The Democratic Party has a clear path to taking back the Senate majority with only 100 days left before Election Day, a result that could give the party total control of Congress and the White House if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also wins.
Biden has built up a significant lead over President Trump in polls, and his strength coupled with Trump’s weakness is lifting Democratic candidates across the country. Democrats lead in polls in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, enough to win back the Senate if Biden takes over the White House even if Senator Doug Jones loses his underdog reelection bid in Alabama.
But there are even more opportunities for Democrats, underscoring the rising fortunes for their party. Senator Steve Daines is facing a difficult reelection battle against his state’s Democratic governor, and on Thursday the Cook Political Report shifted two more Senate races — one in Iowa and one in Georgia — into the “tossup” column.
Democrats are raising huge sums of money, ensuring the party will have the coffers to compete this fall and underscoring enthusiasm among its voters. Republicans in Kansas, South Carolina and Kentucky, all states where the Republican Party will be favored, have races where Democrats can’t be counted out.
“We’re in a bad place right now,” one veteran Republican Senate campaign operative said. “Unless this bounces back, Gardner is gone, McSally is gone, it’s not hard to see Collins and Tillis losing.”
Those four GOP incumbents — Gardner, McSally, Collins and Tillis — are the Senate Democrats’ top targets this election, and have been for the better part of the past year, or even longer. While members of both parties have acknowledged for months that the races in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina are anyone’s game, there are signs that the GOP’s prospects in those states have taken a turn for the worse.
Recent polls show each of those four candidates trailing their Democratic opponents, and on Thursday, McSally became the first Republican incumbent this cycle to have her reelection bid moved into the “lean Democratic” column by Cook.
But a handful of seats in states that once appeared favorable for Republicans, such as Montana, Georgia and Iowa, have come up for grabs.
Signs indicate an increasingly competitive race in Georgia between Senator David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, who emerged from a crowded primary field last month and benefited from a surge in fundraising. Ossoff outraised Perdue by more than $1.7 million in the second quarter of the year, recent filings show, and his campaign has begun touting internal polling showing the race in a statistical tie.
Trump is also facing a tightening race against Biden in Georgia despite winning the state handily in 2016, boosting Democrats’ hopes that the once deep red state is on the cusp of a political sea change.
And in Iowa, a state that Democrats had all but written off at the presidential level after it swung sharply for Trump in 2016, Senator Joni Ernst has found herself in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. She’s facing a challenge from Democrat Theresa Greenfield, whom recent polls now show with a narrow lead.
“In a world where the Iowa Senate race is one of the most competitive races, that’s bad for Republicans,” one Democratic strategist who works on Senate campaigns said.
Republicans say they always expected to play defense in 2020. Unlike 2018, when they took advantage of Democrats’ unfavorable Senate map to net two more seats in the chamber, 20 GOP incumbents are facing reelection this year.
But some Republicans have begun sounding the alarm, fearing that their Senate majority is at serious risk and that the few opportunities they have to go on offense this year are slipping away.
Republican Tommy Tuberville is still heavily favored to unseat Jones in Alabama. But in Michigan, one of a couple states that Republicans had hoped to flip from Democrats this year, polling shows Senator Gary Peters with a solid lead over his GOP challenger John James, one of Senate Republicans’ top recruits of the cycle. A Fox News survey released on Thursday showed Peters leading James by 10 points.
Democrats have also pulled ahead in the money race. In the second quarter of the year, Democratic candidates in the 15 most competitive Senate contests outraised their Republican opponents by a combined $32 million, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Democrats’ political stock has risen as Trump has seen his support and approval ratings slide amid the coronavirus pandemic and the economic uncertainty that came with it. Stewart Boss, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said that voters have rushed to support Democratic candidates in response to those crises.
“While Republicans have mismanaged the response to this unprecedented public health and economic crisis, our momentum has grown as Democrats have expanded the Senate map and our potential paths to ending Mitch McConnell’s majority with 100 days to go,” Boss said.
There are a couple bright spots for Republicans. In most cases, GOP incumbents still have larger cash reserves than their Democratic challengers. And the Senate Republican campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee posted a record-breaking $35.6 million fundraising haul in the second quarter of the year, outpacing the DSCC by about $1.6 million.
In a statement, Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the NRSC said that the 100-day stretch before Election Day would prove detrimental to Democrats, accusing the party’s candidates of working to “fundamentally alter our country with their socialist agenda.”
“Over the next 100 days voters will continue to sour on Democrats as these issues get contrasted with Republican senators’ impressive records of accomplishment,” Hunt said.
Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate, meaning that Democrats will have to pick up at least three or four seats, depending on which party wins the White House, to capture control of the chamber. Because Jones is seen as particularly vulnerable, Democrats are angling to flip at least four GOP-held seats elsewhere.
While Democrats are mostly optimistic about their chances heading into the fall election season, some are urging caution, noting that polling and fundraising in the months before the 2016 presidential election also suggested that Hillary Clinton would beat Trump. Her surprise loss that year still resonates with Democrats in 2020.
“It’s a lingering effect that benefits Democrats because we won’t lose our edge in the final 100 days here,” said Mike Nellis, a consultant whose firm Authentic Campaigns is running digital programs for the Democratic Senate nominees in North Carolina and Colorado. “I don’t know a single person who isn’t laser focused on what they need to do to win this election.”
Still, Republicans are quick to note that there is still plenty of time for things to change before Election Day. David Polyanksy, a Republican consultant and former chief of staff to Senator Ted Cruz, acknowledged that recent months haven’t been ideal for the GOP. But he also said that Democrats may be overconfident in their bid for Senate control.
“Sure, it’s been a bit of a bumpy stretch,” Polyansky. “As a result, you see Democrats with misguided hopes that extend beyond Georgia, Iowa and Montana, even now dreaming big in places like Texas. It sure seems that their eyes have become exceedingly bigger than their stomach.”
“It’s 100 days out, and 100 days in normal politics can feel like a decade and in 2020, 100 days can feel like a century,” he added. “A lot’s going to happen between now and then that will significantly impact these races, good, bad or indifferent.”