A week ago, Senate Republicans were looking forward to a contentious Supreme Court fight that they predicted would fire up their base and win back center-right voters who had become disenchanted with President Trump’s rhetoric and his handling of the coronavirus.
Then the president tested positive for Covid-19, along with several advisers and three GOP senators, putting renewed focus on the administration’s pandemic response and Mr. Trump’s defiance of health guidelines such as wearing a mask.
These developments have added new uncertainty to a Senate map that already had Republicans on defense, given that they are defending 23 GOP-held seats, compared with 12 Democratic seats on the ballot. The nonpartisan Inside Elections lists a dozen Senate races in play, with potential Democratic pickups in Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Maine, and tossups in GOP-held Iowa and Montana. Republicans are favored to win back a Senate seat in Alabama and are competing for a Democratic seat in Michigan, but polls show matchups in South Carolina, Georgia and Kansas tightening, too, as Democrats expand their competitive map deeper into red territory.
Rather than serving as a major boost to their campaigns, Trump’s Supreme Court announcement at the White House on Sept. 26 appears to have served as a superspreader event, with a couple dozen infections connected to that day. That is certain to bring Trump’s response to the pandemic to the forefront of voter’s minds in the lead-up to Nov. 3 — the last thing Republicans wanted.
“I think it’s 50-50,” McConnell told conservative talk radio host Hugh Hewitt on Friday when asked whether the GOP will hold the Senate. “We always knew this was going to be challenging.”
“We have close, hard-fought races all over the country,” McConnell said, adding that “the Democrats are competing with us in Kansas and Georgia and even South Carolina.”
That concern grew deeper as Democratic challengers began unveiling eye-popping fundraising totals, revealing that anti-Trump liberal energy has only grown stronger as sides gird for a Supreme Court fight.
Democrats are trouncing Republicans on the airwaves in the battle for the Senate, outspending them in nine of the top 10 competitive Senate races.
Why it matters: Even before President Trump's COVID diagnosis, Republicans were growing increasingly concerned that Democrats' money advantage could flip control of the Senate.
While some outside super PAC money for the GOP is starting to even it up, Republican candidates have been outspent for the year, according to data provided to Axios by Advertising Analytics.
Democrats need to pick up four seats to win the majority — or effectively three if Joe Biden wins the presidency, because his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, would break a 50-50 tie as vice president.
The big picture: Traditionally, incumbent senators have a fundraising edge, but it's different this cycle thanks to unlimited contributions from Democratic super PACs as well as highly-motivated small donors.
Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court helped feed that bump.