Incumbent Republican senators in Rust Belt states have built big leads in their bids for re-election, but Democrats are putting new states in play elsewhere, challenging sitting GOP senators and keeping alive hopes of switching control of the upper chamber.
Sen. Pat Toomey has surged to an 8-percentage-point lead in Pennsylvania over Democrat Katie McGinty, and Sen. Rob Portman leads former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland 55-38 in Ohio, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll, released Wednesday.
But Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat, is running surprisingly close to GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, and Deborah Ross, a former Democratic state lawmaker in North Carolina, is tied with Sen. Richard Burr in the latest polling, forcing Republicans to have to defend two states they thought would be relatively safe this year.
Underlying it all is Donald Trump, the GOP’s presidential nominee, who Democrats are counting on to poison Republican incumbents up and down the ticket on Election Day.
Democrats said their chances to retake the Senate grew stronger this week after a stumble by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the incumbent Republican in New Hampshire, who tripped over herself when asked if she thought Mr. Trump was a role model for children.
Ms. Ayotte, in a debate on Monday, first said “absolutely” he was a role model, then tried to take it back. Ms. Ayotte is locked in a tight battle with Gov. Maggie Hassan for the Senate seat.
SEE ALSO: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton dividing NFL locker rooms
“Kelly Ayotte’s admission that she believes Donald Trump is ‘absolutely’ a role model for New Hampshire children highlights how Senate Republicans have forsaken all judgment and common sense in their support of their party,” said Sam Lau, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Democrats need to swipe at least five Senate seats to guarantee control of the Senate next year, erasing the GOP’s 54-46 majority. It would only take four seats if Hillary Clinton wins the White House, because vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine would then become the president of the Senate and the tie-breaking vote.
Democrats are counting on pickups in Illinois, where Sen. Mark Kirk trails Rep. Tammy Duckworth by the high single digits, and Wisconsin, where former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has a good chance of reclaiming his seat from Sen. Ron Johnson, the Republican incumbent.
Evan Bayh is also eyeing his old job. The former Democratic senator from Indiana is locked in a tight race with Rep. Todd Young, a Republican who appeared set to replace retiring Republican Sen. Dan Coats before Mr. Bayh entered the frame.
In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio’s lead over Democratic opponent, Rep. Patrick Murphy, has shrunk from 7 points to 4 over the last month, according to Quinnipiac, though he’s led consistently since reconsidering his decision to retire after a failed presidential bid.
Meanwhile, Republicans are eyeing a pickup of their own in Nevada, where Republican congressman Joe Heck holds a small lead over former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.
SEE ALSO: Tim Ryan to workers: Trump ‘will walk over your cold dead body’
For months, Democrats’ strategy has been to tie vulnerable Republicans to Mr. Trump at every turn, hoping they’ll be swept under by the mogul’s critical comments about women and strident positions on illegal immigration.
Democrats have shown no signs of abandoning that strategy in the weeks leading to Nov. 8, yet polls suggest it has produced uneven results so far.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, leads Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick by double digits, even as she criticizes the veteran senator of shirking his maverick role by refusing to “un-endorse” Mr. Trump for a string of perceived offenses, such as he mogul’s controversial comments about veterans with post-traumatic stress order.
In Pennsylvania, Ms. McGinty this week highlighted Mr. Toomey’s refusal to disavow Mr. Trump after a New York Times report that said a $916 million loss in 1995 might have allowed the mogul to avoid federal income taxes for 18 years.
Yet Quinnipiac said Mr. Toomey’s lead has grown by 7 percentage points since September, even as other polls say the race is much tighter.
“The fight for control of the Senate is very competitive right now. This summer, the odds of a Democratic takeover were good, but Trump’s September comeback has stalled that drive,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “The question at this point is whether Trump’s poor performance in the first presidential debate and public concern over his tax paying will shift state races back in the Democratic direction.”
Democrats say Ms. Ayotte’s debate-night stumble might have been the catalyst they needed.
The Hassan campaign said it saw an immediate uptick in donations and web traffic after the debate, even if Ms. Ayotte said she misspoke in calling Mr. Trump a role model.
“It’s too early to see how it’s moved the electorate, but it’s clear that this is a real problem for Kelly Ayotte,” Hassan spokeswoman Meira Bernstein said.