Democrats see path to Senate majority in 2018

 In Politics

Something remarkable is happening in the halls of the Capitol: talk of a serious fight for the Senate majority next year.

Senate Democrats, once all but resigned to staying in the minority until at least 2020, say the door to retaking the chamber in next year’s midterms has cracked — just barely — if everything breaks their way. And instead of boasting about how many more seats they’re about to pick up, Republicans are now pondering the once-unthinkable possibility of losing the Senate, and with it, the ability to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominees.

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While Republicans have been locked in bruising internal battles all year, legislatively and in GOP primaries, Senate Democrats in recent days scored a prized recruit in Arizona and saw a Republican titan in Tennessee, Bob Corker, retire. Public polls in the Alabama Senate race have shown Democrat Doug Jones within single digits of bomb-throwing Republican Roy Moore — forcing national Democrats to wrestle with whether to spend money in one of the most conservative states in the nation.

Democratic senators are loath to boast too publicly about their recent spate of political fortune. But they’re starting to see a path, however narrow, that hadn’t existed before.

“The map feels a little different today than it did a few weeks ago,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “We might be playing a little more offense. At the same time, we don’t have a lot of bandwidth for offense given the defense we have to play.”

The 2018 map nonetheless heavily favors Republicans, who are defending just eight seats next fall compared to 25 for Senate Democrats. For Democrats to take the majority, they would have to successfully defend all their incumbents in conservative territory while picking up Nevada, Arizona and then a deep-red state such as Alabama, Tennessee or Texas.

Still, the fact that there’s even a conversation about the Senate being in play is a shift from just a few weeks ago. Democrats are privately gleeful about what they see as Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-Nev.) mishandling of the ultimately fruitless push to repeal Obamacare. Republican Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake’s favorability numbers are underwater, and Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke is raising money at a healthy clip in Texas, even as he shuns PAC money in his long-shot bid to oust Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Republicans are openly worried that a failure on tax reform would endanger their prospects of retaining the majority and open the floodgates of disgusted donors and voters, particularly on the heels of the health care debacle. Voters might also hold Republicans accountable for any steep premium increases under Obamacare, since they’ve yet to repeal it or successfully stabilize the markets.

If “we can’t get a win on tax reform, then we’re going to have a lot to answer for to the voters next fall,” said South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Senate Republican who has been among the most vocal in publicly warning GOP senators to fall in line.

Senate Republicans are blunter in private. “Folks are mad,” one said. “I’m talking about the people who voted for us to do something. That’s going to rev up if we can’t pass tax reform.”

The Senate GOP’s campaign arm is trying to settle the troops. Yes, the majority is up for grabs next year, acknowledged National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner of Colorado. But the difficulty of a Democratic comeback in the deep red South makes it improbable at best.

“We run knowing that the majority is on the line. There’s no doubt about it,” Gardner said. “But the fact is, they have 10 seats in Donald Trump states that we look very good in right now.

“If I were them I’d try to find optimism” too, he added.

Democrats want to capitalize on the GOP angst to their advantage next November, although they’re confronting their own set of challenges as they suddenly face a slightly more favorable map.

The foremost of those decisions comes in Alabama, where Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is wary of expending significant party resources on behalf of Jones, according to two Democratic senators.

“I’d be shocked if Schumer wants to spend money there,” one said.

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