Not too long ago Democrats took it for granted that they would once again hold a majority in the U.S. Senate. Indeed, the question had largely shifted from whether they would capture the Senate to how large their majority could be. In their momentary cockiness they even began to think about how they could turn previously uncompetitive races in places like North Carolina and Indiana into contested battlefields.
That overconfidence didn’t last long. Donald Trump’s resurgence at the top of the ticket coupled with Hillary Clinton’s disappearance from the campaign trail and a strong cast of GOP candidates has called into question Democrats chances in November.
Two important new poll results tell the tale.
Late last week a Quinnipiac University poll showed Republican incumbents leading their Democrat Senate challengers in four crucial swing states. Rob Portman is leading Ted Strickland by 11 points in Ohio. In North Carolina, Richard Burr is leading Deborah Ross 49 percent to 43 percent. Marco Rubio holds a slightly larger lead over Florida Rep. Patrick Murphy, 50 percent to 43 percent. And finally, in Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey is outpacing Democrat candidate Katie McGinty by 1 point.
And a bevy of NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls released Sunday shows Republicans leading in four other key states: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. Despite a surprisingly tight presidential race in Arizona between Trump and Clinton, Sen. John McCain is dramatically outpacing the top of the ticket, carrying a 19-point lead against Democrat challenger Ann Kirkpatrick. It’s a similar story in Georgia where Johnny Isakson leads Jim Barksdale, 53 to 38 percent, well outperforming Trump who leads by 3 percent.
Clinton actually holds a 1 point lead in Nevada, but Republican Joe Heck is leading Democrat opponent Catherine Cortez Masto by a 47 to 45 percent margin. Clinton’s coattails are also short in New Hampshire, where Clinton leads by 1 point, but GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte is leading her challenger by 8 points.
Part of the challenge, as the New York Times noted last month, is that “Democrats find themselves hobbled by less-than-stellar candidates in races that could make the difference.”
For instance, Pennsylvania candidate Katie McGinty’s national debut at the Democratic National Convention was described as “a hard-to-watch, wooden speech,” with one commentator noting that the “Democratic machine must really, really, really, really, really, really hate Joe Sestak.” In Indiana, Democrat Evan Bayh is facing criticism that he lived in a $2.6 million Washington home and a “waterfront penthouse” in Florida rather than maintain a residence in the Hoosier State. And Florida Democrat Patrick Murphy can’t shake allegations that he pushed through legislation that favored his father’s construction business in return for enormous sums of campaign cash.
But Senate Democrats biggest problem is likely Clinton herself. Contrary to pundits’ predictions, Clinton has been unable to put any distance between herself and Trump, the result of steadily declining approval and trust ratings. She’s been constantly dogged by questions about Clinton Foundation donors, her use of a private email server to potentially hide damaging emails from public view, and most recently, her attempt to hide her health status despite collapsing in public.
As Hillary’s competitive map recedes she’s increasingly focusing on just a small handful of states, which means many Democrat candidates will be left to fend for themselves. Politico reports:
Hillary Clinton’s race for the White House is increasingly focused on four of the battleground states: Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. And for Democrats trying to pick up Senate seats elsewhere, that might mean trouble.
Party operatives in Washington and around the country are wringing their hands over the expected absence of their headliner in the final 60 days of this contest in states such as New Hampshire and Missouri, increasingly nervous that Clinton’s coattails might not be long enough to reach their far-afield races if she’s not spending time and money in those states.
Democrats’ fight for Senate control is dicey enough that both Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and his expected successor, Chuck Schumer, have been directly urging the nominee’s campaign to start piling more resources into the battle for control of the chamber. She will, after all, need a Democratic Senate to get anything done come January, Reid has insisted.
From cocky braggadocio to nervous handwringing in the course of a month. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.