President Trump’s slide in the polls since he tested positive for the coronavirus has Republicans newly worried about their control of the Senate, as even some races in what are supposed to be safe red states are beginning to appear competitive.
Incumbent GOP Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are all considered vulnerable. If Joe Biden wins the presidency, only three of those seats would need to flip for Democrats to capture the Senate, factoring in what would then be Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote as vice president.
Democrats are hopeful they can expand the map where they are playing offense to include several historically red states. Among their targets are Georgia, where they seek to topple Sen. David Perdue, and where some Republicans now believe Trump is trailing; Montana, where popular Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is challenging Republican Sen. Steve Daines; Kansas, where Democrat Barbara Bollier led Republican Roger Marshall in a new poll; and Alaska, where liberal money is pouring in as part of an effort to oust GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan.
This follows a wave of discouraging public poll numbers for Trump, still reeling from a coronavirus diagnosis that led to a brief hospitalization and a widely panned first debate performance. In eight of the last nine national polls included in the RealClearPolitics average, Biden breaks 50% of the vote, while Trump gets no more than 43%.
The polling varies in the battleground states, where the Trump campaign maintains its numbers show the president remains ahead or competitive. But the same public polling averages show Trump trailing Biden in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, and Nevada. Trump is tied in Georgia and leads by 0.2 points in Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, good for one electoral vote, and by less than 5 points in Texas.
“Personally, at this point, I don’t really see a Trump victory in Michigan,” said Dennis Darnoi, a Republican strategist in the state. “For him to win, he would need to see a massive increase in voters who did not vote in ’16 and who also support him.”
All this has Democrats gleeful about their Senate prospects. “If Lindsey Graham loses, I think we win the Senate,” said Moe Vela, a former top aide to Biden. Some of the embattled GOP incumbents are even running behind Trump in their states.
Republican pickup opportunities are largely limited to Alabama, where Democratic Sen. Doug Jones barely beat Roy Moore in a late 2017 special election, and Michigan, where polls periodically show Democratic Sen. Gary Peters with an underwhelming lead. While Emerson College’s latest survey had Peters up by 10, in the RealClearPolitics average, the incumbent only leads by 5.1 points.
Peters’s Republican challenger, John James, “is in a more competitive position,” Darnoi said. “He retains the support of those moderate Republicans and independents who are not supporting Trump. Obviously, he has locked down Republican support.” The most recent Alabama Senate poll, conducted by Auburn University, has Republican Tommy Tuberville leading Jones by 12 points.
Democrats have hinted they may eliminate the legislative filibuster and expand the Supreme Court if they win the Senate, although Biden has not taken a firm position on the former and flatly refuses to answer questions about the latter. Abandoning Trump by arguing Democrats should not be handed a “blank check,” as congressional Republicans did to Bob Dole in 1996, is not a viable option. Trump is too combative to go along with such a strategy and may yet close the gap in the Electoral College. “We need the president to at least get close to hold the Senate,” said a Republican strategist in a swing state.
“The toughest seats to hold are Colorado, Arizona, and Maine,” said Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Republicans can hold the majority, but it’s going to be very close. Cal Cunningham’s implosion in North Carolina helps.” Cunningham, who is Tillis’s Democratic challenger, has been enmeshed in a sexting scandal that has led to further allegations of marital infidelity.
Senate Republicans had hoped to focus on confirming Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Instead, the headlines are dominated by stalled stimulus negotiations, Trump’s COVID-19 status and the federal response to the pandemic, and ever-shifting news about the status of the next presidential debate.
Republicans believe that even with the election less than a month away and early voting already underway, Trump and several of their endangered Senate incumbents still have time to recover. But they are also bracing for the worst-case scenario. “Total Democratic control,” predicted one GOP operative.