WASHINGTON — Since most of the nation shut down six weeks ago to combat the coronavirus, the battle for control of the U.S. Senate has been frozen in place.
And as the nation slowly reopens, races in some states have been paused in ways that have helped Democratic challengers, allowing the frontrunners to build momentum by depriving their primary opponents of coverage. But in at least one state, the Republican incumbent may have been given a way to change the subject away from President Trump.
“COVID-19 has really taken charge, and that’s the subject everyone wants to talk about. It’s kind of put campaigns on their heels in general,” said Bobby Reynolds, a political consultant in Maine who has worked for Republicans and Democrats.
Reynolds worked for Republican Sen. Susan Collins from 2008 to 2014. Collins is one of four Republican incumbents whom Democrats hope to defeat in their quest to regain control of the Senate. Reynolds is now an adviser to a Democratic congressman from Maine, Jared Golden, whom he helped elect in 2018.
But Reynolds said he hopes Collins will be reelected and that if she is, it will be because the pandemic crisis changed the focus of the race away from her relationship with Trump and toward her work on bread-and-butter issues that have real-world impact.
Collins, seeking her seventh term in the Senate, has been an object of ridicule and outrage on the left for her propensity to publicly toy with the idea of crossing Trump on key votes, based on principle, only to dash hopes for it time and again. Democrats thought Collins would join them in voting against blowing up the judicial filibuster during the April 2017 vote on Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, but she did not.
Then they hoped in October 2018 that she would vote against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh following allegations of sexual assault, but Collins once again voted for Trump’s nominee. And only a few months ago, she voted against finding Trump guilty in the Senate impeachment trial.
Anti-Collins donations have flooded to the frontrunner candidate in the Democratic primary to face the Republican: Sara Gideon, the current House speaker in the state Legislature. Gideon took in $7.1 million in donations during the first quarter of 2020, roughly three times the amount Collins received. And Gideon is close to matching Collins in the amount she has on hand, yet to spend, with $4.6 million to the Republican’s $5.6 million.
Reynolds, the former Collins aide, said the senator’s work on the Paycheck Protection Program will be a centerpiece of her campaign for reelection. Collins was one of four senators credited with helping create the PPP, which is providing $669 billion in federally backed loans to businesses trying to stave off collapse because of the coronavirus shutdown.
“She’s proven her mettle during this thing,” Reynolds argued. “She is an invaluable asset right now to Mainers. … My guess is Mainers are gonna see during this crisis that Susan Collins is a leader in their delegation and nationally.
“When we get into October and everybody’s up on TV … there will be all kinds of testimonials from small-business owners who will be lined up to talk about it,” he said.
The two Republicans who are most widely considered to be in danger of losing their seats are in Colorado and Arizona. And the coronavirus crisis may have only increased the degree to which they are vulnerable.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., is seeking his second term. Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan pollster in Colorado, said the 45-year-old Gardner is “far and away the most talented Republican I’ve seen in the state in some time.”
In a nonpresidential year, Ciruli said, Gardner would beat former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Democratic establishment pick to run against the senator.
But Gardner’s “fundamental problem” is his decision to run in virtual lockstep with Trump, Ciruli said: “He’s separated himself in a few spots, but basically he’s on the team.”
And in Colorado, Trump is increasingly unpopular. He lost the state by 5 points to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and in 2018 Democrats took control of the state Legislature and swept races at the top of state government, in part because voters saw the election as a referendum on the president.
Trump “went out of his way to be extremely visible as we approached the election, and Democrats simply crushed it,” Ciruli said.
And the pandemic has given Trump a platform to dominate the news even more completely, giving briefings almost every night to remind his base voters what they like about him — and everyone else what they don’t.
If anything, the coronavirus pause has helped Hickenlooper by freezing the primary and denying exposure to his main competitor for the Democratic nomination, the more liberal Andrew Romanoff.
In Arizona, the past six weeks have not been helpful to the Republican incumbent either. Like Gardner, Republican Sen. Martha McSally has not done a lot to separate herself from the president and may pay the price for it in November.
McSally’s opponent, former astronaut Mark Kelly, raised a staggering sum in the first quarter: $11 million. McSally’s haul would have been fantastic in a normal quarter. She brought in $6.4 million. But Kelly’s gusher of cash shows which way things are trending nationally and in the state.
“I don’t think she’ll catch up in fundraising, but she can wage a campaign to try to drive some differences between Kelly and herself and change the trajectory. Right now I think she’s down a bit,” said a Republican operative who works in Arizona politics, who asked not to be identified.
McSally was appointed to her seat to replace Sen. John Kyl, a Republican, following his retirement in late 2018. Prior to that, McSally ran in the 2018 election to fill an open Senate seat but was defeated by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. McSally was “badly hurt” during that race, the Republican operative said, by attacks on her health care record, namely her support for rolling back coverage for those with preexisting conditions.
Arizona voters elected a Republican governor, Doug Ducey, in 2018, but rejected McSally. Ducey outperformed McSally by about 200,000 votes.
“The race kind of freezes with her facing a pretty significant fundraising disadvantage … and no real way to change the narrative,” the Arizona Republican operative said. “It’s early. Hopefully this lifts after Memorial Day and is somewhat back to normal.”
That leaves North Carolina, which Trump won by almost 4 points in 2016. It’s still a red state, and incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, is another skilled politician.
But in a state that Barack Obama narrowly won in 2008, only to lose in 2012, Republican consultant Dee Stewart said the Senate race is going to “go back and forth.”
“It’s going to be very competitive,” he said.
And as is happening in Maine, the Democratic candidate in North Carolina is winning the fundraising game. Cal Cunningham, an Army veteran and businessman, brought in $4.4 million in the first quarter to Tillis’s $2.1 million.
“The Q1 fundraising was a massive problem,” said one national Republican operative.
Tillis has bobbed and weaved in recent weeks on major questions that will affect his reelection. On a matter that stokes populist outrage — the selling of stocks by his fellow Republican North Carolina senator, Richard Burr, days before the stock market tanked due to the coronavirus — Tillis has walked a fine line. He said Burr “owes everybody an explanation” but did not call on him to resign or step down as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
And on the matter of reopening businesses, Tillis has resisted calls that have generally come from the right to do so sooner than later.
Republican consultant Stewart said this cautious approach is in character with how Tillis has traditionally navigated politics.
“He’s cautious and he wants to take action that’s going to work over the long term,” Stewart said in an interview.
But it’s also a reflection of how the past six weeks have unsettled the political landscape and called into question everything that we thought we knew about how control of the Senate would be decided.
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP
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