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Fueled by cash, healthcare and Trump woes, Democrats aim for Senate control

BOZEMAN, Mont. – Voters caught in this state’s extremely tight Senate race could be forgiven for believing that Governor Steve Bullock, the Democratic nominee, was sharing the ballot with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader.

A never-ending stream of Republican-funded ads portray Mr Bullock, a popular two-term governor, alongside Mr Schumer and other leading Democrats such as President Nancy Pelosi. Senator Steve Daines, the outgoing Republican struggling for political survival in the conservative-leaning state, regularly tries to link his opponent to the National Party, claiming Mr Bullock is Mr Schumer’s “pocket dog”.

“Steve Bullock in the Senate puts Chuck Schumer in charge,” said the latest announcement from the Republican National Senate Committee. “Think about it.”

Mr Bullock doesn’t think much about it.

“I say everything is BS,” he said in an interview as snow fell over Montana and ended election appearances already curtailed by the coronavirus, which has hovered during election season and has risen again in the west of the mountain. “The Montanans see through some things where they try to turn me into something they don’t recognize.”

But even though the governor didn’t like the implication of the announcement, in one respect it was absolutely true: if Mr Bullock is elected to the Senate, Mr Schumer will almost certainly be the majority leader.

Here in Montana and in crucial battlefield states across the country, Republicans are playing defense in a fight for control of the Senate. Dragged along by President Trump’s struggles even in conservative states and faced with a phalanx of Democratic opponents who have amassed extraordinary sums to challenge them, Republicans privately admit that their majority is hanging by a thread.

The Montana race, described by strategists on both sides as a coin toss, is one of the few competitions that will determine Senate control and the next president’s ability to continue his agenda, fill a cabinet and suddenly win. judicial confirmations. at the forefront of the nation’s political dialogue. Democrats have other narrow paths to Senate power, but a Bullock victory would essentially guarantee it and mark Democratic gains elsewhere.

As the race entered its final days, Republicans led by majority leader Mitch McConnell were forced to back candidates in traditionally safe places such as Alaska, Kansas and South Carolina. Democrats believe they’re already on track to win Arizona and Colorado, and are looking for a half-dozen more starting with Iowa, Maine and North Carolina. Georgia is suddenly emerging as a real opportunity for Democrats, with both Republican state senators in jeopardy.

Democrats have admitted they stand to lose in Alabama, where Senator Doug Jones is running for re-election after a thwarted victory in a special election in 2017, and are keeping a close eye on Michigan, where Senator Gary Peters faces to John James, a Republican who was receiving a last minute increase in outside money. But they were eyeing important microphones elsewhere.

With Republicans holding a Senate majority by a 53-47 margin, a net gain of three seats would put Democrats in control if former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the presidency; four would be needed if Mr. Trump is re-elected.

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Mr Schumer called the battle for the Senate a ‘nail-biting’ but said the outlook for Democrats was much better than it was just a few months ago.

“If you had told me at the beginning of January that we would have a good chance of winning the Senate, I would have said it is really long,” he said in an interview. “We are now in the approximate stage due to the strategic decision to expand the seats at stake.”

Republicans quietly agree that their outlook has worsened considerably. A Republican Senate leader has said privately that the party could end up with between 47 and 52 seats.

“It’s a 50-50 proposition,” said Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, who appears to be heading safely for re-election himself, of his chances of remaining majority leader. “We have a lot of visibility. It’s a dog fight over there.

Republicans are fighting the brawl from a weakened position, given Mr. Trump’s woes and the record levels of money Democrats have raised for Senate races. Democratic challengers have reversed the usual formula and outperformed Republican incumbents in contributions, providing sufficient resources for television advertising even as the traditional campaign model has been turned upside down by the pandemic.

Here in Montana, at least $ 120 million will be spent, while in Maine, more than $ 100 million is poured into the showdown between Senator Susan Collins, a Republican seeking a fifth term, and Sara Gideon, the Democratic president of the state. House. The race in North Carolina, where Republican Sen. Thom Tillis tries to hold off against Democrat Cal Cunningham, is set to become the costliest Senate competition ever, with over $ 200 million spent .

While Democratic candidates consistently spend more than Republicans on most marquee races in recent weeks, the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Mr. McConnell, has invested more than $ 82 million in the effort. since early October, helping to fill a financial gap. Republicans attribute the online fundraising success of small Democratic donors.

“We’re dramatically overwhelmed, like so many other races across the country,” said Senator John Cornyn, a three-term Texas Republican who finds himself in an unexpected match against MJ Hegar, a veteran Democratic military. “We’ve been a little late at the dance and I think we’re going to have to learn from the way Democrats fundraise. It’s not like going to dinner and a cocktail party anymore.

The fact that Mr Cornyn is sweating is testament to how Democrats have opened up multiple potential avenues to a Senate majority while Republicans have failed to put their usual strongholds out of reach. Democrats were unable to sack Ms Collins, who they viewed as exceptionally vulnerable after she voted in 2018 to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. But Republicans are now worried about the voting system in Maine – in which the voters’ second-choice candidate is counted if no candidate wins 50% – could cost him on Tuesday.

Democrats have relentlessly focused on health care in their campaigns, burning Republicans for years of efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act and its protections for pre-existing conditions. The power of the message has been amplified by the pandemic and public concern over healthcare costs. Republicans backed down by promising to guarantee coverage, but did not produce details on how they would do it.

The challenge for Democrats is that to win the Senate, they have to win in the states that Mr. Trump won in 2016 and are likely to win again this year, such as Iowa and Montana, well that Biden’s victories in places like Arizona and North Carolina would do their job. Easier. Republicans had hoped that recent revelations that Mr Cunningham had an extramarital affair would help save Mr Tillis in North Carolina, but polls suggest that did not happen and Mr Tillis remains in trouble.

As Mr Biden shows surprising momentum in Georgia, where two Republican Senate seats are up for grabs, Republicans are increasingly concerned about the prospects of Sen. David Perdue, who has drawn widespread criticism for appearing to mock him. name of Senator Kamala Harris, his colleague. and the Democratic candidate for vice-presidency. Polls show Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff is approaching the 50% threshold needed to avoid a runoff on January 5, though Mr Perdue’s seat race may drag on into the next year with the fight for one occupied by Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican. who was appointed to the Senate last year. These breaks make it possible to conceive that the control of the Senate will not be decided until January.

With Mr. Trump in real danger of losing, Senate Republicans are sounding the alarm bells in more conservative states that a Republican Senate is needed to maintain control over Democrats if Mr. Biden wins the presidency and Democrats hold power. Room as expected. Republicans indicate Democrats’ support for calls to clear filibuster and add Supreme Court seats as proof of what Democrats are planning.

“What if they have all the power?” A new Republican National Senate Committee ad aired against Democratic Iowa Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield calls for disturbing background music. “They will change the rules of the Senate to advance their Liberal agenda.”

In Montana, a state inundated with election ads and negative political attacks, Republicans sought to portray Mr Bullock, whose job performance ratings remained strong as he managed the state’s response to pandemic, like a politician who turned to the left during a failed presidential primary.

“Steve Bullock is too liberal for Montana,” Mr. Daines said in a brief interview.

But Mr Bullock proved in 2016 that he could win the support of the Tories, narrowly winning re-election even as Mr Trump easily carried the state. As a result, Republicans are trying to persuade voters that sending him to Washington would be more dangerous than putting him in charge of their state.

“They might like him as governor, but ultimately he is playing for the wrong team and would give the go-ahead for the Democrats’ extreme agenda in the Senate,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesperson for the campaign organization. Republicans in the Senate.

Mr. Bullock doesn’t care about characterizations. His campaign advisers believe that a final campaign focused on digital advertising targeted at the few remaining undecided voters and an intense outreach operation may bring victory in a contest which both sides believe will be settled by a few thousand votes in the country. more.

“The same person Montanans twice elected governor and who is now running for the Senate will be the same person when I run for Washington,” he said. “I’m not going to drink the water.”

Nicholas Fandos contributed reporting from Washington.