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Two Weeks Out: Democrats Have The Edge In The Fight For The Senate

Many Republicans now think that Missouri Democratic Senate candidate, Secretary of State Jason Kander, will prevail over Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.
Reed Hoffmann
Many Republicans now think that Missouri Democratic Senate candidate, Secretary of State Jason Kander, will prevail over Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

Two weeks from Election Day, it looks more likely than ever that Democrats will win control of the Senate.

States that many thought would be the crux of their battle ground map, like Ohio and Florida, have moved down or completely off the list. But Democrats have successfully expanded the map enough so that they have multiple paths to the five seats they need for an outright majority — or four if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, which also looks increasingly likely. Republicans, however, need a near-perfect night to keep their majority, and that looks harder and harder each day.

Both Illinois and Wisconsin are probably already in the Democrats' column. Early voting numbers also portend well for Democratic chances in North Carolina and Nevada, the only GOP offensive opportunity this year. Indiana and Missouri weren't expected to be top-tier races at all just a year ago, yet they're AMONG the most competitive in the country.

The sliver of good news for Republicans is that many of the races remain toss-ups with two weeks to go. Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are still coin-flips, and both GOP incumbents are outperforming Donald Trump.

And the candidates and outside groups are already trying to use the "check and balance" argument — that they would be an essential check on a Clinton administration. Still, the trajectory for the Republican Presidential nominee isn't good, and that could further weigh down the Senate candidates as well — particularly if typically reliable GOP voters just decide to stay home.

Democrats also have a massive organization advantage. Clinton's campaign has already dwarfed Trump's in staffers and offices across the country. And now that she's opened up a consistent lead, Clinton, President Obama and Michelle Obama and other top Democratic surrogates have trained their sights on down-ballot races. Republicans don't have that advantage of help from the top of the ticket — but then again, they surely wouldn't want their candidates on stage with Trump either.

We last ranked these contests last month, but here's where we see these races 14 days out. We'll revisit this list again next Tuesday, with one week to go until Election Day:

1. Illinois (R-Mark Kirk) Previous rank: 1

Kirk has won tough races before thanks to ticket-splitting, and he's tried to separate himself from Trump for a long time. But there's no indication that the winds will go his way this time in deep blue Illinois. Illinois Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth looks nearly like a sure thing to win.

2. Wisconsin (R-Ron Johnson) Previous rank: 2

Polling has shown this rematch between the GOP incumbent and former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold has tightened, and Johnson has been running a good campaign with strong positive ads. But national Republicans ultimately don't think it will break their way. Feingold would be the first senator since 1934 to win a re-match with the candidate that defeated him six years earlier

3. Indiana (Open, R-Dan Coats is retiring) Previous rank: 3

Democrats are clinging to this ONE for dear life, and in reality these next three rankings could probably go in any order. When former Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh surprised everyone by announcing in July he was jumping into the Senate races, Republicans gained a new headache they didn't need. With his decades-long family ties to the state and over $9 million in his dormant campaign account, it looked like he would stride easily back into the Senate.

But what's followed is a less-than-stellar campaign, with the former senator and governor continually dogged about his lobbyist ties and the scant time he's spent in Indiana since retiring six years ago. New stories have poked at meetings he held as a senator when looking for a post-Congress job. GOP Rep. Todd Young and heavy spending from Republicans have made this a neck-and-neck contest, and forcing Democrats to spend to bail out Bayh is a minor victory in itself. Bayh still has the narrowest of edges in polls, but the race isn't trending in his way as the clock nears zero.

4. Pennsylvania (R-Pat Toomey) Previous rank: 4

Toomey is the lone GOP candidate in a competitive Senate race who is still waffling on Trump, and that indecision could be his undoing. He was even mocked for it on ABC's Jimmy Kimmel Live, and the headlines out of his debate Monday night with Democratic nominee Katie McGinty were that he still WOULDN'T take a position. By not doing so, he risks not only turning off the white, working class base of Trump voters in the Keystone State but also alienating independent voters. McGinty has run far from a perfect campaign and has plenty of flaws as a candidate, but Toomey can only outperform Trump BY so much in this state, especially in the crucial Philadelphia suburbs. Overall, it's not looking good for him.

5. New Hampshire (R-Kelly Ayotte) Previous rank: 6

A moment the incumbent GOP senator surely wishes she had back was when she said in a debate with Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan that Trump was "absolutely" a good role model. She apologized and walked the comment back later, and after the tapes of Trump's hot-mike moment came out said she was no longer supporting him and would instead write-in his running mate, Mike Pence. Some polls have shown Ayotte with a widening lead, but both parties admit this one is down to the wire. But with Democrats' ground game advantage and the money they'll pour into the Granite State in the final weeks to dwarf GOP spending, Republicans are right to be very worried.

6. Missouri (R-Roy Blunt) Previous rank: 9

Perhaps no race has given Republicans more unnecessary heartburn than this one in the Show Me State, and some GOP strategists even think it's already lost. They've admitted from the outset that Secretary of State Jason Kander is one of the Democrats' best recruits, but Blunt didn't take this race seriously from the outset. Democrats have effectively been able to paint him as a Washington insider — this year's scarlet letter. The state has even tightened on the presidential level, but private polling has Blunt running behind Trump in the state — the opposite of pretty much every other competitive state.

7. North Carolina (R-Richard Burr) Previous rank: 7

Like Blunt, Burr didn't begin his race in earnest until too late. Republicans have had to spend millions in an effort to rescue him, and even that might not work. This is one of the top presidential battlegrounds and also has one of the top governor's races in the country. Burr may be slightly outperforming his teammates, and Republicans say some of their hits on Democratic nominee Deborah Ross on her time as executive director for the state's ACLU are finally causing damage. BUT unlike some of his other vulnerable colleagues, Burr hasn't backed away from Trump in the least. Early vote in the Tar Heel State shows Democrats with a big early advantage, which doesn't encourage Republicans here.

8. Nevada (Open, D-Harry Reid is retiring) Previous rank: 5

This lone offensive opportunity looked a lot better for Republicans even weeks ago, but now the state's blue leanings seem to be pulling this race the Democrats' way. GOP Rep. Joe Heck drew the ire of some Republicans at a rally when he denounced Trump for his 2005 hot-mike comments, and he does not need a divided base. Democratic turnout is way up in Nevada, and an increased Hispanic vote — coupled with the outgoing Senate minority leader's vaunted turnout operation — will certainly boost Democratic nominee Catherine Cortez Masto and just could make her the first Latina ever elected to the Senate.

9. Florida (R-Marco Rubio) Previous rank: 8

The polls show this one as being closer than it probably is in reality. It would have required a massive investment from Democrats to help their nominee, Rep. Patrick Murphy, after Rubio reversed his decision and decided to run for re-election. Ultimately, Democrats had better, cheaper opportunities elsewhere. The partisan nature of the Sunshine State is that it's always going to be a close outcome, and if Trump bottoms out here it could still hurt Rubio. But Republicans are breathing much easier about this one.

10. Arizona (R-John McCain) Previously not ranked

This contest gets back on the board simply because the state is now, surprisingly enough, a White House battleground that even some Republicans believe Clinton will win. McCain still has a sizable advantage over Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, although this race is now worth watching on Election Night again.

Dropped from the list: Ohio Senate (R-Rob Portman)

Republicans will hold up Portman's campaign as a model for how to run as an incumbent in tough political terrain — spend early, focus on local issues and highlight your accomplishments. Meanwhile, former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland's campaign may be a cautionary tale for Democrats — don't assume that onetime popularity will carry forward and don't let your opponent define you. Portman may not get a double digit win thanks to the overall election tightening in the Buckeye State, but neither party sees this as truly competitive any longer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.