Against the Grain

Senate Republicans Growing Anxious About Their Majority

Mitch McConnell raised alarms about the grim political environment for Republicans last week. He had good reasons.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
April 10, 2018, 8 p.m.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t break much news when he acknowledged that Republicans are facing the possibility of a major wave election threatening their congressional majorities. But his public statement was an unmistakable sign that he considers the GOP’s Senate majority, once seen as untouchable because of the historically favorable map, under serious threat as President Trump’s political troubles worsen.

Leading GOP Senate strategists now worry that Democrats won’t necessarily need a perfect storm to net the two seats necessary to win back a majority—just enough lackluster GOP campaigns and a little bad luck along the way. And while Republicans celebrated Gov. Rick Scott’s long-anticipated entrance into the Florida Senate race on Monday, they are clear-eyed about the underwhelming caliber of their candidates in many other critical races.

In Missouri, state Attorney General Josh Hawley has disappointed in his Senate campaign debut, struggling to raise early cash, keeping a low-key schedule, and fending off scrutiny over his ties to scandal-plagued GOP Gov. Eric Greitens. Republicans have been concerned that they could blow a winnable race against Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia if a candidate convicted of a misdemeanor (Don Blankenship) ends up as their nominee—an all-too-real possibility. In Ohio, Sen. Sherrod Brown is shrewdly capitalizing on Rep. Jim Renacci’s free-trade record to win back the blue-collar Democratic voters who defected to Trump’s side in the last election. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana has looked vulnerable, but Republicans aren’t bullish about the candidates running against him.

Even if Republicans are able to pick off one of the Democrats’ red-state senators—a very reasonable possibility—Democrats still have a realistic pathway to the majority if they are able to win seats in Nevada and Arizona while scoring an upset somewhere else. Polls show the Tennessee Senate race highly competitive, with one public survey showing former Gov. Phil Bredesen up by 10 points over GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn. (Those numbers are unlikely to hold as the campaign develops, but they demonstrate that Republicans can’t take any race for granted in this environment.) Meanwhile, there’s an outside prospect of a second Senate vacancy in Arizona, given Sen. John McCain’s health, another wild card that would scramble the map even further.

The latest trickle of fundraising figures for the first three months of 2018 continues to concern Republicans. Most of the top Democratic targets are stockpiling sizable sums of money, insulating them from an expected barrage of attacks by GOP outside groups. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri brought in nearly $4 million so far this year, Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin raised $3.7 million for the quarter, and Brown in Ohio tallied $3.3 million. Even long-shot Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke brought in a whopping $6.7 million and is on pace to bankroll a fully fledged campaign without much outside help.

Outside GOP groups, which typically have a fundraising edge when the party holds power, have been badly outraised by their Democratic counterparts. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee banked over $10 million more in cash than the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the end of February. Meanwhile, the top Democratic super PAC (Senate Majority PAC) also brought in about $10 million more than its GOP counterpart since the beginning of the cycle.

“You’ve got to accept that [a Democratic Senate majority] is possible. Up until now, most Republicans have said the House is going to be a challenge but the Senate map looks pretty good in our favor. But there are now a lot of combinations you could use to lose the Senate,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff. “There’s the issue of Democratic enthusiasm and Republicans’ complacency: Democrats are bathing in cash at every level, and Republicans are really working hard to raise a fraction of that.”

To be sure, Republicans still hold an edge in the battle for the Senate, and they fully expect that Trump’s political problems won’t hurt them in the small towns and rural territory that comprise so many red-state Senate battlegrounds. Democrats will need to hold most of their five seats that are toss-ups. The issues that animate the Democratic base in much of the country—guns, immigration, and the threat of impeachment—are also useful fodder to rally dispirited GOP voters.

But Trump’s unpredictable nature also threatens to create problems for GOP challengers. The president’s protectionist positioning is allowing populist-minded Democrats to ally themselves with the White House while putting free-trade-minded Republicans in an awkward position. The president will be welcomed to campaign for most red-state challengers, but his off-message tendencies—like engaging in conspiracy theories about the 2016 election alongside West Virginia’s leading Senate candidates—could cause headaches down the road.

And then there’s the lesson of wave elections. When the environment looks as grim as McConnell suggests, close races all tend to fall in the same direction. If Democrats end up catching most of the breaks, as history suggests happens in wave elections, they’ll find the Senate majority is closer than it appears at first glance.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the nature of Don Blankenship's criminal conviction.

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