Momentum shifts in battle for Senate

Democrats are seizing on Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly Ann AyottePallbearers, speakers announced for McCain's DC memorial service and Capitol ceremony Tributes pour in for John McCain Ayotte: I hope McCain's death is a 'calling for more decency, integrity and honor in our politics' MORE’s (R-N.H.) remarks at a debate that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOver 100 lawmakers consistently voted against chemical safeguards: study CNN's Anderson Cooper unloads on Trump Jr. for spreading 'idiotic' conspiracy theories about him Cohn: Jamie Dimon would be 'phenomenal' president MORE is “absolutely” a role model for children as a pivotal moment in the race for the Senate majority.

The Democrats see Ayotte’s comments, which she immediately sought to walk back, as a potential turning point not only in the tight New Hampshire race but also in the broader fight across a host of battleground states.

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The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released a digital ad Tuesday that simply contains unedited footage of the moment, while liberal star Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenAnother recession could hit US in 2019, says credit union association chief Warren says vote should be delayed, asks what Kavanaugh is hiding Kavanaugh hires attorney amid sexual assault allegations: report MORE (D-Mass.) issued a stream of tweets ripping Ayotte.

“Think about it: @realDonaldTrump calls Latinos rapists, African Americans thugs, & women fat pigs, & Kelly Ayotte thinks he’s a role model,” Warren wrote in one of the tweets.

“You can’t walk this back. ... [You] can’t support @realDonaldTrump’s agenda, say you’re voting for him, then pretend to shake your finger,” she added in another message.

Ayotte, who says she supports Trump but will not endorse him, tried to clarify her remarks after the debate, releasing a statement that said neither Trump nor Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump to declassify controversial text messages, documents related to Russia probe Hypocrisy in Kavanaugh case enough to set off alarms in DC Clinton: Hard to ignore 'racial subtext of virtually everything Trump says' MORE “have set a good example and I wouldn’t hold up either of them as role models for my kids.”

Democrats signaled Tuesday that they believe the Ayotte story has legs and that Trump’s comments about women can be used against other Republican Senate candidates.

In New Hampshire, Ayotte’s Democratic opponent, Gov. Maggie Hassan, scheduled a press call on Tuesday to talk up the issue and released a web ad tying Ayotte’s remarks to Trump’s own comments.

The Ayotte flap is contributing to a notable shift in momentum in the race for the Senate.

For much of the year, Republicans have been fighting an uphill battle. The electoral map favors Democrats, and Republicans have been worried that Trump would hurt their Senate candidates.

But the GOP had been feeling better in recent weeks.

Polls had tightened in the presidential race between Trump and Clinton, and Sen. Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenate passes bipartisan bill to curb opioid crisis Overnight Health Care: Opioid legislation passes overwhelmingly | DOJ backs Cigna-Express Scripts merger | Senate passes ban on pharmacy gag clauses This week: Allegations inject uncertainty into Kavanaugh nomination MORE (R) had roared ahead of his competition in Ohio, seemingly taking one possible pickup opportunity off the table for Democrats. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioNYT says it was unfair on Haley curtain story Rubio defends Haley over curtains story: Example of media pushing bias House lawmakers urge top intel official to probe national security threat of doctored videos MORE’s (R-Fla.) decision to run for reelection is also helping the GOP’s chances.

Then came the year’s first presidential debate, and with it a string of problems for Trump.

After a poorly reviewed debate performance, the billionaire fell into a battle with a former Miss Universe whom he had criticized as “Miss Piggy” for gaining weight. On Saturday, The New York Times published a report that Trump took a $916 million loss on his 1995 tax returns, which might have allowed him to avoid paying federal income taxes for a total of 18 years.

Then came Ayotte’s comments, which seem likely to contribute to GOP gloom.

The overall race remains a tight one, with the fight for the Senate majority likely to come down to New Hampshire and four other states: Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina and Nevada.

Democrats are confident they’ll gain seats in Illinois and Wisconsin.

If they can hold on to Nevada, they’d need to win two of the other four seats and retain the White House to take the majority. If they lose Nevada, they’d need to win three of the four.

The presidential race will be a huge factor, with Republicans hoping their candidates can outpace Trump if he falters down the stretch.

In Pennsylvania, a poll released Tuesday from Monmouth University found GOP Sen. Pat Toomey and Democrat Katie McGinty tied at 46 percent despite a 10-point lead in the state for Clinton over Trump.

A separate poll released Tuesday by Franklin & Marshall showed Toomey trailing McGinty by 6 points and Trump trailing Clinton by 9 points.

In North Carolina, GOP Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGraham: Mueller is going to be allowed to finish investigation Trump authorizes sanctions against foreign governments that interfere in US elections Hillicon Valley: Google takes heat from Trump, Congress | US cracking down on foreign hackers | Sanders steps up Amazon attack | Analysts predict iPhone prices would rise if production moved to US MORE has not managed to pull ahead of former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D), frustrating Republicans in Washington who wonder if he’s working as hard as he can.

An Elon University poll published Tuesday showed Clinton opening up a 6-point lead over Trump in North Carolina after a survey from two weeks ago showed them in a dead heat. Tuesday’s poll also showed Burr and Ross tied at 43 percent.

Ross reported raising $4.3 million in the third quarter and surprisingly outraised the incumbent over the first six months of the year. Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has much less money in the bank than its Democratic counterpart, did not make any independent expenditures in North Carolina last month. 

Independent analysts say it will be extremely difficult for Republican Senate candidates to outperform Trump by more than 5 points.

“If Clinton matches or exceeds Obama’s 5-and-a-half spread in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, that’s when it starts to get awfully tough,” said Kyle Kondik, a political handicapper at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

He expressed skepticism over the GOP claim that Toomey could run as many as 8 points ahead of Trump.

“That just seems like an awful big margin given that voters aren’t as prone to split their tickets as they used to be,” he said.

Strategists on both sides say Nevada is emerging as the most important race in the country. If Republicans fail to capture the seat long held by retiring Senate Democratic Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidKavanaugh furor intensifies as calls for new testimony grow Dems can’t ‘Bork’ Kavanaugh, and have only themselves to blame Dem senator: Confidential documents would 'strongly bolster' argument against Kavanaugh's nomination MORE, their chances of holding on to the majority fall dramatically. Nevada is the GOP’s only pickup opportunity.

“We have to win Nevada to have any chance of holding the majority,” said a Senate Republican strategist.

Republican Rep. Joe Heck (Nev.) is leading by 3 points, according to an average of recent polls compiled by RealClearPolitics, and Trump is tied with Clinton.

Democrats argue that Hispanic voters are usually under-represented in surveys of the state this far out from Election Day and are expecting a big, anti-Trump surge from the bloc that makes up about 20 percent of the electorate.

“Democrats have relentlessly tried to tie Trump to Heck,” Jon Ralston, a prominent Nevada-based political commentator, noted. “They believe if Hillary Clinton wins the state by more than 5 points it’s going to be very difficult for Joe Heck to win that race because it will mean that Hispanic turnout is very big.”

The Democratic candidate, former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, is running to become the first Latina elected to the Senate.  

Non-partisan experts think Democrats are still likely to recapture the majority. But the Democratic wave that appeared to be forming when Trump was running roughshod through the GOP primaries has dissipated.

“I still think I’d rather be Democrats than Republicans. I still think that they can get a majority but just barely, which is a far cry from what we were talking about six months ago,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.