WASHINGTON – Last fall, it seemed a good bet Republicans would emerge from the 2020 election with control of the Senate still in their hands.
They had a six-seat advantage, a healthy economy and a Republican president whose chances of reelection were narrow but growing. And they had a decent chance to flip a couple of Democratic seats as well.
Then came the impeachment of President Donald Trump, a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 in the U.S. so far, a cratering economy, and the emergence of Joe Biden as Trump’s opponent, a nominee seen asless likely to drive away the moderate voters Democrats will need to win battleground states.
Now Republicans face a real battle in November, political analysts say. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who's up for reelection himself this fall, calls it "a challenging environment."
And that was before the civil unrest that swept the nation after the death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis Police officers.
Floyd's death on May 25 has further divided the nation. Trump has blamed ensuing riots and looting in various cities on far-left extremists and blasted governors whose states have seen unrest for being "weak." Democrats in turn have accused the president of fanning the flames with his charged rhetoric.
GOP incumbents in states that looked like toss-ups, including Colorado and Arizona, are trending blue. And GOP incumbents in states that seemed favorable for reelection, such as Montana, North Carolina and Maine, look increasingly in peril. Even red seats in Iowa, Georgia and Kansas are potentially in play.
The increasingly blue bedroom communities bracketing large cities that propelled Democrats to control of the House two years ago figure to play a central role in November as well, said Jessica Taylor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
“2018 in the House was the story of the suburbs and this year it’s going to play in the Senate races as well," she said. "That’s why you see all these Senate races so competitive with the Denver suburbs in Colorado, the Phoenix suburbs in Arizona, the Research Triangle area (around Raleigh-Durham) and Charlotte suburbs in North Carolina.”
The fortunes of GOP senators are now tied to the pandemic and how voters perceive the Trump administration's handling of it, which – so far – has not been positive overall, said David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University.
"Overnight, people are losing their jobs and a lot of them are losing their health care ... So who do you think that advantages?" he said. "It advantages the Democrats who are the party of the Social Security-welfare-safety net-health care (and) it becomes much more clearly a referendum on performance of Donald Trump and the Republicans in general. And that all augurs well for Democrats."
Biden as presumptive nominee helps Democrats
Republicans occupy 53 of the Senate's 100 seats. Thirty-five seats are up for election this fall: 12 currently held by Democrats and 23 by Republicans, including both seats in Georgia.
Democrats would gain control if they keep all their seats andflip three GOP seats and capture the White House because the vice president serves as the tie-breaker on 50-50 votes. If they don't win the White House, Democrats would need to flip four Republican seats and keep all of their seats.
The task won't be easy.
Political handicappers predict Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., likely will lose in November, adding to the Democrats' task of winning back the Senate. And though there are nearly twice as many GOP-held seats up for election in 2020 than seats held by Democrats, most of those Republican seats are in states generally favorable to the party.
In 2016, Trump won 20 of the 22 of those states where GOP seats are up for election this fall, except for Colorado and Maine. And the very real prospect earlier this year that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist Democrat, would win the party's presidential nomination had Republicans itching to run against a platform of socialism.
Montana GOP Sen. Steve Daines, for example, ran a Facebook ad in early March that railed against "radical plans like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and open borders" and featured Sanders and New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand.
But Biden's defeat of Sanders for the nomination has made it tougher to sell swing voters on that argument, analysts said. Daines is not running that ad currently.
"We would not see a state like North Carolina become more difficult (for Democrats) if you had Bernie Sanders at the top of the ticket," said Taylor. "Georgia too."
Developments in specific races have hurt Republicans
It's not just about Trump or the coronavirus.
Since last summer, GOP incumbents drew top-tier Democrats in two key races.
Both former Gov. John Hickenlooper in Colorado and Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana decided to run for the Senate after scrapping their unsuccessful presidential bids. Both are household names in the states where they're running.
Hickenlooper makes Republican incumbent Cory Gardner's already uphill chances that much more difficult. A May 6 poll shows the former governor up by 18 points.
Bullock's entry turned a race that was considered a likely re-election bid into a toss-up. A Western States poll conducted last month has Bullock up by 7 points, just within the margin of error.
North Carolina Republican incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis also wasn't helped when fellow Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., gave up his chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee after the FBI opened an investigation into stock sales Burr made ahead of the coronavirus market crash.
Burr has denied any wrongdoing. But Taylor, the Cook Political Report analyst, said it's not great optics for Tillis.
"Ultimately it is his own race," she said. "But having your seat mate in your state under investigation is not a helpful thing and it's not good for the Republican brand in North Carolina as well."
Democrats also caught a break in Kansas when Secretary of State (and former Sunflower State congressman) Mike Pompeo decided not to enter the Senate race.
Pompeo was expected to be the heavy favorite to win had he entered. The splintered GOP field includes immigration hard-liner Kris Kobach who lost the governor's race in 2018. If he wins the Senate primary, analysts say Democrats have a real chance to flip the state in November.
Democrats are outraising Republicans
Republicans should have the money advantage since most of the Senate seats on the ballot this year feature GOP incumbents and it’s usually easier for a sitting senator to raise money than it is for a challenger.
But in the first three months of the year, Democratic challengers significantly outraised the incumbent in the four states – Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina – that the party probably needs to sweep in order to take control of the Senate. Democrats also collected more funds in six other, less-competitive races.
Republicans acknowledge their candidates need to step it up, particularly with small dollar donors that have helped fill Democratic coffers. In the meantime, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have reserved about $97 million in television air time to shore up incumbents. That includes nearly $11 million in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, where Democrat Amy McGrath outraised McConnell in the first quarter by more than $5 million.
McConnell is not expected to lose a state that Trump should easily carry. But any money Republicans have to spend on races like his means less help for struggling incumbents.
"It shows us they have enthusiasm and money on their side," Taylor said of Democrats.
Shifting national dynamics
Though Trump in 2016 carried the vast majority of states with GOP Senate seats up for election this fall, the erosion of Trump’s support among suburban voters evident in the midterm election continues and polls are also showing a weakening among seniors since the pandemic began.
That could be particularly problematic in states like Arizona, North Carolina and even Georgia, where Democrats are trying to take advantage of the state’s changing demographics to mount a challenge to both Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, a freshman defending her appointed seat in a special election.
In Arizona, for example, two recent polls showed Sen. Martha McSally trailing Democrat Mark Kelly badly in Maricopa County. That Republican stronghold includes substantial numbers of both suburban and senior voters in the greater Phoenix area.
Trump, who who won Arizona by 3.5 percentage points in 2016, also is behind in Maricopa County, according to a May poll from HighGround Public Affairs, a Republican consulting firm.
Trump’s struggles in states he carried before also means Republicans are having a harder time gaining traction in Michigan, one of their few chances to go on offense in a state with a Democrat-held seat up for election. Recent polls show Biden leading Trump in the Wolverine State.
“We think the presidential and Senate races there are probably going to be tied pretty closely together,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Deep red Alabama is the only state where handicappers think Republicans have the upper hand in trying to capture a Democratic-held seat.
Rising and falling with Trump
Republicans like Gardner of Colorado and Tillis of North Carolina who may have tried to distance themselves from Trump early on are back in the fold. Breaking with Trump is unlikely to win over independent voters but will cost them with the GOP base.
Instead, they’re hoping to create their own brand. For example, in Tillis’ introductory ad, which launched this month, he describes a hardscrabble upbringing.
“We moved seven times before I was 16, living paycheck to paycheck,” Tillis said in the ad titled “Humble.” “We will build this economy back and I’ll remember who needs it the most.”
Democrats think they can attack Republicans for failing to hold Trump accountable for his handling of the coronavirus, impeachment and other issues. That’s particularly true in Maine and Colorado, the two states Trump lost in 2016 where Republican incumbents are up for re-election.
Despite the centrist, pragmatic image that Sen. Susan Collins built up in Maine over the years, her votes to acquit Trump in his impeachment trial and to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh are among the issues that have put her in peril, analysts say.
“I think those are definitely going to come back against her,” said Amy Fried, head of the University of Maine’s political science department. “Her approval numbers have definitely fallen. It used to be she was one of the most popular senators in the country."
Although Collins’ ads tout her bipartisan Senate record, she’s lost the endorsement of environmental and pro-choice groups that used to help establish her moderate reputation, Fried said. Plus, after openly opposing Trump's candidacy in 2016, Collins now won’t say if she's voting for him this time. That makes her look “wishy-washy,” rather than the independent, straightforward voice Mainers value, Fried said.
In addition to sticking with Trump, Republicans are trying to turn the coronavirus focus to China while going after Democratic challengers.
“China is to blame for this pandemic,” McSally says in one of her ads, which echo presidential campaign messaging.
Trump’s vulnerability on the coronavirus is complicated by the fact that a good portion of the electorate doesn’t know who to blame, according to Paul Bentz, senior vice president at HighGround Public Affairs.
“Democrats must be mindful that the messaging surrounding China is working and gaining moment,” Bentz wrote about the results of his firm’s Arizona poll that showed 29% blamed Trump, 20% blamed China and 25% didn’t blame anyone. Parker, the Montana State University political science professor, said the China argument from Republicans has gained traction with Big Sky voters.
Republicans also argue that their incumbents can tout what their doing to help constituents get through the pandemic, such as voting for the popular legislation that sent direct payments to households and boosted small businesses.
“It just may be the case that being a serious-minded, conscientious, accessible, hard-working United States senator during this pandemic will be helpful to our incumbents politically,” Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who heads the campaign arm of Senate Republicans, told reporters earlier this month.
The other part of their strategy is attacking Democratic challengers as untested and ethically-challenged. Expect attack ads to be unleashed over the next two months.
Kondik, the independent analyst, questions whether personal attacks can break through in an environment when so much else is going on with coronavirus and the economy, and when the election is expected to be a referendum on Trump.
“That’s the hand I think Republicans have to play,” he said. “I just think it’s a hard road.”
Democrats are sticking with the top issue that helped them win control of the House in 2018: health care. They’re betting that the pandemic only heightens voters’ interest in the issue.
“McSally repeatedly voted to let big insurance companies deny health coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, the same people most vulnerable to coronavirus,” says the narrator in an Arizona ad paid for by the Democratic group Majority Forward.
Even though the Democratic presidential candidates who embraced Medicare for All weren't successful, Republicans say the controversial proposal was given new prominence that they can use to their advantage.
But Democrats think they have a much more potent weapon in the pending legal challenge that Trump supports to overturn the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Kondik at the University of Virginia's Center on Politics said Democrats reclaimed the momentum on health care in 2018.
"And," he said, "I don't think they've really given it back."