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Democrats optimistic about chances of winning Senate

Democratic senators are feeling increasingly optimistic about their chances of winning back the Senate majority in November. 

Republicans, with a 53-47 seat edge, have spent most of the cycle viewed as the front-runners for holding onto their majority, even though they were defending 23 seats to Democrats’ 12. 

But Democrats have seen their odds boosted in recent weeks by President TrumpDonald TrumpGiuliani used provisional ballot to vote in 2020 election, same method he disparaged in fighting to overturn results Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Fox News' DC managing editor Bill Sammon to retire MORE’s crumbling poll numbers amid widespread criticism of his handling of the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread anger over police brutality toward African Americans.

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“I feel good about them, I do. I mean certainly better than a year ago,” said Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine'I saw my life flash before my eyes': An oral history of the Capitol attack 7 surprise moments from a tumultuous year in politics Robert E. Lee statue removed from US Capitol MORE (D-Va.), the party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, asked about the party's chances.

He caveated that the lead up to November would be full of “twists and turns,” but “if the elections were today I would feel ... good.” 

The coronavirus pandemic has also crushed what had been a strong economy, undermining Trump’s greatest strength. National polls have shown presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenWoman accused of trying to sell Pelosi laptop to Russians arrested Trump gets lowest job approval rating in final days as president Trump moves to lift coronavirus travel restrictions on Europe, Brazil MORE with a double-digit lead over Trump, and a number of GOP senators suddenly find themselves either behind in polls or in neck and neck races.

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Health Care: Testing capacity strained as localities struggle with vaccine staffing | Health workers refusing vaccine is growing problem | Incoming CDC director expects 500,000 COVID deaths by mid-February COVID-19 testing capacity strained as localities struggle with vaccine staffing GOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party MORE (D-Conn.) said he was feeling “better than I have in the last year and a half” about the party’s chances of regaining control of the Senate, which Democrats lost in the 2014 election. 

“The playing field is getting bigger, Trump’s numbers continue to be in free fall, our candidates are outraising Republican incumbents everywhere. I don’t know that we could be better in a position than we are today,” Murphy said. 

Democrats are also careful to temper their optimism. They note that the election is still months away and it is anyone’s guess what will happening in a year that has already seen an impeachment trial, a once-in-a-century health pandemic, an economic downturn and a national reckoning with police brutality and systemic racial inequality after George Floyd’s death in police custody.

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“I’m encouraged but it's four months and 10 days away,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinOfficials brace for second Trump impeachment trial Sunday shows - Capital locked down ahead of Biden's inauguration Durbin says he won't whip votes for Trump's second impeachment trial MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

A national Democratic strategist added that the party had a “very good shot” at taking back the Senate, putting it at “50-50 or better.”

“There are a lot of warning signs” for Republicans, the strategist added. “I think that a big part of how the map has shifted in our favor is that the number of states in play has grown and that’s been almost entirely to our benefit.” 

Democrats need to gain three seats and win the White House or net four seats to have a simple majority outright. Complicating their calculations, Republicans and political handicappers view Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is up for reelection, as a likely GOP pick up. 

Strategists and political handicappers agree that the core Senate battleground states, beyond Alabama, are Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, where GOP Sens. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyCindy McCain on possible GOP censure: 'I think I'm going to make T-shirts' Arizona state GOP moves to censure Cindy McCain, Jeff Flake Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed MORE, Cory GardnerCory GardnerOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs denounce Capitol attack | Contractors halt donations after siege | 'QAnon Shaman' at Capitol is Navy vet Lobbying world Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE, Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsBiden's minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP GOP senators wrestle with purging Trump from party Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP MORE and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisDemocrats see Georgia as model for success across South McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Seven Senate races to watch in 2022 MORE are on the ballot. 

A New York Times-Siena College poll released late last week found Democratic candidate Mark Kelly leading McSally by 9 percentage points in Arizona and Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham leading Tillis by 3 percentage points in North Carolina. A separate Fox News found Tillis trailing by 2 points, 37 percent to Cunningham’s 39 percent. 

Beyond those states, Montana, Iowa and Georgia are also viewed as potential battlegrounds and pick up opportunities for Democrats. The Cook Political Report recently moved Montana to a “toss up” race, while Iowa and the two Georgia races are rated as “lean Republican."

Republicans are hoping to unseat Sen. Gary PetersGary PetersTwo Senate committees vow probe of security failure during Capitol riots US government caught blindsided over sophisticated cyber hack, experts say Krebs emphasizes security of election as senators butt heads MORE (D-Mich.), though he remains the favorite to win.

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, put Democrats’ chances of winning back the Senate at at least 50-50. 

“I think it’s fair to say that Republicans started the cycle favored, you know now it looks like 50-50 or maybe even a slight Democratic advantage,” he said. 

It’s not the first time Democrats have had rosy polling, only to fall short. They were widely expected to win back the Senate and retain the White House in 2016, only for Trump to pull a huge surprise. Democrats gained two seats that year in the Senate, not enough to take the majority.

“The reality is the polls are four months out,” Durbin said. “I was thinking of polling in my original House race four weeks out that had me losing terribly, and I won. So you’re a fool if you take an early poll and go to sleep on it.” 

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But the Democratic mood is rising as poll after poll shows dismal news for Trump. The New York Times-Siena College poll found Biden leading Trump by 14 points in a hypothetical matchup, 50 percent to 36 percent.

“Whatever Joe Biden is doing, he should continue doing,” Durbin said.

“If that means working out of his basement in Delaware so be it. I know it is frustrating. He told me he is frustrated by it. But by maintaining a certain level of decorum and respect he is such a sharp contrast to the president that I think it is part of the reason that poll numbers are going his way,” he added. 

A national GOP strategist said Republicans need to turn the contest into a choice between the president and Biden rather than a referendum on Trump.

“I think the more that this race becomes a contrast between the president’s vision and that of Joe Biden’s the better it will be for all Republicans,” the strategist said. “It cannot be a referendum. A referendum on anyone is never ideal, it needs to be a choice.” 

The numbers have set off alarm bells among some Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have been publicly signaling for Trump to change course.

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Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneImpeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP For platform regulation Congress should use a European cheat sheet Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Republican senator, told reporters that while the polls fluctuate, the current numbers were a “message that there needs to be certainly a change in probably strategy.” 

“I think right now obviously Trump has a problem with the middle of the electorate, with independents, and they’re the people who are going to decide a national election,” Thune said.

“I think he can win those back but it will probably require not only a message that deals with substance and policy but I think a message that conveys a perhaps different tone,” he added.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham pushes Schumer for vote to dismiss impeachment article Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of Trump who is up for reelection, added that there was “unease” in the country that is blowing back on the president and urged Trump to focus on policy differences with Biden. 

“As we get closer to the election, when we have our conventions, when we have our debates, the policy differences will begin to merge,” he said. “What I would tell him is talk about where you’re going to take the country policy wise, how that differs from where Biden would go.”