Republicans running short on time and money to defend Senate majority

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans are running short of time, money and options to stop Democrats from winning a majority of seats in the U.S. Senate, and with them full control of Congress, in an election that is now only two weeks away.

President Donald Trump’s slide in opinion polls is weighing on Senate Republicans in 10 competitive races, while Democrats are playing defense over two seats, increasing the odds of Trump’s Republicans losing their 53-47 majority on Nov. 3.

That gives Democrats a good chance of adding a Senate majority to their control of the House of Representatives, which could either stymie Trump in a second term or usher in a new era of Democratic dominance in Washington if Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the White House.

“The Republican Party probably has to start thinking about what it can salvage between now and Nov. 3,” said Republican strategist Rory Cooper, a one-time aide to former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

While demographic changes were long expected to work against Republican incumbents, including North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Arizona’s Martha McSally and Colorado’s Cory Gardner, powerful Republican senators, including South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham and Iowa’s Joni Ernst, are also facing strong challengers.

Americans have been voting early at an unprecedented pace as they look for ways to avoid exposure to the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 220,000 people in the United States. Twenty-eight million people have cast early ballots.

Democrats have also reported a surge in late campaign donations, outraising Republicans in 12 competitive races by nearly $190 million - $315 million v. $128 million - during the third quarter, according to Federal Election Commission documents.

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But Democrats had a smaller advantage in cash on hand, reporting about $106 million v. $83 million for Republicans.

Republicans are seeing “obvious signals that there’s no path forward,” as one Republican aide put it, unless their incumbents can find ways to distance themselves from Trump and his handling of the pandemic without alienating his supporters.


But not all is doom and gloom for Republicans, who believe they can still eke out a 51-seat majority by capturing Democratic seats in Alabama and Michigan and denying Democrats victory in North Carolina, Iowa and other states with strong Republican constituencies.

“We’ve got eight to ten races that are margin-of-error races. There’s no way in the world you could suggest that those are somehow over,” said Whit Ayres, a leading Republican pollster. “They’re far from out of reach.”

The memory of Trump’s surprise win four years ago after polls showed rival Hillary Clinton with a modest lead, burns brightly for Democratic candidates and voters.

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on October 14, 2020. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Republican incumbents have sought to concentrate on their own individual races, rather than Trump.

Others have turned on him. Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, who is expected to easily win re-election, told constituents this week that Trump “sells out allies” and “treated the presidency like a business opportunity,” the Washington Examiner reported last week, citing an audio recording of the call. Sasse’s office confirmed the comments to the Examiner.

Republican Senator John Cornyn, who is vying with Democrat M.J. Hegar in Texas, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he has disagreed with Trump in private, likening his relationship with the president to “women who get married and think they’re going to change their spouse, and that doesn’t usually work out very well.”

Embattled McSally in Arizona and Montana’s Steve Daines are working to counter Democratic attacks on their healthcare records by portraying themselves as defenders of people with pre-existing conditions.

A sex scandal engulfing North Carolina Democrat Cal Cunningham has raised Republican hopes of denying Democrats victory in a state seen as a potential tipping point.

“That’s a very critical state for Democrats to be able to get to the majority. If they can’t count on that, life will be more difficult for them,” said a Republican strategist involved in several key Senate races.

Polls show the North Carolina race tightening with Cunningham still in the lead over Republican Senator Tillis.

The upcoming Senate vote on Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett could also galvanize conservative voters for Tillis, as well as Iowa’s Ernst and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Graham, a three-term senator and Trump ally who is running neck-and-neck with Democrat Jaime Harrison.

But even as he nears Senate confirmation for Barrett, Graham last week acknowledged his party’s fading position in the polls.

“Y’all have a good chance of winning the White House,” he told Democratic colleagues on Thursday, the final day of Barrett’s hearings.

Even when all the ballots are counted, it’s possible that control of the Senate won’t be decided until January. That’s due to a pair of races in Georgia that could go to runoffs.

In one of those Georgia races, Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler has welcomed a controversial endorsement from Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican U.S. House candidate who has spoken in support of the “QAnon” conspiracy theory that says Trump is battling “deep-state” traitors, child sex predators and Democrats. The FBI has linked QAnon to domestic extremists.

Recent polls in Georgia show Loeffler and fellow Republican Doug Collins trailing Democrat Raphael Warnock, a pastor at Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis