Alabama Only Adds to the Unpredictable Senate Landscape

Republicans hope to pick up seats, but Democrats now have a path to the majority.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
Nov. 15, 2017, 8 p.m.

An Alabama Democrat once viewed as a special-election long shot suddenly looks like he could win. Steve Bannon is threatening to primary nearly every Republican senator. And President Trump’s plunging approval numbers are fueling Democrats’ cautious optimism that they can survive tough races even on red terrain.

With just less than a year until Election Day, it all adds up to an unpredictable Senate landscape that not long ago looked overwhelmingly safe for Republicans.

The immediate aftermath of Trump’s election invited GOP dreams of taking advantage of a favorable map to grow its 52-member conference to a supermajority. But the sexual-assault allegations roiling Roy Moore’s campaign in Alabama punched another hole in those hopes.

In interviews with nearly a dozen leading Senate strategists, there is a consensus that with Alabama on the map, a plausible, though not probable, path for Democrats to retake the majority now exists despite a severe lack of offensive options and a daunting list of vulnerable incumbents.

“There’s no question that with such a razor-thin majority, every seat matters,” said Brian Walsh, a former spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “The longer that Moore stays in the race, he not only puts the majority at risk but he creates an enormous and unnecessary distraction for other Republican senators.”

To take control of the Senate, though, Democrats must protect all 25 senators facing reelection—10 of whom represent states Trump won—in addition to gaining three seats by next November.

Beyond Alabama, Democrats see fresh hope in Tennessee, where popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen could run for the open seat. That would add to a short list of 2018 pickup opportunities currently including Nevada and Arizona—where Sen. Jeff Flake’s stunning retirement created an unexpected open-seat race.

With such a tilted map, top Democrats aren’t talking up their odds of taking control of the Senate just yet. J.B. Poersch, who heads the Chuck Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC, called it a “folly” to discuss the majority this early, while Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, declined the opportunity to make a prediction.

“What I would say is that we are working very hard to hold the blue line in the Senate,” Van Hollen said in an interview late last week, hours before the Moore allegations broke.

Despite the current maelstrom enveloping the party, Republican leaders remain publicly upbeat about a cycle with only eight of their seats up for grabs.

“Democrats have an uphill battle ahead of them with the daunting map they face in 2018,” said Chris Hansen, the executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Not only does the map create a spending nightmare, but the states in which Democrats have to compete voted overwhelmingly for President Trump.”

Some GOP strategists say that reaching a 54-seat majority would constitute a good year for the party. Trump hasn’t been above 40 percent approval in the RealClearPolitics average since late September, and Democrats’ resounding success in Virginia, Republicans further conceded, reflects an energized party that will be motivated to vote.

“The Republican optimism is a little more muted in general,” Republican pollster Glen Bolger said.

Despite a shaky political climate, there are plenty of places for Republicans to compete. GOP strategists continue to rank at the top of their target list Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who each benefited from deeply flawed opponents in their 2012 races. Republicans are also bullish about North Dakota, believing the state’s Trump-friendly climate will lift the Republican nominee over Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, even if the well-known GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer sits out of the race.

Two swing states, Ohio and Florida, could potentially emerge as stronger opportunities for Republicans than what are generally far more favorable states, Montana and West Virginia. Privately, Democrats predict Ohio will be a challenging and expensive race, particularly given Trump’s 8-point win there. And there is concern over the millions in personal money that Florida Gov. Rick Scott would spend in his likely challenge to Sen. Bill Nelson.

Van Hollen wouldn’t discuss how the DSCC might weigh its investment in Florida, a prohibitively expensive state, saying only that “Rick Scott has a lot of money but he doesn’t have a record to match his money.”

Plenty of question marks complicate the GOP’s path to adding seats. It’s unclear the extent to which Bannon, who has pardoned only Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas from his wrath, will affect the Senate landscape as he publicly feuds with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And in top targets West Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin, some GOP strategists acknowledged fundraising could be a hurdle given the likely costs of the bitter primaries already underway. Meanwhile, nine of the 10 Trump-state Democrats posted war chests of more than $4 million at the end of the third quarter.

And after Republicans failed to pass health care reform, strategists are also imploring the party to succeed in achieving a tax overhaul.

“People have been frustrated with the glacial pace of Washington, which is why it is critical for Congress to get tax reform done,” Senate Leadership Fund spokesman Chris Pack said.

On the Democratic side, strategists are considering how best to communicate with voters about Trump, particularly in states he won by significant margins. For now, they are urging candidates to spend significant resources on positive advertising.

“It’s as important, if not more important, than simply how you’re going to deal with Donald Trump,” said Guy Cecil, a former DSCC executive director. “The success of the Democratic Party is going to be allowing some flexibility in how our candidates run their races.”

Until mid-December, the attention will remain centered on Alabama. McConnell has urged Moore to end his campaign, and NRSC Chairman Cory Gardner has called on the Senate to expel Moore if he is elected.

National Democrats have kept a low profile in the conservative state, wary of the damage their brand could inflict on nominee Doug Jones. Van Hollen declined to commit to running TV ads for Jones but stressed that the former U.S. attorney is running an “organic Alabama-based campaign.”

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