Against the Grain

The Democrats’ Path to a Senate Majority Runs Through Red States

The party may need to knock off a Republican icon like John McCain to win control of the upper chamber—and their fortunes are improving in unlikely conservative territory.

Missouri's secretary of state, Jason Kander, signs a Department of Defense Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve Statement of Support. The pledge shows his support to military members of the National Guard and Reserve.
Photo by Sarah E. Lupescu, Missouri National Guard
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Aug. 2, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

The path to a Democratic Senate majority may not end up running through the traditional battleground states, such as Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Instead, in this unconventional election year, Democrats have a more plausible path to winning control of the Senate by picking off an unlikely red state—knocking off Sen. John McCain in Arizona, overperforming in conservative-minded Missouri, or winning with a neophyte in North Carolina.

The headlines in the battle for the Senate: Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, and Pat Toomey are running well ahead of Donald Trump in their home states, puncturing the conventional wisdom that voters will be casting straight-ballot tickets in November. At the same time, Senate Democrats have done such a skillful job recruiting credible candidates throughout the country that they’ve put a number of unlikely seats in play—with Missouri, Arizona, and North Carolina looking like very winnable races right now.

That means we could see a very close battle for the majority, with the quality of candidates and campaigns mattering significantly more than in recent wave elections. And it means that brand-name GOP candidates with ample money and messages tailored to their home states will have an advantage over those expecting to win Republican-friendly states by acclamation. Portman and Toomey are running flawless campaigns and they, along with Rubio, have the good fortune to be running against weaker-than-expected Democratic opposition. By contrast, Sens. Roy Blunt, John McCain, and Richard Burr are running in more favorable states, but have been blindsided by Trump and face feisty Democratic opponents.

Missouri is the seat that Republicans are most worried about. One top GOP strategist involved in Senate races called the Democratic nominee, Secretary of State Jason Kander, the most compelling Senate challenger in the country. “Party aside, if I had to choose any candidate in the country to run, I’d pick Kander,” said the strategist. Blunt is polling under 50 percent back home (leading 47-43 percent in a recent Mason-Dixon poll), is a consummate political insider in an outsider year, and is finding his attacks on national security are ringing hollow against a Democrat who served in the military in Afghanistan. In a sign of how Trump scrambles the political dynamic in key races, Kander is attacking Blunt for sticking with Trump despite the GOP nominee’s acidic attacks against a Gold Star military family who appeared at the Democratic National Convention.

McCain isn’t in much better shape in Arizona, despite his iconic profile in the state. A poll released by a supportive super PAC this month showed him only tallying 47 percent of the vote in his upcoming GOP primary. Meanwhile, an operative familiar with his campaign polling told National Journal that he only holds a small, narrowing advantage against Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick in the general election—a finding backed up by limited public polling. Democrats are planning to contest Arizona in the presidential election, hoping to register and turn out Hispanic voters disgusted with Trump’s racially charged rhetoric. Arizona also features higher-than-average numbers of Native American and Mormon voters, both of whom view Trump’s candidacy particularly unfavorably. To win, McCain needs to prevail in a two-front war—winning over enough Trump voters but also maintaining a positive image with the broader general electorate.

North Carolina is the most traditionally competitive state of the Democrats’ three sleeper targets, but Democrats have the least experienced challenger of the three races. Deborah Ross, a former ACLU state director, has surprised pundits with her strong fundraising and competitive campaign against Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Burr’s past two campaigns have been in favorable Republican years (2004, 2010), and given how badly Trump polls with minorities and college-educated voters, the political mood of diverse North Carolina is tilting the Democrats’ way. Meanwhile, the Democratic base has been energized in the state in reaction to legislation restricting bathroom access for transgender people and religious-freedom legislation that business groups have turned against. Ross’s outspoken liberalism would usually be a liability in a swing state, but this is a year when her strongest supporters will be out in force.

As encouraging as the trends are in those states for Democrats, Republicans have reason to cheer in the races originally expected to be tough slogs. Rubio’s decision to reenter the Senate race automatically improved GOP fortunes dramatically. Public polling shows Rubio running about 10 points ahead of Trump, benefiting from his close ties with the Cuban-American community in South Florida, while getting a boost from Trump’s own presidential pull with conservative white voters up north. It’s why Rubio has been so cautious in discussing Trump, recognizing that he needs to maintain support with both distinct groups. And with a flawed Democratic field, featuring a Democratic front-runner accused of embellishing his resume and another congressman defending himself from allegations that he abused his ex-wife, Rubio is the favorite in this race.

In Ohio, Republicans are growing cautiously optimistic that the contest is trending their way. A GOP operative involved in Senate races shared an internal poll, conducted just before the GOP convention, showing Portman pulling ahead of former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland by 7 points, with the Democrat’s unfavorables rising under an onslaught of negative attacks. Portman was running 9 points ahead of Trump, who was trailing Clinton by 2 in the swing state. Strickland has surprisingly struggled to raise money befitting a former governor, while Portman is the best-financed incumbent in the country.

Pennsylvania is the biggest bellwether in the country—a GOP-trending blue state where Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is running a textbook campaign designed to win over crossover voters. Toomey received a key endorsement from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, thanks to his cosponsorship of gun-control legislation. That should help him outperform Trump in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs. And he’s been critical of Trump through his many controversies, though hasn’t rescinded his (lukewarm) endorsement. Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee, Katie McGinty, has struggled on the campaign trail, most recently apologizing for calling Toomey “an asshole, dammit” at a Philadelphia rally. Her speech at the Democratic National Convention was also widely panned for sounding so robotic. Because of Pennsylvania’s Democratic tilt, McGinty will be running competitively with Toomey until the end. But Toomey is in better shape than anyone would have expected.

All told, the Senate landscape looks like a game of whack-a-mole, with skillful Republicans finding ways to prevail despite Trump’s down-ballot drag even as other sleeper races pop up on the radar because of the unique environment where both Trump and Clinton are deeply unpopular figures. There’s a clear path for Republicans to hold the majority by losing only three seats—but Democrats have a lot more pathways to put together the four-seat parlay they need to prevail.

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