The battle for control of the United States Senate, the upper chamber of Congress where Republicans now rule, suddenly looks competitive as Democrats gain ground against President Donald Trump.
The coronavirus, a teetering US economy, and President Trump’s uneven response to the pandemic combined with Joe Biden’s emergence as the presumptive Democratic nominee appear to have put the Senate in play, key political analysts are now predicting.
Old GOP assumptions about the political climate “are totally upside-down” GOP pollster Neil Newhouse told the Associated Press news agency. “Republicans have to be prepared for an all-out battle, and it’s going to be a challenge.”
Although much can change by Election Day, favourable signs for Democrats are evident. Analysts point in particular to two Republican senators whose re-elections were once considered safe – Lindsey Graham in South Carolina and Steve Daines in Montana – but now face credible Democratic challengers.
“The race for control of the Senate has gotten more competitive,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“At the start of the cycle, Republicans were favoured to hold a majority. At this point, it’s more of a 50-50 game,” Kondik told Al Jazeera.
Democrats were already mounting tough challenges against four incumbent Republicans and positioning themselves for potential wins against others with strong fundraising and viable candidates.
The Senate is currently controlled 53-47 by Republicans over Democrats and independents, meaning Democrats would need to win four more seats than Republicans in November to take back a majority.
Gaining control of the Senate and defeating Trump for the White House while holding on to the House of Representatives is key to Democrats’ hopes for enacting their policy agenda.
The four most vulnerable Republicans are Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Susan Collins in Maine, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
McSally is a former US Air Force fighter pilot who was appointed to her seat in 2018 to fill the term of John McCain, a popular senator who died while in office. She faces a former astronaut, Mark Kelly, who leads her in fundraising and public opinion surveys.
“Mark Kelly has a very good shot of winning,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate analyst at the Cook Political Report.
Trump plans to visit a Honeywell International Inc aerospace factory in Phoenix, Arizona, on Tuesday that has converted to making face masks for the COVID-19 outbreak.
“President Trump going there next week shows how important it is to his re-election chances. It’s a state that he is in real danger of losing,” Taylor told Al Jazeera.
In Colorado, former Governor John Hickenlooper appears to be leading Gardner, the incumbent Republican senator. Colorado is a state Trump lost by 5 percentage points in 2016 and its demographics have been trending towards Democrats.
“The president is probably going to lose Colorado again,” Kondik said, meaning Gardner would “have to run ahead of the president”, an unlikely prospect.
Meanwhile, Senator Collins in Maine is facing the political battle of her career in a race that has drawn national attention. Collins had crafted a moderate image as a legislator but has struggled with the hyper-partisanship of the Trump era.
She faces a well-known, up-and-coming state politician in former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives Sara Gideon.
Already out-fundraising Collins by a 3:1 ratio, Gideon will also draw on a $4m war chest assembled by national Democrats angry at Collins for her vote to confirm the controversial, conservative US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Collins further alienated independent-minded voters in Maine by supporting Trump in his impeachment trial.
“All of these senators, they fear if they break with Trump, you turn off his base, but then you can’t moderate to try to win independent swing voters and that has been Collins’ bread and butter,” Taylor said.
North Carolina also is shaping up as a key presidential battleground, with both parties reserving expensive television advertising early on.
The Republican, Tillis, crossed Trump in 2019 over the president’s plan to use an emergency declaration to shift military funds to his border wall project. Under political pressure from the White House, Tillis flip-flopped and sided with the president. But it cost him some standing with voters at home.
“Tillis has had to consolidate his right flank which will be fine if Trump wins the state again, but he may not,” Kondik said.
“North Carolina is a Republican-leaning state but is changing in ways that are good for Democrats. It’s going to be a big, expensive, toss-up kind of race,” he said.
The Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed by eight Republican political operatives who oppose Trump, is targeting the four vulnerable senators with a new television advertisement accusing them of “spineless servility” to Trump.
“This fall, the Lincoln Project will help several Republican senators on their way to forced retirement,” the video advertisement says.
So let’s help force these Trump sycophants into retirement later this year. pic.twitter.com/nU8od6b7rC
— The Lincoln Project (@ProjectLincoln) April 30, 2020
Meanwhile, the emergence of strong Democratic candidates in Montana and South Carolina has turned what should have been easy wins for Republicans into real contests.
Graham’s slippage is particularly notable. The Senator from South Carolina had been a sharp critic of Trump before he became president, but has turned into one of the president’s most valuable allies and defender. He faces an increasingly strong challenge from the state’s former Democratic Party chairman, Jaime Harrison, an African American who will appeal to the state’s sizeable Black vote
Graham’s embrace of Trump has hurt him with white Republican women in the state’s growing suburbs.
“What Democrats have succeeded in doing is expanding beyond traditional battlegrounds to put other states in play with strong candidates, and South Carolina is one of those,” Taylor said.