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10 most vulnerable senators: Outspent Republicans overrun final list before election

Health care law a common theme with control of Senate at stake

With Republicans making up the majority of vulnerable senators, Democrats hold promising prospects of winning control of the chamber. If they fail, it won’t be for a lack of cash.

Almost all the most vulnerable GOP senators on this final list financed their campaigns on less money than their Democratic challengers. The exception is Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler, who filled the gap with $23 million of her own wealth.   

The money to Democratic Senate challengers has helped fuel the costliest election cycle ever, estimated to hit $14 billion, according to a Center for Responsive Politics estimate. Outside groups, many from the GOP side to shore up lagging candidates, have invested $100 million, or more, in many of these Senate battlegrounds. 

Democrats and their allies have used their money to hit Republican incumbents for voting against the 2010 health care law, among other issues. But even with a big money advantage, Democrat Doug Jones is unlikely to make it back to the Senate from Alabama. 

First-term Michigan Democrat Gary Peters has frequently lagged behind Republican Army veteran John James in fundraising. Though still in a close race, Peters looks safer than 10 of his colleagues, so he’s not on this list.    

Other Republican incumbents appear vulnerable because of the national vibe that favors Democrats. Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s race against Democrat MJ Hegar may be close, as the presidential contenders and House candidates vie for votes. Alaska’s Dan Sullivan also has a tougher reelection than he’d bargained for against challenger Al Gross. But neither made the final list.

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Conversations with strategists on both sides of the aisle and race ratings from Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales factored into these rankings.

Here are the most vulnerable senators heading into Election Day:

Jones has spent nearly $24.8 million on his race in ruby-red Alabama. His opponent, former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville, has spent $6.7 million, including during his competitive GOP primary where he defeated former Sen. Jeff Sessions. But Jones’ massive spending advantage may not be enough to overcome the state’s partisan lean. Democrats believe Jones can energize Black voters and appeal to moderate Republicans. But Republicans note Jones hasn’t broken with his party on high-profile matters. The incumbent voted against President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, and voted to impeach Trump.

In a sign Democrats feel confident that former Gov. John Hickenlooper will defeat Gardner, Senate Majority PAC canceled $1.2 million worth of TV ads in Colorado last month. Gardner has been struggling with the state shifting left and voters not registered with a party rejecting Trump. Republicans saw an opening against Hickenlooper when Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission found he had violated the state’s ban on gifts for public officials while in office. (His campaign has called the allegations “political smears.”) But Democrats don’t believe those attacks have stuck against Hickenlooper, who, like other Democrats, has been stressing health care in his race against Gardner.

Casting himself as a moderate Democrat, retired astronaut and Navy veteran Mark Kelly has held a persistent lead against McSally, who was appointed to the late Sen. John McCain’s seat after losing a close 2018 Senate race. The latest RealClearPolitics polling average shows Kelly with a 4-point advantage and Joe Biden with a 2-point lead. Democrats believe Kelly and Biden may be replicating the coalition that Democrat Kyrsten Sinema built when she defeated McSally two years ago. As of Oct. 14, Kelly, who is married to former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, had spent a whopping $78.8 million on the race, outpacing McSally, who spent $48.7 million.

In the Republican Party of Trump, Collins has struggled to find her way and maintain her brand as an independent legislator. Maine has become more Democratic since 2016, and that will cost her. There’s a reason the state’s Democratic Party paid for “Trump Collins 2020” signs in a stunt aimed at hurting the incumbent. Collins’ vote to confirm Kavanaugh in 2018 still stings among those anti-Trump constituents. That vote helped rile up donors who gave generously to her opponent, Democrat Sara Gideon. The state House speaker raised nearly $70 million as of Oct. 14 to Collins’ $26 million, with outside spending near $100 million.

Tillis has relied heavily on the cavalry of GOP-affiliated outside groups, as well as his opponent’s late-breaking extramarital scandal, to give him a fighting chance in one of the nation’s closest, most expensive and most consequential Senate races. Democrat Cal Cunningham, a former state senator and Army veteran, hauled in more than $46 million to Tillis’ $21 million as of Oct. 14, and polls have given Cunningham a slim edge. Outside groups have invested $200 million in the race, with nearly $90 million spent on attack ads against Cunningham, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis. Democratic groups have put nearly $75 million into spots against Tillis.

Ernst has faced an onslaught of ads from outside groups and her Democratic opponent, real estate executive Theresa Greenfield. As of Oct. 14, Greenfield had spent $43.8 million on the race, including during a contested primary. That’s twice as much as Ernst, who spent nearly $21.5 million. Polling has shown the race consistently within the margin of error, with Biden also significantly narrowing Trump’s 9-point 2016 margin. Democrats believe Greenfield, who stresses her farming roots, has been cutting into Ernst’s popularity in rural parts of the state, which are crucial for the incumbent to win statewide as Democrats widen their margins in the suburbs. 

Daines heads into Election Day with a slight polling advantage — about 3 points in the RealClearPolitics average — even as he’s lagged his Democratic challenger, Gov. Steve Bullock, in campaign cash. Bullock, who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s presidential nomination, hauled in $42 million through Oct. 14 compared with Daines’ $27 million. Bullock has focused on health care and campaign finance matters, while Daines’ message to voters has largely been about jobs and the economy. Montana’s COVID-19 cases hit an all-time high recently, a potential drag on Bullock. Still, Trump is likely to severely underperform his 2016 vote percentage in the state, and that could hurt Daines.

Georgia’s emergence as a battleground state has boosted the chances of Democrat Jon Ossoff, who has been in a tied race with Perdue all cycle. Neither candidate has polled over 50 percent, the threshold needed to avoid a Jan. 5 runoff. But a strong showing from Biden — who has a narrow lead in recent polls — could make a difference. Ossoff, a documentary filmmaker and former congressional aide, 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.

Loeffler was appointed by Gov. Brian Kemp but faces a crowded all-party special election to stay in office. With no candidate likely to get more than 50 percent, the race is expected to go to a runoff. Loeffler veered sharply to the right to counter Trump-allied GOP Rep. Doug Collins. She has claimed in ads to be “more conservative than Attila the Hun” and picked fights with the players on the WNBA team she co-owns over their support for Black Lives Matter. Democrat Raphael Warnock has led in recent polls, complicating Loeffler’s chances to finish in the top two on Tuesday or pivot to appeal to more moderate voters in January.

Democrat Jaime Harrison capitalized on Graham’s reputation as a Trump loyalist to raise a record-breaking $57 million in the third quarter. But Graham got a boost in fundraising and the polls after he took the lead in the Barrett confirmation hearings. National Republicans have stepped in with tens of millions of dollars in ads tying Harrison to Washington Democrats. With Trump expected to win the state, it is unclear where Harrison will find the votes to pull out a win. But Democrats say Harrison, who is Black, has energized enough Black voters and independent moderates to win. Democrats’ ads for a third-party candidate, who has endorsed Graham but remains on the ballot, could also siphon support from the senator.

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