Sen. Lindsey Graham is in the fight of his political life, and that fact captures the 2020 Senate map in a nutshell.
Earlier this year, Mr. Graham was barreling toward an easy reelection to a fourth term from South Carolina, a solidly red state. Now he has a giant target on his back. Democratic opponent Jaime Harrison has swamped him in the money race and, though most prognosticators say Mr. Graham is still a slight favorite, a victory is far from guaranteed.
It’s a story playing out in nearly a dozen races across the country, where Republican prospects for holding the Senate went from a near lock to an uphill battle in a matter of months.
Those battles have taken on added significance as President Trump’s reelection chances dim. Republican operatives are now fearing the loss of any claim to power in Washington.
That prospect is energizing Democrats from Alaska to Maine. Like Mr. Harrison, many are top-tier candidates fueled by massive infusions of cash. And like Mr. Graham, Republicans in each of those races are battling headwinds Mr. Trump has created for his party.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who is on the ballot this year, gives his party no better than a 50-50 chance of holding the line.
“We have a lot of exposure,” he said last week on the campaign trail. “There are dogfights all over the country.”
By exposure, he means the sheer number of Republican seats being defended. Of 35 seats up for grabs, 23 are held by Republicans.
Senate Republicans go into Election Day with a 53-47 advantage. A net shift of three seats plus the White House would flip control to Democrats, given the vice president’s tiebreaking vote.
Although each race has its own dynamic, analysts say, the common factor is Mr. Trump. A year ago, Republican senators were expecting to tout his economic record. Now, they’re trying to explain his coronavirus response.
“So many of these races are linked to whatever the national result is. With COVID being the No. 1 issue, that’s sort of what drives it,” said J. Miles Coleman, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Just because Trump isn’t handling it well, he’s sort of dragging down a lot of the Republican nominees across the country.”
In Alaska, the drop in tourism has sapped the economy, which Mr. Coleman said has given independent candidate Al Gross a line of criticism against Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan. Mr. Gross has the backing of Democrats in the race.
Mr. Sullivan is one of the Republicans whose seat analysts are surprised to see in play. At the start of this year, Mr. Coleman and the other UVa. analysts rated it a “safe” Republican seat. Now it “leans” Republican.
The UVa. center ranks each race as safe, likely to go for one party, leaning toward one party, or a toss-up. The Alaska race shifted two spots.
Four other Republican-held seats also have shifted two positions to the left. Iowa, Maine and Arizona went from leaning Republican to leaning Democratic; Colorado went from a toss-up to a likely Democratic pickup; and Mr. Graham’s South Carolina seat went from safe Republican to leaning Republican.
Seven other seats shifted one position to the left. Both Georgia seats went from leaning Republican to toss-ups; Texas, Kansas and Montana went from likely Republican to leaning Republican; Mississippi went from safe Republican to likely Republican; and North Carolina went from toss-up to leaning Democratic.
Of the 12 Democratic-held seats, two have grown stronger in the party’s favor, and only one has weakened. In Alabama, Sen. Doug Jones’ prospects have worsened from leaning Republican to likely Republican.
The North Carolina race has been one of the most charged since Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, a commissioned officer in the Army Reserve, acknowledged extramarital activity with the wife of a disabled veteran.
He is now under an Army investigation, but that hasn’t derailed his bid to unseat first-term Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. Most polls show Mr. Cunningham with a slight lead.
Elsewhere, Democrats have been powered by a fortuitous crop of candidates.
In Colorado, former Gov. John Hickenlooper is close to a sure bet to unseat Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock has made a strong challenge to Republican Sen. Steve Daines. In Maine, Democrats landed state House Speaker Sara Gideon to challenge Sen. Susan M. Collins, who is running for her fifth term.
In South Carolina, Mr. Harrison is the best Senate candidate Democrats have fielded in decades. He is Black, in a state where about 30% of the population is Black. He was chairman of the state’s Democratic Party and built a national following with a well-received, but ultimately short-circuited, 2017 bid to run the Democratic National Committee.
Robert Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, said Mr. Graham has always struggled to consolidate Republicans in parts of the state. Despite staying close to Mr. Trump, he hasn’t been able to quell those fears.
“That’s the erosion part. For whatever reason, people are disappointed in Sen. Graham and not voting for him this time,” said the professor, predicting that Mr. Graham will trail Mr. Trump among Republican voters.
The bigger factor, though, is Mr. Harrison.
Mr. Oldendick called the Democrat “the ideal candidate for this election cycle to go up against” Mr. Graham.
Americans may not have to wait long to see how that race goes. Polls close in South Carolina, as well as Georgia and Kentucky, at 7 p.m. North Carolina follows a half hour later.
Voting is supposed to be over in most of the competitive Senate races by 9 p.m., though Iowa and Montana polls are open until 10 p.m. and Alaska voters can go until 1 a.m. EST.
Republicans’ rough 2020 map is partly a vestige of their successes six years ago, when they captured Democratic-held seats in Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
Five of those seats are in play this year.