Democrats May Hold the Senate, as Some Trump-Backed Candidates Are Struggling

6 minute read

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Don’t look now, but Democrats may have turned around their sinking Senate hopes. Maybe.

After months of prognostications that Joe Biden would be contending next year with a Congress fully controlled by Republicans, the story on the Senate side has shifted considerably. It turns out, candidates matter, and some clunkers are not helping the broader Republican effort.

More from TIME

Let’s run the tape. In nine of the 10 Senate races that the Cook Political Report treats as serious, the likely Democratic nominees are outpacing their GOP opponents in dollars raised. (Florida is picking its nominee Tuesday, and New Hampshire will do the same on Sept. 13.) And the fundraising deficit is serious: a net advantage of $181.1 million for Democrats in those races, including Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona who outpaced his Republican rival, Blake Masters, by more than $47 million.

More from TIME

Polling, which admittedly over the last six years has shown its limits, looks no better for Republicans in most of those races. Using FiveThirtyEight’s polling tracker and, where available, its state averages, these races are very much in play. Of the 10, Republicans are ahead or even in just two: North Carolina and Florida, where Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is polling so far ahead of Rep. Val Demings that many Democrats have quietly shelved hopes of picking up that seat. Democrats’ advantage ranges from the narrow one point in Ohio to a gaping 10 points in Pennsylvania.

This all makes for an upheaval in conventional wisdom in Washington from way back to last month, when Democrats’ current majority in the House was widely viewed as toast and their control of the Senate was seen as equally as fragile. The first part of that outlook remains largely still in place. Even before House candidates were set, the board was being tilted toward the GOP. Gerrymandering in just four states—Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—was enough to very likely undo Democrats’ control in the lower chamber.

In the Senate—which is evenly split, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to give Democrats control by serving as a tie-breaker—Democrats are defending 14 seats. The assumption most of this year has been that gives Republicans the clear edge, considering the party’s better performance as recently as June when polls gauged voter intensity on which party should control Congress. While the midterms at times have seemed more like a reality-show casting couch than any serious debate over the direction of this country, Democrats rightly fretted that they were frittering their opportunity in the same way Barack Obama did in the first two years of his tenure.

Then came a summer that included a Supreme Court decision upending a half-century of federal abortion rights, the riveting work of the Jan. 6 committee, and a sudden burst of legislative wins for President Joe Biden and his allies. Polls moved. Checked-out activists checked back in. Armchair liberals opened their checkbooks. And the quiet work of the Democratic consulting class now seems less like wasted dollars.

Put another way: anecdotally and objectively, the Senate appears to be a lot more in play. Adding to the GOP’s troubles are some first-time candidates having a rough stretch, like J.D. Vance in Ohio, Herschel Walker in Georgia, and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. (All three, notably, won their primaries after drawing a coveted endorsement from Donald Trump.)

The Senate line-up for Democrats, in comparison, does not include a single first-time candidate. Factor in falling gas prices, soaring jobs numbers, and a supply chain that is less garbled, and Republicans may find that even persistent sky-high inflation won’t be enough to spike Democrats’ advantage.

That said, a lot can still happen before Election Day on Nov. 8—or even when the first early-vote window opens in some states as early as next month. Mistakes can happen. The Biden administration can mess things up or an external news event can shift voter thinking on a dime. And don’t discount the power of a late infusion of outside cash, especially from mercurial billionaires with pet candidates this cycle.

It’s become stylish among institutional conservatives to lay the blame for the changing landscape on the National Republican Senatorial Committee and its chairman, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, for not doing more to try and block candidates like Vance, Walker, and Oz from winning their primaries. But strategists who work with the NRSC rightly note that trying to pick candidates would have likely set up a conflict between the official party arm and Trump, one in which the former President was better positioned to come out on top.

The new shifting field has brought much frustration for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is just one seat from retaking the gavel. Last week, he said the Senate would be close, no matter who claimed the majority: “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different—they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

In response, Trump attacked McConnell’s wife, Trump’s own Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao—which tells observers everything about why Scott didn’t engage in primaries.

Still, McConnell is the GOP’s smartest strategist and is looking at the same top-line data as everyone, and Democrats are sitting in at least a fighting position. He has been hustling to shovel more cash into the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that already has disclosed $114 million raised this cycle. He’s sending $28 million to help Vance in Republican-leaning Ohio, and dumping $37 million in Georgia and $34 million in Pennsylvania. McConnell is trying to mount a rescue operation, one that he’s previously orchestrated to save races that were seen as gimmies at the start of the cycles.

But it’s now approaching the end of August, and the time for tinkering is over. Threats to democracy now tops voters’ minds, according to new NBC News polling, meaning Republicans hoping for a Trump halo might be left mortal. Most Americans think the ex-President should continue to face investigations, and the GOP brand isn’t what it was two years ago.

All campaign cycles eventually involve a level of cruel-eyed triage, and this is shaping up to be no different. In all but New Hampshire, the GOP nominees are set. Democrats are heading into the fall far stronger than expected, building campaign machines in places where Democrats haven’t really had operations for years.

But their margin of error is near zero. When you’re talking about an evenly split chamber, the same, of course, is true for Republicans.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at