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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 DurbinLawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Congress faces late-year logjam Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Senate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire 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 McSallyGabby Giffords congratulates Mark Kelly with throwback photo of her own swearing-in Mark Kelly sworn in to Senate seat Sen.-elect Mark Kelly visits John McCain's grave ahead of swearing-in MORE and Cory GardnerCory GardnerMark Kelly to be sworn in as senator on Wednesday Hillicon Valley: Trump fires top federal cybersecurity official, GOP senators push back | Apple to pay 3 million to resolve fight over batteries | Los Angeles Police ban use of third-party facial recognition software Senate passes bill to secure internet-connected devices against cyber vulnerabilities MORE, respectively, are on the ballot, as likely Democratic pickups. Democratic nominee Sara Gideon has also led GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress inches closer to virus relief deal Lawmakers pressure leaders to reach COVID-19 relief deal Biden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him 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 TillisRep. Mark Walker announces Senate bid in North Carolina Grassley returns to Capitol after having coronavirus McConnell halts in-person Republican lunches amid COVID-19 surge 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 SchumerBipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package Pelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms 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 BidenAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Federal student loan payment suspension extended another month Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week 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 McConnellOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks GOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package 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 John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech 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 ThuneTrump doubles down on Section 230 repeal after GOP pushback Congress faces late-year logjam Despite veto threat, Congress presses ahead on defense bill 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 KaineOvernight Defense: Lawmakers release compromise defense bill in defiance of Trump veto threat | Senate voting next week on blocking UAE arms sale | Report faults lack of training, 'chronic fatigue' in military plane crashes Senate to vote next week on blocking Trump's UAE arms sale Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint MORE (D-Va.). “There’s a lot of twists and turns between now and Nov. 3.” 

Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - GOP angst in Georgia; confirmation fight looms Overnight Health Care: Moderna to apply for emergency use authorization for COVID-19 vaccine candidate | Hospitals brace for COVID-19 surge | US more than doubles highest number of monthly COVID-19 cases Bipartisan Senate group holding coronavirus relief talks amid stalemate 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.”