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 Trump’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.
“I feel good about them, I do. I mean certainly better than a year ago,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (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 Biden 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 Murphy (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.
“I’m encouraged but it’s four months and 10 days away,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (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 McSally, Cory Gardner, Susan Collins and Thom Tillis 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 Peters (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.”
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.
Sen. John Thune (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 Graham (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.”
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