Democrats are racing to broaden their path to the Senate majority in November, while Republicans are spending heavily in an effort to hold their control over the chamber.
With 200 days to go until Election Day, the Democrats’ path to a Senate majority currently hinges on four states: Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, where Republican incumbents are fighting off challenges from well-funded Democratic opponents.
Democrats need to flip three or four seats, depending on which party wins the White House in November, to take control of the Senate. But one of their incumbents up for reelection this year, Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), is in serious political jeopardy, meaning that Democrats will likely have to take at least four Republican-held seats — and hold back GOP challenges in nearly a dozen other states — to win a majority.
Also weighing over the battle for control of the Senate are the presidential race and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has upended the election cycle and now looms as perhaps the biggest variable in 2020.
“A presidential campaign always has the longest and most powerful coattails,” former Rep. Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Biden faces new hurdle: Winning as front-runner The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden on the cusp of formally grasping the Democratic nomination MORE (D-N.Y.) said. “If President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE is perceived to be doing well, it will retain the Senate Republican majority. If in October he’s underwater, then the Democrats could take the Senate.”
Democrats’ softest target may be in Colorado, where Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior faces legal scrutiny for keeping controversial acting leaders in office | White House faces suit on order lifting endangered species protections | Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of protesters The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ MORE (R) is facing changing political headwinds and a challenge from John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperGun control group rolls out first round of Senate endorsements The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ Hickenlooper ethics questions open him up to attack MORE, the state’s popular former Democratic governor and the prohibitive front-runner in a crowded primary field.
The party is also confident of defeating Sen. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police No evidence of unauthorized data transfers by top Chinese drone manufacturer: study Senate Democratic campaign arm launches online hub ahead of November MORE (R) in Arizona. McSally already lost a bid against Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) in 2018 and took office only after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey appointed her to fill the seat vacated by the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Cindy McCain ‘disappointed’ McGrath used image of John McCain in ad attacking McConnell Report that Bush won’t support Trump reelection ‘completely made up,’ spokesman says MORE (R-Ariz.).
And in Maine, Democrats have it out for Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsRepublicans prepare to punt on next COVID-19 relief bill Trump tweets spark fresh headache for Republicans Trump’s tweet on protester sparks GOP backlash MORE (R), a four-term senator whose vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughGOP senators urge Trump to back off Murkowski threat Judd Gregg: A government in free fall The 7 most anticipated Supreme Court decisions MORE in 2017 amid sexual misconduct allegations touched off a flurry of anger from the left. She’s widely expected to face Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, the Democratic front-runner, in November.
Democrats are also looking to oust Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators The Hill’s Campaign Report: It’s primary night in Georgia Tillis unveils new 0,000 ad in North Carolina Senate race MORE (R) in North Carolina. He’s set to face off against national Democrats’ candidate of choice, Cal Cunningham, in November, and recent polls suggest a tight race.
A survey from the Democrat-leaning firm Public Policy Polling released this week showed Cunningham leading Tillis by a 7-point margin, while a poll from the conservative Civitas Institute out last week put Tillis ahead by 4 points.
Outside groups on both sides of the aisle have poured money into all four states in recent months.
The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.), booked a combined $43.7 million in fall ad reservations across the four battleground states late last month, along with another $32.6 million in Iowa and Kentucky.
And just this week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, invested some $33 million in advertising across seven states: Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Montana and North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerOvernight Health Care: US showing signs of retreat in battle against COVID-19 | Regeneron begins clinical trials of potential coronavirus antibody treatment | CMS warns nursing homes against seizing residents’ stimulus checks Schumer requests briefing with White House coronavirus task force as cases rise Schumer on Trump’s tweet about 75-year-old protester: He ‘should go back to hiding in the bunker’ MORE (D-N.Y.), booked more than $56 million in fall ad reservations across the four key states, plus an additional $13.1 million in fall ad reservations in Iowa.
For now, Democrats appear to have the edge in fundraising. Federal Election Commission filings covering the first three months of 2020 showed Democrats in the four most contested states — Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina — outraising their Republican opponents by wide margins.
In Arizona, McSally’s likely opponent, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, raked in more than $11 million in the first quarter — roughly $4.6 million more than McSally.
In Colorado and North Carolina, Hickenlooper and Cunningham outraised their Republican rivals by about $1.6 million each. And in Maine, Gideon raised nearly three times more than Collins, bringing in about $7.1 million to Collins’s $2.4 million, federal filings show.
But with Jones looking particularly vulnerable in deep-red Alabama and the fate of the White House appearing uncertain, Democrats have little room for error if they hope to net the three or four seats they need to recapture a majority in the Senate.
A failure to flip even one of the four core seats — in Arizona, Colorado, Maine or North Carolina — and a potential loss by Jones could effectively kill the party’s chances of regaining control of the chamber in 2021.
Consequently, Democrats are hoping to bring a handful of other states into play, including Iowa, where Democrats say Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGeorge Conway group hits Ernst in new ad GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ MORE (R) is increasingly vulnerable.
A Des Moines Register–Mediacom Iowa poll last month showed Ernst’s approval rating at 47 percent, down 10 points from a year ago. And while Ernst has outraised her top Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, over the past two quarters, Greenfield has kept the fundraising gap relatively tight. In the first quarter, for instance, she raised about $500,000 less than Ernst.
Democrats believe they can also bring a handful of races in more Republican-leaning states into play, including Montana, where Democratic Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Overnight Energy: US Park Police say ‘tear gas’ statements were ‘mistake’ | Trump to reopen area off New England coast for fishing | Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues Vulnerable Republicans embrace green issues in battle to save seats MORE is taking on Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Koch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior faces legal scrutiny for keeping controversial acting leaders in office | White House faces suit on order lifting endangered species protections | Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of protesters MORE (R); Texas, where MJ Hegar and state Sen. Royce West are locked in a runoff for the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenate headed for late night vote amid standoff over lands bill Koch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Tim Scott to introduce GOP police reform bill next week MORE (R); and Kentucky, where Democrat Amy McGrath raised nearly $13 million in the first quarter of 2020 for her bid against McConnell.
Democrats also see an opportunity in Georgia, where Sen. Kelly LoefflerKelly LoefflerKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Jon Ossoff to challenge David Perdue after winning Georgia Democratic primary Candidates headed to runoffs in Georgia House race to replace Doug Collins MORE (R), who was appointed late last year to fill the seat of retired Sen. Johnny IsaksonJohnny IsaksonJon Ossoff to challenge David Perdue after winning Georgia Democratic primary Candidates headed to runoffs in Georgia House race to replace Doug Collins Justice Department closing stock investigations into Loeffler, Inhofe, Feinstein MORE (R), is facing a challenge from Democrat Raphael Warnock as well as from Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsKoch-backed group launches ad campaign to support four vulnerable GOP senators Jon Ossoff to challenge David Perdue after winning Georgia Democratic primary The Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump MORE (R-Ga.), a steadfast Trump ally who’s running to the right of Loeffler.
Those races are likely to prove significantly more challenging for Democrats than the four core races in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina, and party operatives are aware that they’ll have to choose their battles carefully as they look to regain the Senate majority.
“This isn’t a numbers game. This isn’t the House map,” one Democratic operative familiar with Senate campaigns said. “You’re talking about a very targeted set of races that we need to get back to the majority.”
With the exception of Alabama, Republicans have few pickup opportunities in 2020. The party is defending incumbents in 23 seats, compared with only a dozen for Democrats.
But they see an emerging opportunity in Michigan, where Republican John James, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018, is vying to take on Sen. Gary PetersGary Charles PetersWarren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Hillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Democrats demand Republican leaders examine election challenges after Georgia voting chaos MORE (D), a first-term senator whose relatively low name ID has bolstered the GOP’s hopes of ousting him.
James outraised Peters in the first quarter of the year, raking in $4.8 million to Peters’s roughly $4.1 million.
But edging out Peters will likely prove difficult for the GOP. Polling in the race has been scarce in recent weeks, but virtually every public survey of the race shows Peters leading James.
At the same time, Democrats are pouring money into Michigan to bolster Peters. Between Dec. 1 and April 10, Democrats spent nearly $5.1 million on advertising in the state, according to data from the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Republicans, meanwhile, spent just under $2 million.
Peters may also get a boost from the presidential race. Democrats are eager to win Michigan in November after Trump narrowly carried the state in 2016. Recent polls, however, show former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHillicon Valley: Biden calls on Facebook to change political speech rules | Dems demand hearings after Georgia election chaos | Microsoft stops selling facial recognition tech to police Trump finalizing executive order calling on police to use ‘force with compassion’ The Hill’s Campaign Report: Biden campaign goes on offensive against Facebook MORE, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, with a slim lead in the state.