WASHINGTON — The Senate landscape has improved so much for Democrats that top party operatives are calling and texting one another to say they wish the election were held today.
Election Day is still five months away, but recent polls, fundraising deficits and other problems for Republican incumbents have diminished their prospects and opened up several possible avenues for Democrats to take control of the chamber.
“I would rather be the Democrats than Republicans right now,” said Jessica Taylor, the Senate editor of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election forecaster. “Democrats have expanded the map and put Republicans on defense even in some very red states.”
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The stakes are enormous for the legislative agenda of the next president — a re-elected Donald Trump or apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who leads in national polls and most swing states — as well as the future of the courts. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the leader of the liberal wing, turns 88 next year, and the next Senate might get to confirm her successor.
Trump's struggles in historically Republican states, like Arizona and Georgia, are creating collateral damage for his party's Senate candidates. Public skepticism of Trump's handling of the pandemic, and a Biden's expanding lead since the nationwide backlash to George Floyd's death, has put many GOP Senate candidates in a difficult position. They're forced to navigate a polarizing president whose ardent supporters they cannot afford to alienate and whose skeptics they'll likely need to attract to win.
Democrats currently have 47 seats — four short of an outright majority and three shy of a controlling number should Biden win as his vice president could cast any tie-breaking votes. They’re more likely than not to lose one seat in Alabama, held by Sen. Doug Jones, but have lots of pickup opportunities. GOP-held seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina are rated “toss up” by the Cook Political Report.
Republicans are defending another five seats — in Iowa, Kansas, Montana and two in Georgia — that are in play but lean GOP, while Democrats are defending a seat in Michigan, where they’re favored. Of the 11 most competitive seats, Republicans are defending nine and Democrats two.
Polls look grim for Republicans
A few months ago, Democrats felt uncertain about winning the majority as Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine are the only Republican targets in states Trump lost in 2016.
Lately they’re feeling so good that Biden said at a fundraiser last week that he believes Democrats will pick up six Senate seats, without elaborating, according to a pool report.
“For the moment, all of the things that need to happen for Democrats to take control of the Senate are happening,” said Guy Cecil, chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, which plans to spend more than $200 million to win the White House and Senate. “I’m optimistic that we can win back the Senate.”
Some GOP operatives fear that races like Colorado and Arizona — once thought to be close — are slipping away while Maine and North Carolina are becoming too close for comfort.
The nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections rates Gardner's seat as "tilt Democratic."
Collins, meanwhile, did not join Trump during his visit to Maine on Friday, although she denied that the president was hurting her chances of re-election. But she said Democrats' attacks on her have had an impact as she has been out-raised and out-spent: "It’s the barrage of unfounded falsehoods that have taken a toll," she said.
Arizona's Republican Sen. Martha McSally has consistently trailed former astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, since last August, including by 13 points in a new Fox News survey.
And in North Carolina, Thom Tillis, the GOP incumbent, and his Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, were statistically tied in two recent polls.
A Montana State University poll in April found that state's Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, leading Republican Sen. Steve Daines by 7 points after Bullock's late entry breathed life into a red-state race that Democrats had all but written off.
And in Georgia, appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, sworn in this year, drew criticism for stock trades made on her behalf after early coronavirus briefings, for which she’s been cleared by the Justice Department. Loeffler, who said she was unaware of the transactions at the time, faces a contentious "jungle primary" that includes Republican Rep. Doug Collins.
Coronavirus upends the dynamics
Republicans say the political environment will change as coronavirus lockdowns continue to ease after claiming more than 100,000 lives and Americans start to return to work.
“Where we stand today is not an accurate picture of where we will be,” said GOP consultant Brad Todd, who counts Tillis and Gardner as clients. “We've been in such an abnormal position for the past 60 days that projecting it forward is careless, if not hubris.”
Todd said Republicans will be helped by elevating the question of which party voters trust to rebuild the economy.
"I don't see anybody thinking that by October the economy has bounced back completely,” he said.
National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Jesse Hunt said most Democratic candidates have not yet faced the scrutiny that GOP incumbents have.
“Democratic challengers have lived a charmed life up to this point,” Hunt said. “As the ad wars begin to heat up and the press begins to scrutinize these Democrats, their records and scandals will be laid bare for voters to see and evaluate whether or not they are capable of handling the immense challenges facing the Senate.”
But Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Republicans will pay a price for their efforts to repeal or overturn Affordable Care Act protections, as health care remains a top issue for voters.
"Democrats are focused on the issues that matter to voters, including affordable health care coverage, and are reporting record-breaking grassroots support, which is how we’ve expanded the map and continue to move these races in our direction," she said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are hyping the Michigan race after GOP businessman and Iraq war veteran John James out-raised Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. Polls roundly show Peters leading.
Overall, the Cook Political Report's Taylor said, “Democratic challengers are by far out-raising the Republicans early on.”