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Four weeks to go: Lindsey Graham joins 10 most vulnerable senators list

Democrat Gary Peters also returns to otherwise stable list

In an otherwise unpredictable year, the list of most vulnerable senators running for reelection has stayed largely stable. 

Alabama’s Doug Jones continues to top the list, and the most competitive contests remain in Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine. Democratic prospects have improved as their challengers raised record amounts of campaign cash and President Donald Trump’s standing has dropped amid the coronavirus pandemic and an economic downturn. Republicans, though, believe a partisan battle over the Supreme Court following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death could consolidate GOP voters around their vulnerable incumbents.

The South Carolina Republican at the center of that fight, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, joins the list of vulnerable senators as outside groups have started to spend in the Palmetto State. Michigan Democrat Gary Peters is also back on the list as his race against GOP challenger John James has tightened.

Massachusetts Democrat Edward J. Markey falls off the list after winning his competitive primary last month, as does Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the Senate and is still expected to face a competitive special election. But Republicans increasingly expect her to be one of the two candidates to advance to a Jan. 5 runoff.

[These 10 House members are most vulnerable]

These states’ 2016 presidential results were factored into the rankings, along with conversations with strategists on both sides of the aisle and race ratings from Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Here are the top 10 most vulnerable senators:

Jones remains the most vulnerable senator because he represents ruby-red Alabama. He has amassed a sizable campaign war chest against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, who had to drain his resources during a competitive and prolonged GOP primary. Democrats have suggested Jones can make the race competitive by boosting Black voter turnout and appealing to more moderate Republicans in suburban areas, similar to the coalition that helped him win a low-turnout special election in 2017. But Jones will likely not be able to overcome the state’s partisan lean, especially with Trump expected to win Alabama by a wide margin.

Republicans view the affable Gardner as a strong incumbent, but he faces headwinds in a state that has been moving further to the left and where independent voters are expected to reject Trump. Gardner has slammed his opponent, former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, for saying he did not want to be a senator before reversing course and jumping into the race. Hickenlooper has also faced attacks over a finding by Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission that he violated the state’s ban on gifts for public officials while in office. (Hickenlooper’s campaign has called the allegations “political smears.”) Democrats meanwhile have worked to tie Gardner to Trump, keeping the focus on health care. 

The outcome of the Arizona Senate race, whose winner will serve the final two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s term, is expected to be closely tied to the presidential race. The Supreme Court battle could help McSally consolidate Republican voters, but Democrat Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut and Navy veteran, has long been making an appeal to the state’s more moderate voters. Kelly, who built a national profile combating gun violence with his wife, former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, has proved to be a prolific fundraiser. Health care remains a top issue in the race.

In the final weeks of the toughest reelection campaign of her career, Collins did not benefit from the immediate reminder that she has supported Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court. Even though she wants to wait until after the elections to consider a nominee, the current debate only puts Collins in a bind: She isn’t wooing Trump supporters by calling for a delay, nor is she winning back voters who took issue with her 2018 vote to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh. It serves as a microcosm for how difficult it’s been for the incumbent to maintain her independent image during the Trump era. She has been consistently down in public polls, and her Democratic opponent, state House Speaker Sara Gideon, has the advantage heading toward Election Day.

Unlike Collins, Tillis may benefit from the Supreme Court fight, and his campaign even launched a website attacking contenders it alleges Joe Biden might nominate to the high court. That debate offers Trump supporters a last-minute motivation to get behind Tillis, who consistently underperforms the president in polls. Though the matchup for this battleground Senate seat had remained consistent with Tillis’ Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham, running ahead in the polls, Tillis’ recent COVID-19 diagnosis and Cunningham’s admission to to exchanging intimate texts with a woman who is not his wife have injected new uncertainty into the race. Before the scandal broke, Cunningham said he raised an eye-popping $28.3 million in the third quarter ending Sept. 30.

Despite carrying the state in 2016, Trump is in a competitive battle for Iowa this year, which doesn’t help Ernst in her race against Democrat Theresa Greenfield, a real estate executive. Democrats note that Greenfield, who emphasizes her rural roots, has been faring better in polling than Biden, and they believe Greenfield can cut into Ernst’s margins in rural parts of the state. Outside groups have flooded Iowa with television ads. More than $81 million has been spent for or against Ernst and Greenfield in the race so far, including during the primary, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The Peach State’s political realignment could mean trouble for Perdue, who is in a close race against Democrat Jon Ossoff. And the presidential race has been neck and neck all year. Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional staffer, has been hitting Perdue for a series of stock trades in the early days of the pandemic, attempting to portray the incumbent as corrupt. Perdue, a former CEO, has countered that Ossoff can’t match his experience in brokering bipartisan deals. Outside groups have dumped tens of millions of dollars into the state, and it’s possible the race could go to a January runoff if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote.

Recent polls show a tight race, with Daines holding a slight advantage in a state that Trump won by more than 20 points in 2016 — the same year that Montanans reelected Daines’ Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock. Neither campaign had a shortage of cash, but even though Bullock only entered the race in March, he had already bested Daines in cash on hand by mid-year, holding $7.6 million to the incumbent’s $7.1 million. That money, as well as some $60 million (and counting) from outside political groups, has inundated Montana voters with ads. Bullock declines donations from corporate PACs, while Daines has disclosed donations from several.

A series of polls before Ginsburg’s death showed Graham locked in a competitive race with challenger Jaime Harrison, the first Black chairman of the state’s Democratic Party. Graham has seized on the prospect of pre-Election Day hearings to remind wavering voters in conservative South Carolina why they want a Republican in his seat, and he has appeared on Fox News in recent weeks pleading for financial support, noting that Harrison has been “killing” him financially. Question marks here include whether Harrison can win independents and moderates or tap into enthusiasm from young and Black voters who might otherwise stay home.

This seat offers Republicans their second-best pickup opportunity in an otherwise dismal cycle for the party. Retired Army Apache helicopter pilot John James, who lost a Senate bid in 2018, has routinely outraised Peters, and GOP outside groups have infused millions into the race. Peters’ lead has narrowed in polls since Labor Day, but the Democrat has an edge in a state that is expected to go for Biden after Trump narrowly won it in 2016. Peters hasn’t raised the huge amounts of Democratic challengers in other Senate battles, but he reported a record haul for his campaign of $14 million in the third quarter.

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