Risks abound for both parties in uncertain Senate races

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    The national mood has put Democrats on the defensive, as they look to hold on to vulnerable seats in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and New Hampshire, compete for open seats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio and to unseat Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.

    But Republican operatives working on a series of Senate races appear more dour of late, with some admitting their candidates have yet to take advantage of the helpful environment, allowing their Democratic opponents to stand out, raise money and prepare.

    “Some of these candidates need to get their sh*t together,” said a Republican working on Senate races. “They are potentially putting at risk very winnable seats.”

    To Republicans looking for a wave election in November, the margin for error is slim.

    With the Senate currently split 50-50, Republicans need only to net one seat in 2022 to win a majority. But they are defending the majority of seats up for election in November, and several of the Democratic seats they’re targeting are in states where Biden won in 2020, including Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

    “I’m upbeat and optimistic,” said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican strategist. “But the Democrats’ fundraising [advantage] is concerning. You would think big GOP donors would learn by now that elections have consequences.”

    The uncertainty belies the fact that a whole host of data points are trending in Republicans’ favor. The latest CNN poll finds just 38% of adults approve of Biden, with 30% approving of his handling of the economy and just 25% of his handling of inflation, which has reached a four-decade-plus high. The same CNN poll found 75% of adults say inflation is the most important economic problem affecting them.
    Even more ominous for Democrats is how voters feel about the state of the country. In an AP-NORC survey released in late June, 85% of American adults said that things in the country are headed in the wrong direction, with just 14% believing things are going in the right direction, a more pessimistic view than the same survey found in May. And a CNN poll released this week found voters are evenly split on which party’s candidates they’d prefer in their congressional districts, with 46% picking the Democrats and 46% the Republicans.

    “The generic ballot is better than it’s ever been, the issue set is the best it’s ever been, the President’s approval rating is the worst there’s ever been,” said one Republican strategist. “That’s the definition of holding serve.”

    While the current standing among some Republicans has given Democratic operatives hope in what will be a trying midterm election, many admit it is unlikely that the good news will continue into November.

    “Our candidates continue to perform well because they recognize this is an economy where a lot of people are feeling burdened,” said JB Poersch, president of the Democratic Senate Majority PAC. “You have to be able to point to things you are doing to try to make it better. … A lot of Americans are suffering and they want to hear from elected officials and people who want to be elected officials on what they are doing to make it better.”

    Republicans worry about a wasted chance

    Republican leaders remain anxious that some of the party’s current or potential nominees risk erasing the party’s environmental advantages. The GOP failed to find top-tier recruits to challenge some vulnerable Democratic incumbents, and in certain races, candidates boosted by an endorsement from former President Donald Trump in the primary defeated Republicans seen as more viable in a general election.

    “Poor candidate recruitment and some lackluster campaigns will really test whether or not this cycle is foolproof for Republicans,” said a second GOP strategist. “In most other cycles, there’s probably little chance to flip the Senate at this point.”

    And no candidate showcases those fears more than Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor and television personality who narrowly won his party’s nomination in May with Trump’s backing but has struggled to impress Republicans both in and out of Pennsylvania ever since.

    “I still think Oz probably wins, but the public and private poll numbers are not encouraging,” said one GOP strategist in Pennsylvania.

    Oz’s struggles have been both financial and rhetorical. The Republican raised a disappointing $3.8 million in the second quarter of the year, while his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, raised $11 million despite spending the past two months off the trail and recovering from a stroke. Oz has contributed $3.2 million to his campaign in the last three months.
    Democratic Senate contenders smash fundraising records as Donald Trump's cash pace slows

    And with Fetterman off the trail, his campaign has ruthlessly attacked the fact that Oz only recently moved to Pennsylvania to run for Senate. When Oz visited two cheesesteak spots in South Philadelphia, Fetterman tweeted that the visit was in line with what all tourists do in the city. The campaign has also released a string of ads showing Fetterman lambasting Oz for his weak ties to Pennsylvania, including one in which the lieutenant governor says Oz “is not one of us.” And they have had fun with his ties to New Jersey, including by releasing a trolling Cameo video from the Jersey Shore star Snookie — real name: Nicole Polizzi — that wished “Mehmet” luck with his decision to move “from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to look for a new job” and assured him that “Jersey will not forget you.”

    “We like to have fun with the New Jersey thing, but it is not just that he is from New Jersey. He is not one of us, he is not a Pennsylvanian,” said Joe Calvello, a Fetterman spokesman. “He does not understand the struggles that Pennsylvanians are going through. … It goes deeper than that.”

    While Oz has begun to respond to Fetterman’s attacks with online videos criticizing the Democrat’s progressive views, the poor fundraising remains a problem, according to top Republicans. GOP operatives in the state say the race will hinge on the air war in the expensive Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg markets, making raising money crucially important. According to a political ad-spending analysis by AdImpact, campaigns and super PACs from both parties in Pennsylvania already spent more than $78 million on ads before the May 17 Senate primaries.

    “If Oz is not going to write another very large check, then that fundraising needs to get fixed,” said a second Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist.

    The Oz campaign disputed those characterizations, pointing out that the Republican has been meeting with voters in stops across the state this summer and claiming he will have plenty of funds for the general election.

    “Just like in the primary, Dr. Oz’s campaign will also have ample resources to get its message out,” said Brittany Yanick, a spokeswoman for Oz. “Dr. Oz has been busy campaigning across the state, meeting with voters, and attending both small dollar and high dollar fundraising events, but Fetterman refuses to campaign and meet with voters who are concerned about the disastrous Biden-Fetterman agenda.”

    Races nationwide

    But Oz is not alone in worrying Republican leaders.

    Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia remains a top target, but Republican nominee Herschel Walker has been dogged by personal and political liabilities, a string of verbal gaffes, and an unfocused campaign strategy. Even Walker’s recent fundraising haul — $6.2 million, his best quarter yet — paled in comparison to Warnock’s $17.2 million raised in the same quarter.

    The hope is that a recent infusion of new communications and financial staff, many of whom come with national campaign experience, will right the ship and take attention off Walker’s numerous controversies, which include his false claim that he graduated near the top of his class in college and his admission that he has three previously undisclosed children. But Republicans remain concerned that one of their best chances to pick up a seat in the Senate could be imperiled.

    And in Missouri, an otherwise deep-red state, supporters of some of the other Republican candidates are scrambling to prevent a leading contender, former Gov. Eric Greitens, from winning the nomination in the August 2 primary and putting their hold on the seat at greater risk.

    Greitens resigned as governor in 2018 after a series of ethical controversies and accusations of sexual misconduct. The Republican did not admit to any legal wrongdoing and criminal charges against him were dropped, but an anti-Greitens super PAC has spent more than $3 million on TV ads highlighting those scandals.

    “These Senate races are candidate vs. candidate battles,” said David Bergstein, a top operative with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Senate Republicans are running with a clown car roster of recruits that are bringing deep personal and political flaws to the campaigns and the baggage that these Republican Senate candidates have, which have been front and center of the last several months, will continue to be a defining feature of Senate campaigns this cycle.”

    Trump-backed Arizona Senate candidate escalates election fears ahead of GOP primary
    Republicans are also watching closely the Senate race in Arizona, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has a massive fundraising advantage while the GOP candidates have had to focus on the upcoming August 2 primary. Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell tried and failed to recruit the outgoing governor, Doug Ducey, to run for the seat. Without Ducey, the crowded field seems to be settling on tech entepreneur Blake Masters, who received Trump’s endorsement. But Republicans recognize that since Trump narrowly lost Arizona in 2020, the state has only moved further toward the Democratic Party.

    “Winning Arizona will not be an easy proposition for Republicans,” said a July memo from a prominent Republican consultant distributed among party leaders and donors.

    Next door in Nevada, there is more optimism among Republicans that Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto has failed to make enough of a good impression in her first term and that the GOP nominee, former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, can ride the wave of a good Republican year in a state where Trump improved his performance from 2016 to 2020.

    And Republicans say they feel more confident about defending their own seats in Wisconsin, where Johnson is in a good position, and in North Carolina, where GOP nominee Ted Budd is well-funded and polling well in his bid to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

    But Republicans are also frustrated they are not able to better compete in New Hampshire, where Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, remains vulnerable this year. After failing to recruit Gov. Chris Sununu to challenge Hassan, the GOP field there is not inspiring party leaders ahead of the September 13 primary.

    Democrats hopeful but acknowledge pitfalls

    Few Democrats are defying gravity more than Rep. Tim Ryan, the party’s nominee to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman in a state that largely has been dominated by Republicans for years.

    Ryan raised $9.1 million in the second quarter of 2022, dwarfing the abysmal $1 million from Republican author J.D. Vance, who, like Oz, won the state’s primary with Trump’s backing earlier in the year.

    And while Vance has spent much of the summer off the campaign trail, Ryan is airing ads that portray him as a Democrat who wins praise from top Republicans and casting himself as just as mad about Democratic leadership in Washington as many voters across Ohio.

    For now, the strategy is keeping Ryan afloat in a state that some Democrats had long written off. But Ryan aides are aware that the good times may not last forever.

    “We feel really good,” said a top Ryan aide, “But we are by no means getting complacent.”

    This is partially because as strong as Ryan’s run has been this summer, the national atmosphere is a lot for any Democrat to contend with, but especially a Democrat running in a state where, other than Sen. Sherrod Brown, no Democrat has won a nonjudicial statewide office since 2008. And even though former President Barack Obama carried the state in 2008 and 2012, his successor, Trump, carried the state in 2016 and 2020.

    “We are not campaigning in a vacuum,” the aide added. “You can’t completely factor it out. But being able to show that you understand what people are going through… I do think people see and hear that and counts something for them.”

    Other top Democrats agree: The standing of Democratic candidates has been better than many expected over the last few months, but it is still only July and there will be, as one top Senate aide said, a “constant push and pull this cycle between the national environment and the dynamics in individual races.”

    “We have been on a really good run recently,” the aide said. “The core map remains Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina. But there are certainly strong campaigns and potential areas to expand in states like Florida and Ohio, and certainly we are watching other states as well.”

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