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As Trump sinks, he’s pulling down the Republican Senate, too

Sara Gideon waves Tuesday in Portland, Maine, before winning the Democratic nomination to challenge GOP Sen. Susan Collins.
Democratic Senate candidate Sara Gideon greets voters on primary day Tuesday in Portland, Maine, before winning the right to challenge longtime GOP Sen. Susan Collins.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

President Trump’s faltering reelection campaign increasingly is dragging on the Republican Senate, giving Democrats their best hope in more than a decade of winning control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

Democrats now threaten Republican Senate incumbents in Georgia, Iowa and Montana — states that had seemed reliably red — in addition to Colorado and Arizona, where Democrats have had the advantage for months, and Maine, where GOP Sen. Susan Collins is facing the toughest election in her long career.

The challengers have been swamping Republican rivals in fundraising and moving ahead in polls, leading independent analysts to dial up their assessment of the Democrats’ chances.

“After Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in 2016, there’s a temptation to avoid making political projections,” wrote Nathan Gonzales, a nonpartisan analyst and editor of Inside Elections. “But one election result shouldn’t cause us to ignore the data. And right now, the preponderance of data points to a great election for Democrats, including taking control of the Senate.”

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New campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission this week show that most Democratic Senate challengers out-raised their GOP rivals in the last three months — some by as much as 3 to 1.

In Georgia, where both Senate seats are up, polls have tightened so much that the Trump campaign and other GOP committees have begun advertising in a state that hasn’t backed a Democrat for president or Senate in more than 20 years.

Even worse for incumbent Republicans: Their fate is largely in the president’s hands. The Trump-dominated political environment, turned sour for his party by his handling of the coronavirus crisis and the nationwide protests over racism, has essentially made the Senate’s state-by-state contests a single, nationalized campaign.

Democratic Senate candidates in several key races announce huge fundraising totals that raise the party’s hopes of retaking the chamber in November.

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Republicans currently control the Senate 53 to 47. Democrats need a net gain of four seats for a majority, or three if Joe Biden wins the presidency. When the Senate is split 50-50, the vice president is the tiebreaker.

But Democratic ambitions have grown larger: Biden said this week he could see his party winning 55 seats. Many Republicans fear that could happen.

“Panic is gripping the Senate races,” said Rob Stutzman, a California Republican political strategist who is a vocal Trump critic. “A lot of candidates are in a really, really tough spot.”

One sign of how nationalized the Senate races have become: An analysis by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics finds that a record 69% of money contributed to Senate candidates now comes from outside their states. That’s up from 59% in 2018, as donors across the country are treating individual races as a referendum on Trump and GOP control of the Senate.

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Nowhere is the national profile of a race as high as here in Maine. Sara Gideon, the speaker of the state House who won the Democratic primary Tuesday, stands to gain about $4 million raised in a national fundraising drive for the benefit of whichever Democrat won the nomination to challenge Collins.

The incumbent is a rare Republican with a record of supporting abortion rights, but her vote to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite his opposition to abortion rights has drawn donations and attention to her race from coast to coast.

“We are following all the campaigns where there is a chance of tipping a seat to Democrats,” said Sonia Cairns, an 80-year-old Minneapolis retiree who is planning to donate to Gideon. “Of course I need to know more about Sara Gideon, but I want a Democrat to win that Senate seat.”

A Center for Responsive Politics analysis by senior researcher Doug Weber found that both parties saw a surge in out-of-state giving, but it was more pronounced for Democrats. Republicans pulled in 64% of their contributions from out of state; for Democrats it was 72%.

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A big money advantage built on out-of-state support can be a shaky political foundation, warned Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the center.

“It’s great to raise money, but only voters can cast ballots,” she said.

Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, put the best face on his party’s money deficit: “Democrats will need to spend every penny to defend records that are disqualifying in the eyes of mainstream voters,” he said, accusing the party of backing “a socialist agenda.”

Some analysts, however, said the money woes are not nearly as much of a problem for the GOP as having Trump on the top of their ticket.

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“It’s all about Trump,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “If Trump loses those states, the Republican Senate candidates will almost certainly go down.”

Republicans, once confident of keeping their Senate majority in the fall election, now fear Democrats have a fresh advantage as the coronavirus crisis has reshaped campaigns.

Even before Trump, ticket-splitting had become increasingly rare. Then, in 2016 — for the first time — it disappeared entirely on the Senate level: Not a single state elected a senator from one party while favoring the presidential candidate from the other.

That’s a major force working against GOP Sen. Cory Gardner, who’s seeking reelection in Colorado, which Biden is favored to win. But it also works against Democrats in some states — like in Montana, where Gov. Steve Bullock is the Democrats’ Senate candidate. Trump won the state by 20 percentage points in 2016, and although current polls show the Senate race neck and neck, Biden’s not likely to seriously contest the state.

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The connection between the presidential and senatorial fortunes could be crucial in North Carolina and Arizona — states Trump won in 2016 that Biden is seriously contesting. GOP Sens. Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Martha McSally in Arizona have long been seen as among the most vulnerable incumbents.

But Trump’s recent political struggles also seem to be taking a toll on formerly more-secure red-state senators.

In Iowa, which Trump won handily in 2016, a Des Moines Register poll in June found GOP Sen. Joni Ernst — whose race was not considered competitive just months ago — narrowly trailing her Democratic challenger, real estate developer Theresa Greenfield. The survey also found Biden essentially tied with Trump.

A top GOP strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity to assess his party’s candidates, said he remained confident about Montana, Georgia and Iowa. He worried most about Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina, he said.

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If those three states fell, Senate control could all come down to Maine, he said, and Collins’ ability to withstand a possible anti-Trump wave.

Collins is trying to keep her distance from Trump and promote her record as someone who can deliver for Maine.

“There is no one who knows the state of Maine better than I do or fights harder,” Collins told reporters in Gorham, just outside Portland, the day after the primary.

Asked about Trump, she said, “In parts of this state, President Trump is very popular. In parts of the state, he’s very unpopular. I am running my own race.”

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That argument appeals to Collins supporters like Mary Ann Lynch, a lifelong Democrat in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, who said that control of the Senate is less important to her than backing a senator she believes is one of the few remaining legislative bridge-builders in Congress.

“Democrats are conveniently forgetting that because they want so badly to take over the Senate,” said Lynch, 65, a retired lawyer who plans to vote for Biden for president.

Gideon, by contrast, used her primary-night victory speech to accuse Collins of having “enabled and excused” Trump.

She is winning support from voters like James Gertmenian, a retired minister on Great Cranberry Island, who is disappointed that she has stuck with Trump on major issues like the 2017 tax bill and the Kavanaugh nomination.

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“Collins should hang her head before all Mainers who counted on her to stand by her principles rather than falling for a party line,” Gertmenian wrote on Facebook. “She deserves to be called home permanently.”

Times staff writer Seema Mehta contributed to this report from Los Angeles.


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