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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 DurbinSenate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill Partisan headwinds threaten Capitol riot commission Murkowski undecided on Tanden as nomination in limbo MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

Sen. Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Minimum wage setback revives progressive calls to nix Senate filibuster New rule shakes up Senate Armed Services subcommittees 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 McSallyNew rule shakes up Senate Armed Services subcommittees The Seventeenth Amendment and the censure of Donald Trump Ex-astronaut Mark Kelly jokes about piloting congressional subway MORE and Cory GardnerCory GardnerBiden administration reverses Trump changes it says 'undermined' conservation program Gardner to lead new GOP super PAC ahead of midterms OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court rules against fast-track of Trump EPA's 'secret science' rule | Bureau of Land Management exodus: Agency lost 87 percent of staff in Trump HQ relocation | GM commits to electric light duty fleet by 2035 MORE, respectively, are on the ballot, as likely Democratic pickups. Democratic nominee Sara Gideon has also led GOP Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenate mulls changes to .9 trillion coronavirus bill Sasse rebuked by Nebraska Republican Party over impeachment vote Collins urges Biden to revisit order on US-Canada border limits 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 TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump 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 SchumerThe bizarre back story of the filibuster Hillicon Valley: Biden signs order on chips | Hearing on media misinformation | Facebook's deal with Australia | CIA nominee on SolarWinds House Rules release new text of COVID-19 relief bill 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 BidenBiden offers support to union organizing efforts Senate Democrats nix 'Plan B' on minimum wage hike Kavanaugh dismays conservatives by dodging pro-Trump election lawsuits 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 McConnellTrump shows he holds stranglehold on GOP, media in CPAC barnburner Trump rules out starting a new party: 'Fake news' Sunday shows - Trump's reemergence, COVID-19 vaccines and variants dominate 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 TrumpSacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Sorkin uses Abbie Hoffman quote to condemn Capitol violence: Democracy is 'something you do' Ex-Trump aide Pierson planning run for Congress 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 ThuneRick Scott acknowledges Biden 'absolutely' won fair election After vote against aid package, Golden calls for more bipartisanship Graham: Trump will 'be helpful' to all Senate GOP incumbents 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 KaineWarner: White House should 'keep open additional sanctions' against Saudi crown prince Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Biden administration to give Congress full classified briefing on Syria strikes by next week MORE (D-Va.). “There’s a lot of twists and turns between now and Nov. 3.” 

Sen. Christopher CoonsChris Andrew CoonsPompeo: Release of Khashoggi report by Biden admin 'reckless' Senate Democrat: Saudi relationship being 'recalibrated' Democrats don't trust GOP on 1/6 commission: 'These people are dangerous' 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.”