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Dems face difficult choices on resources in battle for Senate

Senate Democratic Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFive takeaways from the final Tennessee Senate debate Schumer rips Trump 'Medicare for all' op-ed as 'smears and sabotage' GOP senator suspects Schumer of being behind release of Ford letter MORE (N.Y.) is facing pressure from vulnerable incumbents and hopeful challengers about where to spend the party’s limited resources in this fall’s midterm elections.

Senate Democrats are defending 26 seats, including 10 in states that voted for President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE, and many of those candidates are going to need help from the national party.

But Democrats also have an outside shot of taking back the Senate majority if 2018 turns into a wave election. Democratic candidates trying to turn the Senate blue will also want help from Schumer.

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Schumer and allied strategists will have to decide whether to focus more on defense or offense.

Everything else being equal, incumbents say they should get first priority.

“When push comes to shove, if you have some incumbents in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Michigan in tighter races than might be expected right now and a binary choice between spending money there or going on offense elsewhere, I’m pretty sure you’re going to see the money go to the incumbent,” said a Democratic strategist allied with an incumbent Democratic senator.

A Washington-based Democratic strategist says the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s (DSCC) first priority is to protect incumbents, especially when many of them have contributed to or raised money for the committee.

“We view our first priority as defending our incumbents, but we also see some very strong pick-up opportunities,” the source said.

The best opportunities for Democrats are in Nevada and Arizona, with Tennessee seen as a longer shot.

Overall, Democrats face an uphill climb in winning back the Senate despite the GOP’s narrow 51-49 majority and President Trump’s poor approval ratings.

The reason is the political map. While Democrats have those 26 seats to defend, Republicans are protecting only eight seats. That leaves Democrats with few opportunities.

Democratic challengers know they’re not going to get the same attention as incumbents who can plead their case directly to Schumer.

“We’re painfully aware of that,” said Jeff Teague, executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party, which is trying to elect former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) to the seat held by retiring Sen. Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerDemocrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist Trump to send Pompeo to meet Saudi king Trump defends 0B US arms sale to Saudi Arabia MORE (R).

But Teague thinks there are enough Democratic donors in Tennessee and across the country who will want to put money behind challengers in traditionally Republican states.

“We look to the success of Sen. Jones in Alabama, which obviously is not a very favorable place for Democrats,” he added, referring to Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who won a special election in December.

Some of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents are in relatively inexpensive states, such as Sen. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Democrats hold fading odds of winning Senate this November Florida politics play into disaster relief debate MORE (D) in North Dakota and Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump makes new overtures to Democrats Gillibrand backs Manchin, Bredesen despite their support of Kavanaugh Senate heads home to campaign after deal on Trump nominees MORE (W.Va.) in West Virginia.

But the Florida Senate race is looming as a money pit for the Democratic Party.

It costs about $3 million a week to run ads statewide in Florida and incumbent Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William Nelson'Hamilton' star aims to educate displaced Puerto Ricans about Florida voter ID laws Trump: ‘Maximum effort’ taking place in Hurricane Michael recovery efforts The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump travels to hurricane-ravaged Florida, Georgia MORE (D-Fla.) reported $8 million in cash on hand at the end of December. That means the DSCC and outside groups will have to spend heavily in the race.

The likely Republican nominee, Gov. Rick Scott, has a personal fortune and spent nearly $13 million of his own money to win reelection in 2014.

Bredesen is the only top-tier Democratic candidate for Senate who is not already a sitting member of Congress, which makes it harder for him to compete for resources from party committees and political action committees based in Washington.

“What we’re still coming to grips with is money outside the state and how that works,” said a Tennessee-based Democratic strategist who noted that Bredesen has built a strong fundraising network over more than 20 years on the local political scene.   

Still, there already have been signs of the competition candidates such as Bredesen will face from incumbents. Some Tennessee Democrats were dismayed when an incumbent Democratic senator flew to Nashville to raise money in Bredesen’s backyard.

“I’ve been a little underwhelmed by the ... support, money, from the Democrats in Washington,” said the Tennessee strategist.

A spokeswoman for Bredesen, however, said the campaign isn’t worried about losing out on national funding to other campaigns.

“Fundraising has been strong from day one, thanks to Gov. Bredesen’s long-established network of contributors and supporters. At the same time, we’re seeing new sources of support as the governor’s message of working together to get things done is resonating with voters,” said Alyssa Hansen, the campaign press secretary.

Democrats would love to take out Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBeto O'Rourke will not share million he raised with other Dem Senate candidates Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Donald Trump Jr. blasts Beto O’Rourke: ‘Irish guy pretending to be Hispanic’ MORE (R) in Texas. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke has shown skill at getting media attention and is seen as an attractive candidate.

Yet he may have a tough time convincing Democratic leaders in Washington to steer millions of dollars to his race given the cost of advertising in the vast state.

“How much can they put into the really expensive states, like Florida? I’m not sure O’Rourke is teed up to get much help right now,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report.

Democratic strategists in Washington say tough decisions about where to put money won’t have to be made for months.

“It’s still early in the cycle to talk specifics about what advertising is going where,” said a Washington-based Democratic strategist.

They argue the decisions of the DSCC and the Senate Majority PAC, the principal super PAC for Senate Democratic candidates, will be made easier by the substantial cash advantage that Democratic candidates now have over Republicans.

“If you look at candidate dollars, which go a lot farther, the Democratic campaigns and candidates are stomping their Republican opponents in terms of fundraising so that’s a problem for the Republican side of the story,” said the source.

The DSCC has outraised its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, for 11 consecutive months and has a $10 million cash on hand advantage.

In Indiana, for example, incumbent Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyTrump Jr. to stump in Indiana for Pence’s brother and governor hopeful The overhaul needed to get the global economy off coal, oil and gas The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — Big haul for O'Rourke | Senators press Trump to get tougher on Saudis | Kavanaugh tensions linger MORE (D) raised $1.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2017, more than the combined total for the same time period as two Republican challengers battling to take him on in November.

In Missouri, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight GOP Senate candidate: Kavanaugh 'debacle' 'hugely motivating' to Missouri voters Democrats hold fading odds of winning Senate this November MORE (D) raised $2.94 million in the fourth quarter of 2017, substantially more than the $959,000 raised by her Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley.

Other Democratic candidates, such as Stabenow, Tester, Brown, Casey and Rep. Jacky RosenJacklyn (Jacky) Sheryl RosenObama to speak at campaign rally for Nevada Dems Poll shows Heller with 7-point lead in Nevada The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump travels to hurricane-ravaged Florida, Georgia MORE (D-Nev.), who is running against incumbent Sen. Dean HellerDean Arthur HellerObama to speak at campaign rally for Nevada Dems Poll shows Heller with 7-point lead in Nevada The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump travels to hurricane-ravaged Florida, Georgia MORE (R) in Nevada, also raised more than their GOP opponents at the end of last year.

But Republican candidates are counting on a windfall of spending from allied outside groups, such as the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellJuan Williams: Trump’s policies on race are more important than his rhetoric It’s Mitch McConnell’s Washington – and we’re just living in it Trump makes new overtures to Democrats MORE (R-Ky.) and groups backed by the billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.

Jon Ossoff, the Democratic candidate in last year’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, had a major fundraising advantage over the Republican candidate, Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelDems see blue 'tsunami' in House as Senate path narrows Overnight Health Care: Kavanaugh questioned if Roe v. Wade was 'settled law' in leaked email | Senate to vote next week on opioid package | Officials seek to jail migrant children indefinitely | HHS chief, lawmakers meet over drug prices Worst-case scenario for House GOP is 70-seat wipeout MORE.

Nevertheless, Handel won the race in the Republican-leaning district after Republican-allied outside groups outspent liberal groups by more than a factor of two.