With less than two weeks to go before the election, the Democrats appear on the cusp of regaining control of the Senate, riding a crest of growing anti-Trump sentiment across the country.
Beleaguered Republican incumbents have done the best they can to distance themselves from Donald Trump, the GOP’s increasingly toxic presidential candidate. But even the few who have openly broken with Trump have had trouble eluding Democrat efforts to link them to their party’s standard bearer, who most polls indicate will be soundly defeated by Democrat Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8.
Democrats have been out of power in the Senate for the past two years, and Clinton desperately needs them back in the majority in order to approve her Supreme Court nominations and to advance her major domestic initiatives and tax policies in the face of almost certain opposition from the Republican-controlled House.
Republicans currently hold a 54 to 46 seat majority in the Senate and must defend 24 of those seats in next month’s election, while Democrats must protect just 10 seats. Assuming Clinton beats Trump for the presidency and her vice president, Tim Kaine, formally presides over the Senate and can break any ties, the Democrats need a net pickup of four Republican seats to claim the majority and make Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York the next Majority Leader. If Trump were to pull out a victory, then the Democrats would need a five-seat pickup to regain the majority.
While nothing is set in stone until all the votes are counted, many political analysts are beginning to forecast a Democratic takeover of the Senate – as well as a strong Democratic showing in House races that would chip away at the Republicans’ currently overwhelming 30-seat advantage.
The Cook Political Report this week projected that the Democrats will pick up five to seven Republican seats – a forecast certain to provide Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky with heartburn. University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball blog is signaling that the Democrats will capture at least five Republican seats.
Although most analysts hesitate to predict which of the current Republican-held seats will fall to the Democrats, there is agreement that GOP Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois will lose handily to Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth and that Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin will fall to former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.
The other projected three to five Democratic pickups will likely come in North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and possibly Florida.
“Of course Trump is hurting them,” Sabato said in an email on Wednesday. “But there’s a different calculus in each state – a result of candidates, funding issues specific to each race and so on.”
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), a veteran lawmaker, is a political insider in a year when voters have shown a preference for outsiders. He admits that “I’m in the race of my life” against former state legislator Deborah Ross, despite Burr’s relentless attacks on Ross for her liberal record running the state American Civil Liberties Union chapter. In the battle for an open seat in Indiana, former Democratic senator and governor Evan Bayh has been bludgeoned by Republican Rep. Todd Young for the millions of dollars he earned through Washington connections, and yet Bayh continues to hold a modest lead in most polls.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri is viewed by many voters as too closely allied with his family’s lobbying interests. His youthful Democratic challenger, Jason Kander, an Army veteran, dazzled voters with an ad in which he explained his support for background checks for gun purchasers while assembling an AR-15 assault rifle blindfolded.
In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is locked in a bitter battle with Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte stumbled badly during a debate by declaring that Trump was a good “role model” for children, but later saying that she “misspoke.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) has declined to either endorse or disavow Trump and seemingly hopes to hang onto his seat by appealing to conservatives and suburban moderates. But Democratic challenger Katie McGinty has been backed by President Obama and a well-financed media campaign, and threatens to topple Toomey if Clinton does well in the presidential contest in the Keystone State.
Finally, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the unsuccessful candidate for the Republican presidential nomination who decided belatedly to seek another term in the Senate, holds a 3.6 point lead on average over Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy and is expected to win reelection. Yet Rubio, who boasts of his Cuban heritage, got booed off a stage in Orlando on Sunday by a crowd that was predominantly Latino. Rubio’s policies are too conservative for many Hispanic voters. And many are disgusted with Rubio for endorsing Trump after denouncing the billionaire businessman during the primaries as “a con-artist” who spent years “sticking it to the working people.”
A few months ago, the Republicans appeared in good shape to win a Nevada Senate seat held for years by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. But Republican Rep. Joe Heck’s repudiation of Trump backfired on him among conservatives in the state, while Reid’s hand-picked Democratic successor, Catherine Cortez Masto, appears to be in much better shape than earlier in the campaign.
Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report, an expert on Senate politics, said in an interview on Wednesday that Republican Senate candidates for months had done a good job of navigating the political problems posed by Trump despite his attacks on Hispanics, women, Muslims, immigrants, free-traders and others.
She said the turning point came with the revelation of the 11-year-old NBC Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted of exploiting his star power as a billionaire and reality TV host to grope women. That was followed by more than a dozen women coming forward with stories about how they had been sexually abused and humiliated by Trump.
After the tape was revealed by The Washington Post in early October, “Trump started to slide in a lot of these competitive states and Republicans saw a dip as well,” Duffy said.
“And what it comes down to, really, is that ‘marginal or casual’ Republicans who don’t always vote sort of lost interest in the election,” she said. “They no longer thought they needed to vote … Until this tape, Republican Senate candidates had been managing it well. For a lot of people, the tape turned out to be the last straw.”
What’s more, many of these GOP Senate campaigns lack an organizational ground game that can turn out supporters on Nov. 8 or encourage them to vote early. “There’s nobody out there appealing to these casual Republicans, reminding them that there are other reasons to go to the polls apart from voting for president,” Duffy said. “The Trump campaign didn’t do that.”
Many fear that with little hope of overtaking Clinton, Trump is running a scorched earth campaign against the media, the political establishment and other perceived enemies who he claims are “conspiring” to rig the election and bring him down.
As for Trump’s concern about down-ballot Republican candidates in Senate and House races, The Washington Post reported Tuesday that Trump’s campaign has decided against holding any more big-money fundraising events to benefit the Republican Party. That will damage the party’s get-out-the-vote effort, according to the newspaper.