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 Clinton, win the White House.

{mosads}One lawmaker stressed that Sen. Jon Tester (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 Portman (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 Rubio (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 Kaine (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 Trump.

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 Schumer (N.Y.) — who would likely become majority leader if Democrats recapture the Senate — and retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (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 Ayotte (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 McConnell (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 Durbin (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 Stabenow (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.

Tags Charles Schumer Debbie Stabenow Dick Durbin Donald Trump Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Jon Tester Kelly Ayotte Marco Rubio Mitch McConnell Rob Portman Tim Kaine
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