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Democrats keep edge in fight for Senate amid growing GOP headache

Supreme Court vacancy may not have much of an impact, given the existing partisan divide

ANALYSIS — It was April 20, almost five months ago to the day, when I wrote that “while the fight for Senate control in November is a toss-up, I’d probably put a pinkie on the scale for Democrats right now.”

The fight for the Senate is still uncertain, but that pinkie quickly became a thumb and is now two or three fingers and possibly a whole hand.

The problem for the GOP is that in addition to needing to hold surprisingly competitive contests in normally reliable states, the party also needs to hold seats in four toss-up or anti-Trump states.

Democrats who feel confident about Senate races in Maine or North Carolina should take a deep breath and wait until at least mid-October. And those who dismiss Democratic challengers in Iowa, Montana, South Carolina and even Kansas ought to take a second and third look before proclaiming the outcome inevitable.

How does the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg alter things? We can’t be sure, but it probably doesn’t change things dramatically. It may help Republican Senate candidates in very conservative, pro-Trump states (e.g., Montana and South Carolina) by elevating one issue on which there is an extreme partisan divide. But it could help Democratic Senate hopefuls in Democratic-tilting states such as Maine and Colorado.

For now, I’m not assuming the Supreme Court vacancy has much of an impact, given all the other issues and the existing divide.

The big four

With the GOP still favored to win back Sen. Doug Jones’s Alabama seat, Democrats need to secure a net gain of four seats — and seal a White House victory — to win Senate control.

Arizona and Colorado continue to look ready to flip to the Democrats. Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally now trails by mid-single digits, a horrendous place for a sitting senator making her second consecutive Senate run. She is being outspent, and the state currently leans toward Joe Biden in the presidential contest.

Some Republicans insist that Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner will run far enough ahead of Trump to allow the incumbent to upset Democratic challenger John Hickenlooper. But that remains unlikely. Hickenlooper and Gardner are both well known, and the Democrat has a clear, if not overwhelming, lead in the race.

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North Carolina remains tight, but an array of private polling shows Democrat Cal Cunningham holding a narrow but consistent lead (usually in the low- to mid-single digits) over incumbent Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. Cunningham’s fate may well be tied to Biden’s, so a Democratic gain is not guaranteed. But Tillis needs to come from behind.

Finally, Maine remains a growing GOP headache. The recent Quinnipiac poll showing Democrat Sara Gideon a dozen points ahead of Collins is widely regarded on both sides of the aisle as ridiculous. The recent New York Times/Siena poll showing Gideon ahead by 5 points is more realistic.

But private polling suggests the contest is even tighter. Still, an even contest is not ideal for a once-popular Republican senator in a state that appears to be sliding toward Biden. Moreover, the GOP is being badly outspent.

Collins has spent decades ingratiating herself with Maine voters, but the traditional rule of thumb is that incumbents don’t get a majority of the undecided vote. And there is no reason to believe Collins will, especially now that her race has once again been “nationalized” by a Supreme Court fight. The state’s “rank choice voting” also favors Gideon.

The next three

Iowa remains a strikingly good Democratic opportunity, even though incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst started her bid as a solid favorite and Trump carried the state by just under 10 points in 2016.

But voters like Democratic nominee Theresa Greenfield, who is running well and is in the lead, 45 percent to 42 percent, in the recent Des Moines Register poll. Like Maine, the Iowa Senate race could go either way. But incumbents should not be trailing at this point if they want to win.

I have been skeptical about Montana this cycle, because Trump will carry it comfortably and the Democratic nominee, Gov. Steve Bullock, will have to attract lots of Trump voters to have any chance of winning.

Right now, public and private polls have the race about even, and Bullock has good job approval numbers. But the state’s strong partisan bent gives incumbent Republican Sen. Steve Daines the upper hand. Still, a race to watch.

Finally, Democrats are putting a load of cash behind Jaime Harrison, who is challenging GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham in South Carolina.

At first glance, the reliably Republican state shouldn’t have a competitive Senate contest. Democratic presidential nominees usually draw 40 percent to 45 percent of the vote in the Palmetto State. But the state’s large Black population, influx of retirees and population growth along the coast make the race interesting.

I’ve taken this race for granted for too long. Harrison is an underdog, but the race is competitive, if public and private polls are to be believed.

The rest

Kansas seems like a difficult race for the Democrats (it’s very white, very rural and generally old), but their nominee, Barbara Bollier, is running competitively in an open seat against GOP Rep. Roger Marshall, who won a contentious primary.

Some Democratic groups are playing heavily in the race, which is reason enough to keep an eye on Bollier, who is a quality candidate.

The race in Georgia between GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff continues to look competitive. But Ossoff probably needs an outright win in November (a runoff would favor Perdue), and Biden might well need to carry the state for Ossoff to pull off an upset.

In Michigan, Republican John James continues his aggressive challenge to Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. The race certainly is not a blowout, nor is it over. But Biden seems to be doing well in Michigan, and Peters, while not the best candidate, remains the favorite in the race.

Finally, I see no reason to believe that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is in any trouble in his bid for reelection in Kentucky against Democrat Amy McGrath. In fact, I’d pay attention to long shots in Alaska, where Al Gross is taking on Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, and Texas, where GOP Sen. John Cornyn is facing Democrat MJ Hegar, before Kentucky.

Both parties have decisions to make over the next six weeks, with the Democrats in a somewhat better position because they can counterpunch and are likely to have more resources. Biden and Trump remain potentially crucial factors in Senate races given the states where the elections will occur.

Ginsburg’s death reminds us to expect the unexpected in both the presidential race and the fight for the Senate. Indeed, I don’t see why anyone should assume that the Supreme Court justice’s death is the last shoe to drop before the election. I certainly don’t.

For now, the Senate remains up for grabs, though with a narrow — and growing — advantage for Democrats. Indeed, November could be a surprisingly good year for them.

Of course, that could change down the stretch. It’s a crazy election cycle, after all.

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