Republicans’ chances of holding the U.S. Senate are improving considerably, thanks to Hillary Clinton’s sliding popularity, strong campaigns by Republican candidates and a GOP fundraising surge.
Just a few months ago, Republicans were fretting that a backlash against their presidential candidate, Donald Trump, could cost them the Senate. Now, two races Democrats have long targeted — Ohio and Florida — have started to slip away, as have Arizona and Iowa, where top Senate Republicans John McCain and Charles Grassley have built double-digit leads in recent polls.
“The now-tight presidential race suggests that perhaps Clinton could pull off a narrow victory that still allows the GOP to hold the Senate,” wrote Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics on Monday, as they moved four Senate races in the Republicans’ direction.
The shift marks a dramatic reversal for Senate Democrats, who have gone from hoping for an anti-Trump-fueled electoral wave to insisting that their darkening poll numbers, dragged down by Clinton’s unpopularity, aren’t accurate. Senate Democrats also say a big fundraising haul for Republicans is to blame.
“The big Republican donors that give dark money, the Koch brothers and all the rest of them, they’re panicky about Donald Trump, so they’re all in with Mitch McConnell and Republican senators,” Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said in an interview last week, referring to the Senate majority leader. “We don’t have as many of those types that have real huge money and can give lots of money. The ones that we have are also panicked about Donald Trump and they’re giving to Hillary Clinton.”
To be sure, there are bright spots for the Democrats too — a poll over the weekend showed Sen. Pat Toomey trailing Katie McGinty by 5 points in Pennsylvania, and Democratic challengers have led narrowly in some polls in North Carolina and Missouri.
Democrats still have far more pickup opportunities than Republicans, and a swing in their favor of a few points could still net them several more seats than the four they need to win the majority if Clinton wins the White House.
Yet concerns about the Republican fundraising advantage are a refrain heard from many lawmakers.
“The dark money is really swamping these Senate races, and the question is: can we garner enough resources — we’ll never garner as much as they have — but can we garner enough resources that we can at least get our message through. If we can, we’ll be fine and we’ll take the Senate,” McCaskill said.
Two groups allied with McConnell, the Senate Leadership Fund and One Nation, reported raising $42.4 million in August, with the leadership fund deploying about $60 million to battlegrounds this month. That includes a massive $15.8 million to New Hampshire, where Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte faces a tough race against Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, according to a spokesman for the groups, Ian Prior.
The One Nation issue ad group also spent about $25 million through August.
“I’m always worried that the story of this election, which the media seems not to have picked up on, is that the Koch brothers are spending tens and hundreds of millions of dollars and that doesn’t seem of much interest to anybody,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, where former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland is trailing Republican Sen. Rob Portman badly after facing an onslaught on the airwaves.
“They spent $40 million against me in ’12, setting all records,and they’ve already exceeded that in Ohio and elsewhere, so that’s a big part of the story,” Brown said, though he still thinks Democrats can win in the end.
The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks outside group ad spending, counted $30 million for Portman — almost all of it in ads attacking Strickland — nearly doubling the amount spent by outside groups backing Strickland.
And Koch-linked groups have spent more than $25 million in Senate battlegrounds so far.
“I think it comes down to the money,” said the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, who called the money flowing from the Senate Leadership Fund into Republican coffers in states like New Hampshire, where Ayotte has a narrow lead in recent polls, “mind-boggling.”
Both parties’ leaders have been browbeating their colleagues to pony up more of their own cash, and senators have responded with extra millions on both side of the aisle in recent weeks.
“We can’t keep up with the Koch brothers, but we can keep our heads above water and take the majority,” Durbin said.
Bernie Sanders of Vermont — who is in some demand on the campaign trail, appearing with Democrat Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania Friday — repeated his fears about democracy becoming oligarchy.
“I think most people do not believe that billionaires like the Koch brothers should be able to spend hundreds of millions and buy elections. That is precisely what’s happening,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, meanwhile, has repeatedly dismissed polling showing improving numbers for Trump and Senate Republicans, and maintained Democrats will still take back the Senate.
“I don’t buy your silliness with your $500 polls you buy overnight,” Reid told CNN last week when asked about polls. “You only do it to generate some news.”
Earlier last week, Reid told reporters he feels very comfortable that Democrats would take back the Senate. “I don’t care what the polls show. We know that they don’t work.”
He insisted that Republican Rep. Joe Heck would lose to Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto in the hard-fought battle to replace the retiring Reid in Nevada — the one Democratic seat in serious danger of flipping to the GOP.
“Trump is going to lose Nevada and Joe Heck deservedly is going to lose the Senate race because of his being a pawn for Donald Trump,” insisted Reid.
While Heck has had a narrow lead in recent polls, Democrats believe their younger, more Hispanic vote tends to pay more attention closer to the elections and will carry the day.
Lauren Passalacqua, national press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, acknowledged the concern about money.
“Democrats are used to being outspent,” she said. While the DSCC has easily outraised its Republican counterpart this cycle, outside money is heavily on the Republican side, and she said an aversion to Trump has contributed to that.
“Those groups have benefited from the disgust in the party’s standard bearer,” she said.
Democrats have made a number of seats competitive that weren’t expected to be, including North Carolina, where Sen. Richard Burr is facing off against Deborah Ross, and Missouri, where Sen. Roy Blunt is facing Jason Kander.
Meanwhile, star Democratic recruit Evan Bayh’s lead in Indiana over Rep. Todd Young has eroded badly amid attacks over the former senator’s residency, voting record and post-Senate career working in Washington.
Passalacqua said their candidates have raised enough money for advertising, and Republicans have far more seats to worry about.
However, Democrats are also communicating a message to donors, volunteers and voters that they can’t get complacent.
“Don’t take for granted that because somebody like Trump’s at the top of the ticket that it’s a sure thing,” she said.