Democrats brace for nail-biting finish to Senate battle

Democrats are bracing for a down-to-the-wire fight for control of the Senate, with eight days left and a slew of toss-up races. 

After getting burned in 2016, when they thought they would win the White House and the Senate majority, Democrats are being careful not to spike the football too early even as political handicappers give them good odds of winning back the chamber for the first time since 2014. 

Democrats say they are optimistic, with a wider-than-expected playing field, but warn the battle for the majority is still too close to call in the final stretch. 

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“We’re encouraged by the results, but let me tell you it’s still a bottled up situation,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinNew York gun rights case before Supreme Court with massive consequences  Schumer leaves door open for second vote on bipartisan infrastructure deal Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia US launches second Somalia strike in week On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June MORE (D-Conn.) said that while the prospect for Democrats “looks and feels good, I’ve been there before, so I have no clue.” 

“I’ve learned to be skeptical of all these polls,” Murphy said. “Obviously the playing field is huge, much bigger than we would have suspected. ... We have more pathways to get to the majority than we would have a year ago.” 

A Democratic official involved in the Senate races compared the fight for which party will control the Senate majority to “more of a coin flip than a done deal,” even while Democrats have expanded the map compared to the start of the cycle when Republicans were viewed as the early favorites. 

“We just can’t take anything for granted. ... Because of the states that we’re running in, the map is tougher than the presidential race,” the official added. 

Democrats need to pick up a net total of three seats and the White House to win control of the Senate. Complicating their math, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is viewed as likely to lose his seat, after winning a 2017 special election, meaning they will likely need an actual gain of four seats to break even. 

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Political handicappers view Arizona and Colorado, where GOP Sens. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallySchumer, Tim Scott lead as Senate fundraising pace heats up GOP group launches million ad campaign pressing Kelly on filibuster Democrats facing tough reelections back bipartisan infrastructure deal MORE and Cory GardnerCory GardnerEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Biden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms MORE, respectively, are on the ballot, as likely Democratic pickups. Democratic nominee Sara Gideon has also led GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsTransit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal The Hill's Morning Report - Infrastructure vote fails; partisan feud erupts over Jan. 6 panel Senate falling behind on infrastructure MORE (Maine) in a number of polls, though the contest is rated as a toss-up. 

Democrats felt confident they could win in North Carolina, where Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (R) has trailed Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham, but news that Cunningham had an extramarital affair threw a late curveball into the race. Cunningham still maintains a slight lead, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polling, but two recent polls have shown the race as tied. 

Asked about the North Carolina race, Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerMcConnell pushes vaccines, but GOP muddles his message Biden administration stokes frustration over Canada Schumer blasts McCarthy for picking people who 'supported the big lie' for Jan. 6 panel MORE (D-N.Y.) argued that health care, not Cunningham’s personal life, should be the main issue. 

“Biggest issue in North Carolina is health care, like it is across America, the need of Americans to be protected from pre-existing conditions, the need of senior citizens to be able to afford their drugs, the need of people who don't have health care to get it, that's the No. 1 issue in North Carolina, and that is why we are going to prevail,” Schumer said. 

If Democrats could sweep those four states they could win back the Senate majority, even if Jones loses, as long as Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Republicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change Biden on hecklers: 'This is not a Trump rally. Let 'em holler' MORE wins the White House. 

Beyond that, Democrats have also brought states such as Georgia, Montana and Iowa into play, while states like South Carolina, Kansas and Alaska have emerged as competitive races despite their deep red leanings. 

FiveThirtyEight’s deluxe edition of its election forecast gives Democrats a 73 percent chance of winning the Senate majority. 

But it wouldn’t be the first time Democrats went into election night feeling confident, only to fall short. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines Has Trump beaten the system? MORE (R-Ky.) has routinely told a story about how Schumer called him shortly before the 2016 election saying he hoped they would have a good working relationship. Republicans, in a surprise, were able to hold on to the Senate majority, despite a difficult map. 

“Chuck was feeling really good about having my job. ... He actually called me a day before the election and said he hoped we would have a really good working relationship. I called him up the day after the election and said, ‘I sure hope so,’” McConnell recounted in 2018. 

Republicans are warning that there could be a “bloodbath” for the Senate GOP majority, with President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor Arkansas governor says it's 'disappointing' vaccinations have become 'political' Watch live: Trump attends rally in Phoenix MORE’s approval rating perpetually stuck in the low 40s and concerns that he could drag down GOP incumbents. 

But they aren’t ready to concede and are dropping a mountain of money in the final weeks. The Senate Leadership Fund raised nearly $50 million in the first two weeks of October and spent more than $94 million in the same time period, with additional spending in states like Alaska, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina since then, according to Federal Election Commission filings, as they try to shore up Republican candidates.

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“Our thinking, at least in terms of Senate majority right now, contrary to I think some of the naysayers out there, I think there is a very real chance of hanging on to the majority irrespective of what happens in the presidential race just based upon how our candidates are performing in those states. I mean right now it's anybody's game,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneFrustration builds as infrastructure talks drag On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Transit funding, broadband holding up infrastructure deal MORE (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. 

Democrats, meanwhile, believe they are better positioned than in 2016. But, even with a sense of momentum, they still aren’t willing to call it with just days to go. 

“I feel pretty good about it. I think there’s just the uncertainty effect ... between now and election day and you know what stunts the administration may have if they don’t like the result,” said Sen.Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenate GOP likely to nix plan Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Manchin signals he'll be team player on spending deal MORE (D-Va.). “There’s a lot of twists and turns between now and Nov. 3.” 

Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsKavanaugh conspiracy? Demands to reopen investigation ignore both facts and the law Key Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package Democrats criticize FBI's handling of tip line in Kavanaugh investigation MORE (D-Del.) argued that Democrats had been successful in largely tying GOP incumbents to Trump’s call to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his efforts to “deflect” from the coronavirus pandemic. 

“[But] I think this is going to be close. It’s a tough election cycle, we take nothing for granted,” Coons said. 

Asked if he had any lingering 2016 nightmares, Coons quipped: “Look, if you aren’t skeptical of anything that someone races forward at the last minute and says, ‘We have an email,’ we haven't learned anything.”