Trump Re-Election Struggles Threaten Republican Senate Majority

  • Candidates, coattails and Covid-19 improve Democrats’ chances
  • Republicans defending more seats, many in battleground states

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President Donald Trump’s struggle in national and battleground state polling against Democratic nominee Joe Biden has helped put Senate Democrats in range of overturning a Republican majority that was more secure at the beginning of the election year.

Republicans hold 53 Senate seats and are defending 23 of the 35 seats up for election. Democrats would need a net gain of four seats if Trump is re-elected, but only three if he loses.

The coattail effect is stronger than ever — in the 2016 presidential election, every state with a Senate election voted for the same party in both contests — though Democrats are also targeting states Biden has little chance of winning. The unknowns at the top of the ticket provide a range of scenarios for the makeup of the Senate in the 117th Congress.

“If Joe Biden wins by at least a few points, then the Senate is likely to go at least 50-50″ Democratic, and a bigger Biden win would usher in a bigger Democratic majority, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, said late last month. “It’s also possible that if Trump makes this a very close race or edges out Biden in the Electoral College, losing the popular vote by 2 or 3 points as he did in 2016, then I think the Senate has a good chance of staying Republican.”

Senate Republicans, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), have described the Senate as a “firewall” against Democratic policies, as Democrats are favored to keep control of the House. Both parties stocked up tens of millions of dollars for the barrage of advertising set for the post-Labor Day sprint to Election Day.

“Republicans still have a strong path to holding the Senate majority, and it’s in large part due to what these Republican senators have done on the legislative front to prove that they can get results for their states,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Democratic strategists tout that their candidates have raised large sums of money and focused on the administration’s bungled response to the coronavirus pandemic and on fortifying the Affordable Care Act’s health-care protections.

“Strong Democratic challengers have steadily expanded the map of competitive races, broken fundraising records with grassroots support, and focused on voters’ top issue of health care,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Mark Kelly (D), running in Arizona, is one of the top-raising Senate candidates in the country.

Here’s a rundown of the map, grouped by the races’ competitiveness, as it stands with less than two months to go:

Most Likely to Flip

Democrats are defending the most vulnerable seat on the map. The toughest states for Republicans to hold are Colorado and Arizona, where Democratic challengers have comfortably led Republican incumbents for months.

  • Alabama: Sen. Doug Jones (D) is a distinct underdog against former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville (R) in a state Trump won by 28 percentage points in the 2016 election. Tuberville has run as a full-throated Trump supporter, while Jones, who voted to convict Trump on two articles of impeachment, has portrayed himself as a protector of Social Security and Medicare and linked Tuberville to a failed hedge fund.
  • Arizona: Sen. Martha McSally (R), appointed after losing a 2018 bid for the state’s other seat, continues to lag behind Mark Kelly (D), a Navy veteran and former astronaut who raised $46 million through July 15 and had $21.2 million in cash on hand. Trump is struggling to keep the traditionally Republican-leaning state in the GOP column.
  • Colorado: Sen. Cory Gardner (R) has a strongly conservative and pro-Trump voting record in a state that’s drifted toward Democrats and where party officials persuaded former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) to reverse his opposition to running for the Senate after dropping his presidential bid. Gardner’s campaign of late has highlighted his work to secure personal protective equipment for Colorado and permanent funding for conservation projects under the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
  • Maine: Sen. Susan Collins (R), overwhelmingly re-elected three times in a state that’s voted Democratic for president in seven straight elections, faces her toughest one yet against state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D), the well-funded beneficiary of a national Democratic effort targeting Collins’ votes for the 2017 Republican tax-cut law, Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, and Trump’s acquittal. Collins has highlighted her bipartisan work on measures including the Paycheck Protection Program she helped write in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • North Carolina: Sen. Thom Tillis (R) is laboring to win a second term against Cal Cunningham (D), an Army veteran and former state senator. Some polls show Tillis running behind Trump, who’s also at risk of losing the state to Biden.

Highly Competitive

Along with their “core four” target states, Democrats are running highly competitive campaigns for Republican-held seats in Iowa, Georgia and Montana, while the GOP hopes to keep Michigan in play.

  • Georgia: The state, which appears to be in play in the presidential race, could have two Senate races extend to January runoffs. Sen. David Perdue (R) hopes to hold off documentary film producer Jon Ossoff (D) in a race with a Libertarian who could keep Perdue and Ossoff below the majority of votes needed to win outright. The concurrent special election for the state’s other seat is all but guaranteed to need a runoff because the all-party ballot has more than 20 candidates, led by appointed incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R), Rep. Doug Collins (R), and pastor Raphael Warnock (D).
  • Iowa: The state swung toward Republicans in 2016, giving Trump a 9-point win after voting twice for Barack Obama. It may revert back to somewhere in between. Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is opposed by businesswoman Theresa Greenfield (D), who’s highlighted her farm roots and reliance on Social Security and union benefits after her first husband died in an accident. Ernst has emphasized her responsiveness to state needs by traveling to all 99 Iowa counties every year, a practice put in place by her popular senior colleague, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R).
  • Michigan: GOP strategists are promoting Army veteran John James’ (R) campaign against first-term Sen. Gary Peters (D), though James — who lost a Senate bid in 2018 — would need Trump to rebound in the state to have a chance at the upset.
  • Montana: Democrats widened their path to a potential majority in March when two-term Gov. Steve Bullock (D) entered the race to unseat Sen. Steve Daines (R). Trump won Montana by 20 points in 2016. Bullock won statewide that year and in the previous two presidential election years. Daines has linked Bullock to more-liberal Democrats including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.).

The Moonshots

Democrats are running well-funded campaigns in Trump-leaning states that lack much recent history of sending Democrats to the Senate.

  • Alaska: This may be the sleeper race of the cycle. Al Gross, an orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman who is running as an independent with the backing of the Democratic Party, is opposing Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) in a Republican-leaning state with an independent streak.
  • Kansas: Republican leaders in Washington welcomed Rep. Roger Marshall’s (R) defeat of former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) in the August primary for the open seat. Yet Marshall can’t take for granted his race against state Sen. Barbara Bollier (D), who’s well-funded.
  • Kentucky: No Senate candidate has raised more money nationwide than military veteran Amy McGrath (D) because she is opposing McConnell. But the Senate majority leader has the advantage of sharing a ballot with Trump in a state the president won by 30 percentage points four years ago.
  • South Carolina: Former state Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison has run a well-funded campaign against Sen. Lindsey Graham (R), a Trump critic-turned-ally whose barrage of negative campaign ads suggest Graham is taking the race seriously.
  • Texas: MJ Hegar (D), who like McGrath is a military veteran who ran for the House in 2018, could pose a threat to Sen. John Cornyn, formerly the No. 2 Senate Republican, if she raises the money needed to wage a top-flight campaign in a state with 20 media markets.

To contact the reporter on this story: Greg Giroux in Washington at ggiroux@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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