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Democrats poised to expand Senate control, with Trump to thank

The political environment should be great for the GOP this year, but the former president has been making it hard for his party to capitalize.

CONCORD, N.H. (CN) — Democrats are on track to do something completely unprecedented — pick up several U.S. Senate seats in the midterms despite a highly unpopular president and polls showing that an astonishing 87% of Americans are unhappy with the direction of the country.

The reason: Donald Trump.

In state after state, Trump has endorsed Senate candidates who fit his vision but who are inexperienced, out of the mainstream or both. These candidates won their primaries but are now struggling against stronger Democratic politicians in the general election.

Republicans “have actively been damaging themselves” with their “amateur-hour Senate campaigns,” said David Niven, who teaches American politics at the University of Cincinnati. “As Trump once famously said in another context, they're clearly not sending their best.”

A number of the Republican Senate candidates are “not even marginally qualified,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

But it’s not just that Trump has promoted poor-quality candidates; his party has also been hurt by the “drip, drip, drip of information in the January 6 hearings” that has eroded support among Republicans who are not die-hard supporters of the former president, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

“If Trump had receded into the background, these Republicans would have gone back to their roots,” Bullock said. Instead they’re taking out their frustrations on Trump-backed candidates who function as proxies.

“They can’t vote against Trump directly, but they can vote against his candidates,” Bullock noted.

Trump also hurt his party’s chances in another way, by appointing Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade.

“This is the monster that looms over Senate races across the country,” Niven said. “We saw in Kansas — and we've seen in polls across the country — that the public has no appetite for an abortion ban.”

Bullock said that, prior to the Dobbs decision, Republicans had a big advantage in enthusiasm, but Dobbs “fired up a critical component of the electorate: white college-educated suburban women. A lot of them are sending their daughters off to college and wondering what will happen if they get pregnant.”

Historically, hot-button issues such as abortion don’t drive turnout in midterm elections as much as economic issues do, Smith noted. But Bullock said the abortion issue can make a big difference in close races.

“In a toss-up state, you don’t have to move the whole electorate; you just need something that will shift a small number of votes,” he explained.

Republicans began the year with high hopes of flipping vulnerable Democratic Senate seats in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire. But Trump-backed candidates in the first three states are behind in the polls, and the leading Republican in New Hampshire’s primary — who declared in a debate that “Trump won the election” in 2020 — is also trailing the Democratic incumbent.

Meanwhile, Democrats stand a good chance of picking up seats in Pennsylvania, where a Trump-backed candidate is far behind; in Wisconsin, where Trump-supporting incumbent Ron Johnson is in trouble; and in North Carolina and Ohio, where Democratic candidates have made the races highly competitive against Republicans endorsed by Trump. In addition, a startling new poll in Florida shows incumbent Republican Marco Rubio at 4 points behind Democratic challenger Val Demings.

Polling workers assist a voter on Aug. 23, 2022, during the Florida primary election at the Miami Beach Fire Department - Station 3 in Miami Beach. (David Santiago /Miami Herald via AP)

Flipping seats: a Republican bubble about to burst

In the four states that the GOP had targeted for flipping Senate seats, things aren’t working out the way the party hoped.

In Georgia, incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock has led in all six polls since mid-June by an average of 4.4 points, according to RealClearPolitics.

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Warnock is squaring off against legendary running back Herschel Walker, who has Trump’s support but who also has a checkered history including numerous public falsehoods about his business and personal affairs, the recent disclosure of three out-of-wedlock children, allegations of domestic abuse, and the fact that he has dissociative identity disorder and has acknowledged having 12 different personalities. 

Bullock said Walker “cruised through the primary signing footballs and taking pictures with people,” but so far he’s largely avoided tough questions on issues.

Walker has been hesitant to debate Warnock despite a number of invitations. Recently he agreed to a single one-hour debate with two local journalists, but Warnock hasn’t accepted and has been holding out for additional match-ups.

Arizona is another state where the Republican candidate, Blake Masters, won the primary based largely on Trump’s endorsement but is losing to the Democratic incumbent, Mark Kelly. In a state that voted for President Biden by 0.3%, Kelly is up in the polls by 8 to 9 points.

Masters generated controversy in April when he blamed America’s gun violence problem on “Black people, frankly.” He also claimed in ads that “Trump won in 2020” and characterized Roe v. Wade as “genocide.”

In New Hampshire, Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan has long been considered vulnerable but polling ahead of the September 13 Republican primary suggests that she’s likely to face an easy opponent — Brigadier General Don Bolduc, a far-right candidate who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2020 with ads that derided his opponents as “a bunch of liberal socialist pansies.”

Hassan leads in the polls over Bolduc, who alienated members of his own party when he called popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu a “Chinese communist sympathizer” whose family business “supports terrorism.”

Bolduc isn’t a cinch to win the primary, said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor, but that Hassan has also been leading in the polls against the other Republican candidates. Scala called Bolduc's last financial report “terrible” and said the candidate has been “running on fumes” with no statewide TV ads even though there are still a lot of undecided voters.

Nevada is the only state where Republicans are still within striking distance of picking up a seat. Most recent polls have shown Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto, the country’s first Latina senator, ahead of challenger Adam Laxalt, the grandson of Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt and the illegitimate son of New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici. But Cortez Masto’s margin is small, and polling in the state is notoriously difficult due to a high transient population and a large number of tourism and casino employees who work late-night shifts.

Republican Senate hopefuls Sam Brown, right, and Adam Laxalt, second from right, prepare at a television studio in Reno, Nev., for an Aug. 23, 2022, debate taped for broadcast on "Nevada Newsmakers." (AP Photo/Scott Sonner, File)

Open seats going blue

Democrats look very likely to pick up a seat in Pennsylvania, where Trump’s hand-picked candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, is losing to Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman by double digits — despite Fetterman’s having been off the campaign trail for months while recovering from a stroke.

Oz has been pilloried for being a carpetbagger, for claiming to own two homes when he owns 10, and for releasing a video in which he allegedly shopped for “crudités” without a shopping cart while mispronouncing the name of the store. The video was designed to highlight the problem of inflation, but Fetterman’s campaign said it raised more than $1 million by making fun of it.

“Oz’s campaign has been one pratfall after another,” said Scala. “He wasn’t prepared for the carpetbagger attack, or for much of anything else.”

Even Trump privately acknowledged that Oz will “fucking lose” unless something dramatically changes, according to a Rolling Stone article. Trump recently announced a Labor Day weekend rally to support Oz.

Democrats also have a good chance of ousting Wisconsin Republican incumbent Ron Johnson, a staunch Trump supporter who once called man-made climate change “lunacy.” Johnson has consistently trailed his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, in the polls despite the fact that Wisconsin is a purple state and Barnes is a progressive who strongly backs Senator Bernie Sanders and has expressed admiration for Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar.

While Johnson will run attack ads trying to define his opponent as unacceptably far-left, a recent poll showed him with only a 38% favorable rating (versus 47% unfavorable), so he will also have work to do to improve his own image, said Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse.

This could be difficult, Chergosky said, because, “after 12 years in the Senate, his ‘political outsider’ brand may no longer come across as authentic. Democrats are going after Johnson as being part of the problem in Washington.”

Democrats have an opportunity to pick up yet another seat in North Carolina, where polls show Trump-backed Republican Congressman Ted Budd in a statistical tie with Democrat Cheri Beasley, the state’s first Black female chief justice, in the race to replace retiring Republican Richard Burr.

The race is so close that there has been a furious battle over whether the Green Party’s Senate candidate, Matthew Hoh, can appear on the ballot. Fearing Hoh will be a spoiler, the state’s Democratic Party has engaged in a complex series of state and federal lawsuits trying to keep him out of the election.

Ohio is perhaps the country’s most interesting race. The state has been reliably red of late — it went for Trump by 8 points in 2020 — and yet Trump-backed author J.D. Vance is in a virtual dead heat with longtime Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan.

“There’s no reason that Ohio should be a competitive Senate race,” said Smith. And yet Vance has made it one by calling for a “de-Baathification program” for woke people, saying “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine” and suggesting that Biden is intentionally letting fentanyl into the country in order to harm Trump voters.

Ryan has taken a novel approach to battling a Trump-backed candidate in a red state: If you can’t beat him, join him. On Fox News, Ryan has run ads showing Tucker Carlson praising him as a moderate who is tough on China. Other Ryan ads emphasize his opposition to defunding the police, a claim that he “agreed with Trump on trade” and his promise to put “Americans first.”

“Conservatives aren't wrong about everything,” Ryan told NBC News in an interview. “So, who's going to be the one who steps up and says, ‘OK, lay down your arms?’ Let's figure it out. Let's talk.”

Senate candidate JD Vance, left, greets former President Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds in Delaware, Ohio, on April 23, 2022, ahead of the state primary on May 3. (AP Photo/Joe Maiorana)

The bottom line: While conservatives were wrong to assume that Biden’s unpopularity and the electorate’s malaise would hand them easy victories in Senate races, there are a few caveats.

Smith noted that the election is, of course, months away, and Biden’s low approval ratings could still translate into low turnout among African-Americans and other groups that Democrats need to win,.

Niven echoed this. “Democrats aren't very popular," he said, "and President Biden isn't very popular.

"But,” he continued, “Republicans are even less popular. And Democrats have built on a situation that could have been a landslide [against them] and turned it into something that could actually go their way.”

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