Senate Democrats are growing increasingly bullish about their chances to retake the majority in the chamber in November as national polls show President Donald Trump floundering in key battleground states and Republicans publicly and privately urge the President to retool his campaign message or risk a blowout down ballot in November.
In the race for Senate control, Democrats see a nationalized referendum on a President who has failed to contain the coronavirus and resulting economic collapse. A moment of racial reckoning over policing and inequality has mobilized their base. And, in just a little over three months, Democrats have turned their focus from defending key battlegrounds in Alabama, Michigan and New Hampshire to an expanded map that not only includes top targets like Colorado and Arizona, but states like Iowa, Maine and Montana.
"I think the idea that this President was going to be a catastrophic disaster in an emergency was theoretical until this year. His performance over the last three months is very jarring to a lot of Americans," said Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. "I think folks now feel like not only does Trump have to go, but his enablers have to go too."
Democrats need to net three or four seats to take back majority depending on who wins the White House. And the party has its work cut out for it. Democrats acknowledge that defending their own especially when it comes to Sen. Doug Jones in conservative-leaning Alabama won't come easily. But, party officials and leaders are cautiously optimistic even as they acknowledge polling and circumstances can shift on a dime.
"Obviously you cannot take anything for granted, but it looks like we are defending relatively few vulnerable incumbents," said Sen. Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware. "We have strong candidates. They are running against fairly strong incumbents, but we are in a moment where it is hard for candidates to separate themselves from the flailing and chaotic response from the President."
Both parties acknowledge that the external crises have made the political environment volatile and Democrats are better positioned then they have been all year. A New York Times-Siena College poll this week found Biden leading in critical swing states like Arizona, Florida and North Carolina by single digits. In states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- states that were crucial to Trump's victory in 2016 -- Trump is down by double digits.
"It's been a pretty tough few weeks and Biden is hiding in his basement so people are all focusing on President Trump and not the choice between two candidates," said Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas. "What Trump needs to do is to have a real race against an opponent. Hopefully, as the economy starts to recover, people will feel more optimistic and hopefully lean into the November election, but I expect this to be a very close race."
Democrats attribute their current political fortunes with some shifting dynamics on the ground as well. In Montana, the party finally convinced two-term Gov. Steve Bullock to get in the race against Republican Sen. Steve Daines in March. And a messy and bitter Republican primary in Kansas may give Democrats an opportunity in a state that a Democratic Senate candidate hasn't won in more than 80 years. Trump stalwart Kris Kobach, a polarizing figure -- who lost the race for governor for Republicans -- could clinch the nomination, boosting Democrats' chances with their candidate Barbara Bollier, a former Republican and current state senator.
"I think it is going to be a really rough election," Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said of the November elections. "I think the map is going to be really close. We are a really closely divided country and so I have been in a lot political contests. I am not really surprised."
Even in some states Republicans were expected to win handily, the ground may be shifting. In Iowa, a new Des Moines Register poll out earlier this month showed Sen. Joni Ernst, the incumbent Republican, down three points to her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.
"Iowa is sort of a bell weather for me. It's a place where Trump won by 10. We haven't been able to put together a winning streak there in a long time and it is legitimately competitive," Murphy said. "That to me is a sign. Something real is shaping up around the country."
Still, Democrats are haunted by 2016 when midsummer polling and pundits indicated Trump likely would never win the White House and Republicans were caught in a difficult dance between embracing Trump's candidacy to satisfy their base while winning over swing voters to stay afloat.
"I am encouraged, but it is four months away," said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. "I would just say this. Whatever Joe Biden is doing, he should continue doing. If that means working out of his basement in Delaware so be it. I know it is frustrating. He told me he is frustrated by it. But by maintaining a certain level of decorum and respect he is such a sharp contrast to the President that I think it is part of the reason that poll numbers are going his way."
The recent polling has spun Republican senators into damage control. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, pointed to an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, begging Trump to come up with a second-term agenda he could run on. Republicans are urging the President to change his tactics and improve his own numbers to buoy incumbents. GOP senators have tried to implore Trump to maintain a lower profile, focusing on what policies he's enacted while in office rather than tweeting his latest urges or using rallies as opportunities to spotlight his personal grievances.
"Sometimes he undermines himself," said Cornyn, who is also up for reelection in Texas. "You don't want this to be a referendum on the incumbent, you want this to be a choice. Right now it has been more of a referendum than a choice."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a close ally of Trump, said he planned to dine with the President over the weekend where he expected the election to come up.
"The President wants to make it about him. I want to make it about what he has done as President and what he will do in the future," said Graham, who is also up for reelection.
Majority Whip John Thune warned that rank-and-file GOP members may need to be making plans not to run on Trump's coattails this cycle.
"I think a lot of our candidates and members have their own brand. That will serve them well. They are going to have to run their own campaigns, and maybe not draft on the top of the ticket," Thune said.
On Trump, Thune continued, "I think there is still a lot of clock left before the election, but he is going to have to come up with a slightly different game plan than what he is using now."
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