressed concern over recent decisions by the DSCC and Senate Majority PAC to cancel television ad buys in Ohio.

Tester and the other Democratic leaders say they have to make tough calls every few days on where to allocate limited resources, given the shifting poll numbers and changing dynamics of each race.

“They were saying you have to imagine a chess board. They meet every few days to talk about where to put resources,” said the first lawmaker.

In past election cycles, it would have been a no-brainer for Democratic leaders to sink money into Ohio and Florida.

But given how many seats are in play, the cost of the media markets in large states and the Republican funding advantage, there is growing pressure to concentrate Democratic resources in the battlegrounds where they have the best chances to win.

“We have many states that are within 1 or 2 points. It’s the challenge of having too many good races,” said Sen. Debbie StabenowDeborah (Debbie) Ann StabenowThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - House GOP drama intensifies; BIden sets new vax goal Overnight Health Care: Biden sets goal of at least one shot to 70 percent of adults by July 4 | White House to shift how it distributes unallocated vaccines to states The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Can Cheney defy the odds and survive again? MORE (Mich.), a member of the Democratic leadership. “But the big challenge at this point is all the huge special-interest money — big oil — that has decided it’s not going to give to Donald Trump and going to put it all on the Senate races.

“They are desperate to hold on to the Senate to protect that open Supreme Court seat,” she said, referring to the vacancy left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.