Surging Democrats expand Senate targets to GOP states

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2019 Atlanta Journal Constitution

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 4, 2020, file photo, Jon Ossoff speaks to the the media and supporters after he qualified to run in the Senate race against Republican Sen. David Perdue in Atlanta. Two McConnell-allied groups are preparing to spend $22 million to help GOP Sen. David Perdue against Democrat Ossoff in Georgia, where Republican advantages among suburban voters have eroded. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, File)

WASHINGTON – It's come to this for Republicans straining to defend their Senate majority in November's elections: They're air-dropping millions of dollars into races in Alabama, Kentucky and other red states where Donald Trump coasted during his 2016 presidential election triumph.

This year, challenged by Trump's fumbled handling of the coronavirus pandemic, the crippled economy and his racially inflammatory stances, Republicans face potentially competitive races they'd normally have locked down. Compounding their problems is strong fundraising by Democratic candidates that's kept them in contention in unlikely locations.

“The president’s weakening poll numbers over the last several months have made down-ballot races more competitive,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. While saying he believes Republicans will win many of the contested seats, Ayres added, “It’s fair to say the map is expanded.”

GOP fretting is being aggravated by some polls showing Trump trailing nationally and in some battleground states against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

And while it's early and well-known senators can differentiate themselves from an unpopular president atop their ticket, Democrats are defending just 12 Senate seats this November to Republicans' 23. The GOP controls the Senate 53-47.

“Donald Trump’s failed handling of the coronavirus crisis has changed everything,” said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. He said GOP senators are linked too closely to Trump, leaving him “pleased and surprised by the willingness of so many Republicans to go down with the ship."

Democrats have at least a puncher’s chance of grabbing Republican-held seats in four states Trump won by double digits: Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky and South Carolina. They have an even shot at ousting GOP Sen. Steve Daines in Montana, which Trump carried by 20 percentage points, and long-shot hopes of retaining their most endangered senator, Doug Jones of Alabama, where Trump won by 28 points.

Republican incumbents face legitimate challenges for two Senate seats in Georgia and difficult fights in Arizona and North Carolina, all where Trump won narrowly. In two states Trump won by 9 points, Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst faces a tough Democratic opponent in businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, while Republican Sen. John Cornyn is on alert against a Texas upset.