GOP Senate majority besieged on multiple fronts

Democrats began the 2020 election cycle with only a narrow path back to the Senate majority. But entering the final week before the election, there are competitive races everywhere.

Republicans are scrambling resources into red and purple states alike — from Kansas and South Carolina to Iowa and North Carolina — cutting down Democrats’ massive financial edge and hoping for a late-breaking turn in their favor, similar to four years ago. But their defensive posture underscores just how broad the playing field is, with nearly a dozen Republican senators in various levels of danger, and only two Democratic seats at risk.

Democrats aren’t declaring the chamber won, given that the map still tilts heavily toward red states. But their paths back to the majority have expanded significantly as the election nears its close, leaving party strategists more optimistic about their chances than two years ago — when retaking the Senate seemed next to impossible, even in a wave election.

Republicans have poured money into Alaska, Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina in October to shore up their red wall, while races in more expected battlegrounds like Iowa, North Carolina, Maine and Arizona are continuing to see record-shattering spending. Republicans concede Democrats have more paths back to power given the sheer number of competitive states, but the GOP still has a relatively straightforward, if challenging, path to hanging on.

Republicans faced bleak polling in early October, with President Donald Trump’s poor performance in the first debate and Covid-19 hospitalization depressing GOP voters. Trump’s dip, combined with massive Democratic fundraising, led to widespread concerns about a wipeout. But a flood of outside money from big GOP donors and some stabilization in red-leaning states has GOP officials more optimistic about holding the line.

Josh Holmes, a top adviser to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said Republicans could win in more places than people expect. But, he added, “the low-water mark is potentially catastrophic.”

“What was a significant downturn for most Republican candidates over the last couple weeks has sort of rebounded a bit,” Holmes said. “All of these competitive races are within the margin of error, and you could have a whole bunch of scenarios play out on Election Day. The options are basically endless.”

Democrats pulled money out of Colorado earlier this month in a sign of confidence in flipping that seat, and Republicans remain heavily favored to regain Alabama. Democrats maintain a clear edge in Arizona, even as some Republicans say their polls show a closer race. Maine is a challenge for Republicans, since Joe Biden is expected to win statewide by a large margin.

Democrat Cal Cunningham still holds a slight edge in North Carolina, despite revelations of his extramarital affair, which gave GOP Sen. Thom Tillis and Republicans new life in a race that had been trending against them. GOP Sen. Joni Ernst and Democrat Theresa Greenfield are locked in a dead heat in Iowa, which is the second-most expensive state. Republicans are pressing their case in Michigan, their only other chance besided Alabama to flip a seat, and Democrats are still spending heavily on defense there, even as public polls show them with a lead.

“The map is very tight. It is on a knife's edge,” said one Republican strategist working on Senate races, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Democrats’ expansion of the map came thanks to strong recruiting in a handful of unexpected places, incredible fundraising across the board and a nosedive in Trump’s numbers over the summer and into the fall. In states like Kansas, Alaska, Montana and South Carolina, Democrats fielded candidates that put races that would otherwise be afterthoughts into play, though recent public polling shows Republicans narrowly leading in all four.

“I think we have a good shot to take the majority back. There’s more opportunity and more pathways to get there. I think the map has broadened, and that's bad for Republicans,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, Democrats’ top super PAC focused on the chamber. “The big difference now is you have more competitive races, but they're still competitive. And we expect them to stay close right through Election Day.”

Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.)
Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.)

Democratic campaigns have spending advantages over Republicans in 12 of the 13 most competitive states, according to a POLITICO review of data from Advertising Analytics. That candidate spending edge is thanks to the massive small-dollar fundraising that continued into October.

But Senate Leadership Fund and its allies mounted a late surge to counter the disparity. As GOP donors honed in on the Senate, SLF raised $142 million from the beginning of September through mid-October, flooding the battlegrounds with new outside spending.

Senate Leadership Fund is spending in 11 states, only one of which, Michigan, is an offensive target. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is spending in seven states and recently added a nearly $500,000 coordinated campaign expenditure to boost GOP Sen. John Cornyn in Texas, the committee’s first spending there.

“As liberal donors flood races across the map with a green tsunami of cash, we’re working furiously to keep Republicans’ heads above water in the battle to hold the Senate majority,” Steven Law, president of Senate Leadership Fund, said in a statement.

Senate Majority PAC is spending on 10 offensive targets, while also continuing to spend heavily in Michigan to defend Sen. Gary Peters against Republican John James. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has been more targeted, running independent-expenditure TV ads in four states: Arizona, Iowa, Montana and North Carolina.

“Strong candidates have run smart, disciplined campaigns, expanding the map into deep red states Democrats rarely compete in and forcing Republicans on defense across the country,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a DSCC spokesperson. She added that the races were in “tough states” and highlighted the GOP’s increased outside spending, saying the party was relying on grassroots donors to keep pace.

The late spending is similar to 2016, when a massive influx of GOP money in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania helped Republicans preserve their narrow majority. Democrats are better funded across the map this cycle, however, and Trump is polling well below Democrat Joe Biden.

Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the NRSC, said in a statement Republicans were positioned to close strong despite Democrats having thrown “an unprecedented amount of money at us this cycle,” accusing Democrats of having “personal scandals and failed records” that would keep the GOP competitive.

Republicans continue to hammer Cunningham in North Carolina over the revelation of an extramarital affair, with Tillis’ campaign and outside groups running constant ads on it. Cunningham is set to double Tillis’ TV spending between now and Election Day, however, and Democrats have more airtime booked in the state overall.

Since a virtual press conference a week after the scandal broke, the closest Cunningham has come to addressing it was in a new ad that began airing this weekend, in which he says Tillis is “desperately attacking my personal life because he doesn’t want to talk about his own record” on health care.

Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for Tillis’ campaign, called it a “desperate response ad to try and stop the bleeding.”

Maine is extremely close, within the margin of error, according to operatives in both parties. But the state’s ranked-choice voting system represents a concern for Republicans: There are two third-party candidates, and those candidates voters would move to their secondary choices until someone receives 50 percent. Both GOP Sen. Susan Collins and Democrat Sara Gideon agreed during a debate Thursday night not to challenge the election if they lost under the system.

In Michigan, Republicans remain hopeful about flipping the seat, and a recent internal GOP poll showed James tied with Peters, according to multiple officials familiar with the survey. But public and private Democratic polling shows a safer race for Peters. The first-term senator and his allies have a spending edge in the state through Election Day, and Peters doubled James' fundraising in the first two weeks of October after a surge in small-dollar donations.

A decisive Biden victory in Michigan would be difficult for James to overcome. But he’s showing some effort to separate from the top of the ticket. He released a new ad promising to “fight back” against any president and mocking Democrats’ assertions that “a 39-year-old Black guy from Detroit is Donald Trump.”

Absent a surprise upset, nearly every competitive race has to go Republicans' way to hold the majority. Lose in North Carolina or Iowa, or drop even one of the red-state races, and Democrats are favorites to retake the chamber.

“People are realists about the possibility, but nobody has given up,” said Mike DuHaime, a veteran GOP strategist. “They don't have to quite run the table. But close.”