Democrats are bracing for a down-to-the-wire fight for control of the Senate, with eight days left and a slew of toss-up races.
After getting burned in 2016, when they thought they would win the White House and the Senate majority, Democrats are being careful not to spike the football too early even as political handicappers give them good odds of winning back the chamber for the first time since 2014.
Democrats say they are optimistic, with a wider-than-expected playing field, but warn the battle for the majority is still too close to call in the final stretch.
“We’re encouraged by the results, but let me tell you it’s still a bottled up situation,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said that while the prospect for Democrats “looks and feels good, I’ve been there before, so I have no clue.”
“I’ve learned to be skeptical of all these polls,” Murphy said. “Obviously the playing field is huge, much bigger than we would have suspected. … We have more pathways to get to the majority than we would have a year ago.”
A Democratic official involved in the Senate races compared the fight for which party will control the Senate majority to “more of a coin flip than a done deal,” even while Democrats have expanded the map compared to the start of the cycle when Republicans were viewed as the early favorites.
“We just can’t take anything for granted. … Because of the states that we’re running in, the map is tougher than the presidential race,” the official added.
Democrats need to pick up a net total of three seats and the White House to win control of the Senate. Complicating their math, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) is viewed as likely to lose his seat, after winning a 2017 special election, meaning they will likely need an actual gain of four seats to break even.
Political handicappers view Arizona and Colorado, where GOP Sens. Martha McSally and Cory Gardner, respectively, are on the ballot, as likely Democratic pickups. Democratic nominee Sara Gideon has also led GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) in a number of polls, though the contest is rated as a toss-up.
Democrats felt confident they could win in North Carolina, where Sen. Thom Tillis (R) has trailed Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham, but news that Cunningham had an extramarital affair threw a late curveball into the race. Cunningham still maintains a slight lead, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polling, but two recent polls have shown the race as tied.
Asked about the North Carolina race, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued that health care, not Cunningham’s personal life, should be the main issue.
“Biggest issue in North Carolina is health care, like it is across America, the need of Americans to be protected from pre-existing conditions, the need of senior citizens to be able to afford their drugs, the need of people who don’t have health care to get it, that’s the No. 1 issue in North Carolina, and that is why we are going to prevail,” Schumer said.
If Democrats could sweep those four states they could win back the Senate majority, even if Jones loses, as long as Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the White House.
Beyond that, Democrats have also brought states such as Georgia, Montana and Iowa into play, while states like South Carolina, Kansas and Alaska have emerged as competitive races despite their deep red leanings.
FiveThirtyEight’s deluxe edition of its election forecast gives Democrats a 73 percent chance of winning the Senate majority.
But it wouldn’t be the first time Democrats went into election night feeling confident, only to fall short.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has routinely told a story about how Schumer called him shortly before the 2016 election saying he hoped they would have a good working relationship. Republicans, in a surprise, were able to hold on to the Senate majority, despite a difficult map.
“Chuck was feeling really good about having my job. … He actually called me a day before the election and said he hoped we would have a really good working relationship. I called him up the day after the election and said, ‘I sure hope so,’” McConnell recounted in 2018.
Republicans are warning that there could be a “bloodbath” for the Senate GOP majority, with President Trump’s approval rating perpetually stuck in the low 40s and concerns that he could drag down GOP incumbents.
But they aren’t ready to concede and are dropping a mountain of money in the final weeks. The Senate Leadership Fund raised nearly $50 million in the first two weeks of October and spent more than $94 million in the same time period, with additional spending in states like Alaska, Kansas, North Carolina and South Carolina since then, according to Federal Election Commission filings, as they try to shore up Republican candidates.
“Our thinking, at least in terms of Senate majority right now, contrary to I think some of the naysayers out there, I think there is a very real chance of hanging on to the majority irrespective of what happens in the presidential race just based upon how our candidates are performing in those states. I mean right now it’s anybody’s game,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican.
Democrats, meanwhile, believe they are better positioned than in 2016. But, even with a sense of momentum, they still aren’t willing to call it with just days to go.
“I feel pretty good about it. I think there’s just the uncertainty effect … between now and election day and you know what stunts the administration may have if they don’t like the result,” said Sen.Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “There’s a lot of twists and turns between now and Nov. 3.”
Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Del.) argued that Democrats had been successful in largely tying GOP incumbents to Trump’s call to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his efforts to “deflect” from the coronavirus pandemic.
“[But] I think this is going to be close. It’s a tough election cycle, we take nothing for granted,” Coons said.
Asked if he had any lingering 2016 nightmares, Coons quipped: “Look, if you aren’t skeptical of anything that someone races forward at the last minute and says, ‘We have an email,’ we haven’t learned anything.”