Democrats gain new momentum in fight for Senate majority
The battle for the Senate majority is tightening as the coronavirus threatens to plunge the economy into a severe recession and as President Trump’s handling of the crisis comes under increased scrutiny.
With Election Day just more than six months away, some Senate Democratic candidates are starting to outraise vulnerable Republican incumbents in states where Trump’s approval rating has taken a hit.
Senate Republicans, who control 53 seats, are still the favorite to retain control of the chamber, but Democrats are narrowing the gap.
“Broadly, over the last several months, the Senate has overall gotten more competitive to the point where I don’t know if it’s quite 50-50 in terms of the battle for control — maybe you’d slightly rather be the Republicans — but I think it’s become very competitive,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“States like North Carolina and Maine have gotten better and better for Democrats throughout the cycle,” he added.
The Cook Political Report, another nonpartisan forecasting group, says “the chances of Democrats taking back the Senate are rising and now close to 50-50 odds” with “several plausible paths” for Democrats to win a majority.
Democratic challengers have outraised GOP incumbents in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Carolina and South Carolina. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) had its best-ever first-quarter fundraising haul at $28 million.
The DSCC raised $11 million in March compared with the $9.1 million for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
The Senate Republican fundraising arm outraised the DSCC during the first three months of the year. The NRSC raised $30.3 million in the first quarter, doubling its previous first-quarter record of $16.4 million. And it has $32.4 million in cash on hand, shattering the previous first-quarter record of an election year, which was $20 million.
Some of the most eye-opening fundraising figures were in Kentucky, where veteran Marine Corps fighter pilot Amy McGrath reported raising $12.8 million in the first three months of 2020 in her bid to deny Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a seventh term.
McConnell raised $7.5 million in the second quarter. They have about the same amount of cash on hand, with McGrath reporting $14.7 million to McConnell’s $14.9 million.
The GOP leader is still the favorite to win reelection, but the fundraising numbers are significant because they mean he will have to spend more time and money playing defense at home, offering fewer opportunities to raise money for vulnerable Republicans in battleground states.
Jesse Hunt, the NRSC’s communications director, argued that a wave of donations from Democrats on the coasts won’t be enough to overcome what he called a lack of support for liberal policies.
“Democrat candidates are relying on the same liberal donors that have been fueling the dark-money groups spending big against Republican incumbents,” he said. “Money can’t erase their embrace of a socialist agenda deeply unpopular with mainstream voters.”
Meanwhile, Trump’s approval rating has taken a dive during the pandemic after initial gains.
A Gallup poll published Thursday showed the president’s approval rating at 43 percent, falling 6 percentage points from mid-March, the sharpest drop since he took office.
Gallup warned that “the current health and economic crisis is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of his presidency so far — and could imperil his standing in the final year of his first term as he seeks re-election.”
The polling outfit found that only 30 percent of Americans were satisfied with the way things are going, a 12-point drop since early March.
“I think the Democrats definitely look like they’re in a better position. I think it’s due primarily that middle-of-the-road Americans are probably not too happy with the president’s performance during this crisis,” said Steven Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
“The biggest problem for Republicans is the president. Money comes with that,” he added.
Smith said Democrats’ anger with Trump is fueling their fundraising advantage because “anger is usually a stronger motivator than having positive views of what’s gone on.”
Trump’s drop in the Gallup poll, Smith said, is a “reversion to the mean” since his approval rating has generally been in the low 40s and can be attributed to “the perception he has not handled the crisis properly, and that’s certainly something the Democrats are going to emphasize.”
Trump has come under withering criticism for his administration’s slow response to the rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus.
Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, gave critics some ammo last week when he said more lives could have been saved if the country had shut down earlier. Fauci later walked back the remarks, saying it was the “wrong choice of words” after the president shared a tweet that included the hashtag “#FireFauci.”
One of the biggest problems for Trump is the lack of coronavirus testing kits, which made it tougher to contain the virus’s spread at the start of the pandemic and could make it even harder to reopen the economy.
That’s also a problem for Senate Republicans, says Kondik, who predicted that Senate races will largely track Trump’s performance. While he said that Sen. Susan Collins (R) is likely to outperform the president in Maine, candidates such as Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) could conceivably underperform the top of the ballot.
Daines’s reelection bid got more competitive last month when Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) announced he would challenge the incumbent, after refusing for months entreaties by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
“Ultimately, when you hold the presidency, you’re responsible for what goes on. Certainly the president has taken a ton of credit when things are going well. So it’s natural that if in fact there’s a backlash, it will be more against Republicans than Democrats,” Kondik said.
Kondik said Bullock’s decision to enter the race may be seen as a turning point in the battle for the Senate when historians look back at 2020.
A lot will depend on how smoothly the country endures the pandemic and whether the economy can get back on solid footing by November. If it does, Trump will undoubtedly declare victory. In the meantime, he has been using the daily coronavirus briefings to tout his administration’s performance in dealing with the crisis.
But even with all of the challenges facing GOP incumbents, the math is still in their favor.
Republicans are favored to win back the Alabama Senate seat held by Sen. Doug Jones (D). While Jones has raised more money than the Republican field combined, Trump won the state by 28 points in 2016.
That means Democrats will have to capture four GOP-held seats and the White House to win back the Senate majority, which they lost in 2014.
Their most likely pickups are in Arizona and Colorado, where Democratic candidates Mark Kelly and former Gov. John Hickenlooper have raised substantially more money than their Republican opponents, Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), respectively.
The Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor wrote on Friday that the fundraising “disparity is only further evidence that political momentum is largely on the side of Democrats as they continue to expand the battlefield of competitive races.”
Earlier in the cycle, Collins and Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) were the favorites to win reelection, but now their races are rated toss-ups.
Polls show Kelly solidly ahead of McSally in Arizona.
Ernst, who seemed to have her reelection well in hand only a few months ago, now looks more vulnerable.
Democrats, sensing Ernst’s vulnerability, are putting more money into the race, and The Cook Political Report has downgraded the seat from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”
Democratic strategists say fundraising is only part of the story and point to record voter turnout in Democratic presidential primary contests before the pandemic struck as evidence of high party enthusiasm heading into the general election.
“As Democratic candidates focus on serving their states and communities at this time, unprecedented grassroots support is fueling their campaigns, and our path to flipping the Senate continues to expand,” said DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss.
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