GOP Bullish on Senate Majority, But Dems Upbeat Too

GOP Bullish on Senate Majority, But Dems Upbeat Too
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Republicans are increasingly bullish on their chances to maintain their Senate majority, pointing to massive fundraising from GOP outside groups and improving poll numbers for Donald Trump as evidence that imperiled incumbents will weather the remainder of this unpredictable election cycle.

Democrats, on the other hand, argue that they’re still leading or tied in critical battleground states -- and forcing Republicans to play defense in several traditionally red ones -- showing that even as Hillary Clinton’s top-of-the-ticket poll numbers have taken a hit in recent weeks, they’re still well positioned to win back a narrow majority in the upper chamber.  

Republicans currently hold a four-seat advantage, but Democrats are expected to pick up GOP-held seats in Illinois and Wisconsin, meaning they would need to flip just two other seats to gain the majority if Clinton wins the election – though they would need to win a fifth race if Clinton loses the presidency or Republicans flip the Democratic-controlled seat in Nevada. (The only other battleground with a Democratic incumbent, Colorado, is no longer considered competitive by members of either party.)

As fall campaigns begin in earnest, Republicans’ newfound optimism stems from a wave of polls showing GOP Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio and Marco Rubio of Florida opening up wide leads over their opponents – both led by double digits in CNN polls released Wednesday – while Democrats’ lead in Indiana has narrowed significantly in recent weeks.

Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking Republican in the chamber, said he’s “more optimistic than I have been in a while” about the GOP’s chances of keeping its majority.

“If the election were held today, I’d feel pretty good about [the majority] but obviously the election isn’t today,” Cornyn said Monday. He later added, “As the gap between Trump and Clinton has shrunk, it’s made life a little easier on some of our incumbent senators running for re-election.”

Democrats, however, argue they’re still on offense in the cycle, and point to announcements this week of $2.5 million in spending in North Carolina and $1.5 million in Missouri as evidence that they’re forcing Republicans to defend seats once thought to be safe. Those states, along with toss-up races in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, where polls have been close and oscillated between the candidates, give the minority party multiple paths to win enough seats to flip the chamber.

“I feel good. I can tell you that we have some great candidates,” Sen. Jon Tester, the chairman of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said Wednesday. “[Republicans] have to defend a do-nothing record here in Congress and a presidential candidate who’s deeply flawed, and I think over the next seven weeks, I feel good about our shot."

In Ohio, Portman leads by 12.4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics poll average, and has received praise from Republicans across the board for the grassroots campaign he’s run, though he’s also benefited from tens of millions of dollars from outside groups attacking his opponent, former Gov. Ted Strickland. Democratic groups have pulled money out of Ohio in favor of states with closer races, making it much more difficult for the challenger to make up his deficit. 

The Florida race is much tighter, with Rubio holding a 5.4 percentage point lead in the RCP average, but Rubio’s opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy, hasn’t led in a public poll since June.

One of the main reasons for Republicans’ newfound optimism comes from several recent polls that show their candidate closing the gap in Indiana.  Former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh entered the race in July to face off against GOP Rep. Todd Young, and a private Democratic poll showed Bayh with a nearly 20-point lead at the time. But Republicans have spent more than $5 million relentlessly attacking the former two-term senator over his residency – he owns two large homes in Washington, D.C., and a small condo in Indiana – and recent public polling shows Bayh with a narrower lead; he’s up 5.5 percentage points in the RCP average, a number Republicans think they will be able to make up.

“People who thought that race was going to be a sleeper are waking up to the reality that that’s going to be a very competitive race, and I think it’s one [that] in the end we have a really good shot of winning,” GOP Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican, told RCP.

Several Republicans pointed to the massive $42 million fundraising tally last month of the outside groups Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation – both associated with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – as a significant plus, along with improving polls for some candidates. The groups recently started advertising for Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire and plan to spend nearly $16 million in that state; they’ve also pledged $10 million in Florida, $8 million in North Carolina and more than $6 million in Pennsylvania and Nevada.

On the Democratic side, Senate Majority PAC, a group with ties to Democratic Leader Harry Reid, also has $10 million reserved for Florida and Pennsylvania and $5.5 reserved for Nevada and New Hampshire.

 Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber, called the GOP money advantage “worrisome.”

“Solid, quality candidates, good campaigns but a massive infusion of Republican money in the last few weeks, and we are working overtime to try to keep up with it,” Durbin said, according to the Associated Press.

Other Democrats, however, argue that the GOP spending millions on such a large number of races in both purple and red states – including in Ohio and Florida, despite the recent polling – shows that they’re still on the defensive.

“We’re confident in the candidates we’ve recruited and in the races they’re running, and unlike Republicans, who’ve all but lost their shot at a pick-up in Colorado, we’ve actually expanded our opportunities to states like North Carolina, Missouri and Indiana,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for Senate Democrats’ campaign committee. “That’s not a sentence anyone – Republicans especially – thought they’d read this time last year and they’re just as surprised now to have to spend in those states and others.”

Still, with eight weeks remaining in a volatile election cycle, members of both parties cautioned that the Senate map could shift significantly before November, especially once candidates begin debating and the expenditures in advertising hit the airwaves in full. Tester, the Democratic campaign chairman, called the map a “big puzzle” while Thune, the GOP senator, referred to it as a “chess match.”

Josh Holmes, a GOP consultant and former chief of staff to McConnell, said, “From a Senate Republican point of view, it’s as good as it can be with the environment that you can’t control.” Still, he added, a lot can change between now and Nov. 8.

“It might as well be 10 years from Election Day,” Holmes said. “There are so many things you can’t control down the stretch. But from an infrastructure perspective, every one of those [Republican incumbents] is in the position they need to be to win."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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