Democrats fear their Senate takeover chances dimming

Erica Werner
Associated Press

Washington — Democrats are sounding increasingly concerned about their chances of retaking control of the Senate, as Republicans demonstrate a commanding fundraising advantage and Hillary Clinton’s lead narrows in key battleground races.

Although most Democrats still express confidence that they will win back the Senate majority in November, they now appear to have fewer paths to victory as wins in Ohio and even Florida look increasingly remote.

And if they do win back control, it could end up being with the narrowest of margins, even a 50-50 Senate with a Vice President Tim Kaine casting tie-breaking votes for the Democrats, if Hillary Clinton becomes president.

A key factor is the Republican money edge, which is particularly pronounced this year because some major donors, most notably the billionaire Koch Brothers, have decided to stay out of the presidential race out of distaste for Donald Trump and are pouring money into Senate races instead. Ohio, Florida, Nevada and other races are awash with cash.

“It’s worrisome,” the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, said of the GOP money advantage. Overall, Durbin offered “mixed reviews” of the Senate map: “Solid, quality candidates, good campaigns but a massive infusion of Republican money in the last few weeks, and we are working overtime to try to keep up with it.”

Democrats frequently point with alarm to the massive $42 million haul in August disclosed by two connected fundraising committees run by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. That money is now being funneled to New Hampshire, Nevada, Indiana and elsewhere.

Senate Democrats have been pressed to chip in more to make up the deficit. Last week, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who heads the Senate Democratic fundraising arm, announced in a private meeting that Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York had transferred $2 million from his campaign accounts to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Yet Senate Democrats can’t exactly cry poor — in key races such as New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, Democratic outside groups are actually outspending Republicans, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows.

Another concern is Clinton’s sometimes weak performance as a candidate, particularly pronounced over the past days as her campaign contended with questions over its handling of her health.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said the surprisingly close race was a concern for Senate prospects.

“In Pennsylvania for example, if Hillary does win by the 7 she’s up in the latest poll it will be very hard for (incumbent Republican Pat) Toomey to win,” Rendell said. “If Hillary wins by 2 or 3, it gives Toomey a chance.”

Republicans now have a 54-46 majority in the Senate, so Democrats have to net at least four seats to take back the majority, or five if Donald Trump becomes president, because of the vice president’s role as the Senate tie-breaker.

Democrats entered this election cycle with some expressing high hopes because of a favorable Senate map that has Republicans defending 24 seats and Democrats only 10. Republicans have vulnerable incumbents in blue or purple states including Illinois, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, while Democrats are defending only one at-risk seat, in Nevada, where Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring.

Partisans on both sides are acutely aware that the map reverses itself in 2018 when Democrats will be playing defense on GOP-friendly terrain such as Missouri, North Dakota, Montana and W. Va.