From the deepest conservative states to more Democratic leaning terrain, Senate Republicans face a brutal political environment that has left the GOP needing to pull off a near-perfect run in a dozen highly competitive races to retain the majority.
That environment, with a pandemic killing nearly 230,000 Americans and leaving millions unemployed, wounded President Donald Trump’s standing even in his most reliable states, dragging Republican incumbents down with him and opening new avenues for Democrats to pursue the Senate majority, according to interviews with 10 strategists in both parties deeply involved in Senate races.
Neither side is certain of victory, and the quirks of each state’s vote-counting systems means it could be days, weeks or even a couple of months before senators know which party holds power over presidential appointments and sets the Senate agenda.
But the national landscape, represented through the president’s weakened standing across the ideological spectrum, sent shock waves through Senate Republicans in recent weeks.
“Well, the president’s losing Arizona. And, you know, we think that he and Martha are very intrinsically tied together,” Kevin McLaughlin, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, explained during a 90-minute presentation on the state of the races Thursday. Trump won Arizona by 3.5 percentage points in 2016 and is now trailing Democrat Joe Biden, according to both public and private polling, which Republicans feel is why GOP Sen. Martha McSally is also trailing in her key race.
At one point, NRSC strategists believed Biden hit 50% in Georgia - a figure they found “terrifying” as they try to defend two seats in the state, which Trump won by five percentage points in 2016.
Trump won Kansas by more than 20 percentage points in 2016, but now his lead is in the low single digits, according to Republicans, after bleeding support in the Kansas City suburbs. A state that has voted Democratic just once since 1940 could now be considered a relatively competitive fight between Trump and Biden.
Even in Alaska, which Trump won by 28 percentage points four years ago, the president’s standing has cratered to a narrow lead, in public and private polling, forcing the Republicans' official campaign arm to spend cash to shore up Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan.
“You should’ve seen those [polls] three weeks ago when we had the president down,” McLaughlin said, explaining Trump was actually losing in Alaska this month and how the Senate incumbent’s race sunk with the president. “I mean, it’s not because of Dan Sullivan. I’m just telling you.”
Democrats do not dispute that the environment has opened the door for them to seize the majority, but they contend that this group of GOP senators did little to prepare themselves for such competitive races.
They have known since 2014, when these Republicans won in part by campaigning against the Affordable Care Act, that they should put together their plan to replace it, something that never happened. Trump’s decision to join the legal challenge at the Supreme Court to scrap the entire law in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic made the situation even worse.
“These candidates exacerbated their own unique liabilities. They built their campaigns on a very weak foundation,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Beneath the surface is another crack in the GOP foundation, as House Republican candidates are floundering in key states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, according to consultants in both parties. In districts that Trump narrowly won or narrowly lost four years ago, Biden is now solidly ahead along with the Democratic candidate, while in some districts Trump won by significant margins, the president is now narrowly trailing.
That dynamic has left some Republicans privately bracing for a potential across-the-board collapse, but so far that has not happened in the Senate battlegrounds.
That’s in large part because of a massive rescue effort led by the NRSC and its super PAC cousin, the Senate Leadership Fund.
“We’re in, we are in it. And we have a very distinct path, and it’s a good path. I mean, it’s a violent path; it’ll take a toll on all of us,” McLaughlin said.
The NRSC raised and spent $275 million in this election cycle, dwarfing the $151 million raised for the 2018 campaign, and the GOP super PAC stunned Democrats by raising almost $150 million over a six-week period this fall, flooding the airwaves and leveling a playing field that had tilted toward Democrats who smashed records through online fundraising among liberal activists.
For the first time, McLaughlin’s committee has run an aggressive field program trying to drag voters to the polls. That program will be particularly important in states where the presidential contest was not expected to be close like Alaska, Kansas and Montana, because neither Trump’s campaign nor the Republican National Committee is engaged in those states.
Strategists in both parties concede that they will trade Colorado and Alabama as easy victories for the respective challenger, leaving Republicans with 53 seats.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., can then only afford to lose two of 12 remaining GOP-held seats Democrats have targeted to hold the majority, if Biden defeats Trump. McConnell can afford three losses if Trump pulls off another upset as Vice President Pence would be the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate.
Despite Trump’s sagging popularity, Republicans have not broken ranks with him and instead have tried to rally his most loyal supporters, who remain suspicious of these more traditional, establishment-friendly senators.
McSally joined Trump at an Arizona rally Wednesday, even after the president rushed her onstage and limited her speaking time. “You got one minute! One minute, Martha! They don’t want to hear this, Martha. Come on. Let’s go. Quick, quick, quick, quick.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) crossed into Nebraska on Tuesday to get a brief shout-out from Trump at a rally in Omaha, whose media market crosses into western Iowa.
And Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., whose campaign has caused dramatic late concern among GOP strategists, canceled his final debate Sunday, against Democrat Jon Ossoff, so he can instead attend a rally in northwest Georgia with Trump.
Both sides view Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and gun-control activist, as the favorite over McSally and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., remains in a precarious position.
His opponent, Cal Cunningham, admitted to an extramarital transgression a month ago, but pollsters in both parties say Tillis remains more unpopular than the challenger.
That could leave the majority hinging on Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a 24-year veteran who has built her own political brand that has kept her afloat even as Trump heads toward a significant defeat in Maine. In a recent debate, Collins declined to say whether Trump deserves to be reelected.
Democrats are frustrated that they still consider the race essentially tied after tens of millions of dollars in negative ads that began two years ago when Collins supported Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and almost never let up.
Maine’s unique system of “ranked-choice voting” could delay the final outcome for at least a week after Tuesday’s election. Voters there will rank their preferences among Collins, Democrat Sara Gideon and two unaligned candidates, and if no candidate gets more than 50% on the initial vote, all ballots are sent to the state capital, where election officials will physically review them to count the second and third choices in a complicated formula until one candidate has cleared majority support.
The strongest unaffiliated candidate is running as a staunch liberal encouraging her supporters to choose Gideon second. Most strategists believe Collins will need a lead of several percentage points, near 50%, on the initial vote or else Gideon will overtake Collins when the ranked votes are counted.
Georgia state law says that if no one clears 50% in Perdue’s race and a special election, the top two advance to a runoff election Jan. 5. Republicans concede they expect both races to end up in runoffs and possibly leave the entire Senate majority hanging in the balance until early next year.
Senate GOP officials remain furious that Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., entered the special election against the appointed senator, Republican Kelly Loeffler, in the special election. Almost two dozen candidates appear on the ballot together, and the top two head to the runoff. Loeffler has raced to the right to fend off Collins in a way that could leave the middle open in the runoff for the leading Democrat, Raphael Warnock.
GOP officials believe that had Collins not run, a combination of Loeffler’s wealth and Perdue’s relative strength in the Georgia suburbs compared to Trump could’ve aided the president in the state.
Ernst’s race against Theresa Greenfield might be the closest in the nation. Republicans believe Trump is in better shape in Iowa, which he won by nine percentage points four years ago but where he has struggled throughout the summer and early fall.
“We needed the president to, kind of, right the ship here, and we feel like he has,” McLaughlin said.
Given Trump’s standing there in 2016, Democrats view Iowa as a linchpin - if Greenfield wins, their candidates will probably sweep four other states where Trump performed worse in his first race.
Republicans do not understand why Democrats remain so financially invested in Montana, where they believe GOP Sen. Steve Daines has a stable lead over Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock. Just as Democrats do not understand why GOP super PACs continue to spend heavily this weekend in Michigan, where they believe Democratic Sen. Gary Peters has a steady lead over Republican John James.
If either side pulls off the upset against those incumbents, it is probably going to be a very good night for that party’s chances at securing the Senate majority.
Finally, Democrats have used their online financial engine to boost candidates in four states the president won four years ago by nine percentage points to 28 - Alaska, Kansas, South Carolina and Texas.
In each state, Trump still leads, according to NRSC polling, but by a fraction of his margin from four years ago.
With such undefined GOP incumbents, Democrats believe they have a chance to score a major upset among those conservative states, all of which gives them more chances to reach the majority.
“We go into Election Day with a lot of different paths to the majority,” Passalacqua said, “and we have to see how it shakes out.”