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Cash surge puts more Senate races in play

An early rush of big money into key states has both Democrats and Republicans eyeing as many as a dozen potentially competitive U.S. Senate seats up for election next year as voter interest in a riveting presidential contest upends what had appeared to be a narrow map.

Both parties have spent a year fighting for position in states like Arizona, Colorado and Maine, where vulnerable Republicans are seeking reelection, and in Alabama, where Sen. Doug Jones (D) is running for a full term in a deep-red state.

But now, the two sides are looking further afield, to states where they can put pressure on other incumbents. It is a reflection of the narrowly divided upper chamber, a body that could decide whether the next president is able to advance their agenda.

Campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission last week show several newcomer candidates building impressive campaign accounts. The fundraising numbers have strategists on both sides contemplating a battlefield that looks wider now than initially expected.

Republicans are thrilled with John James, a businessman and Iraq War veteran challenging Sen. Gary Peters (D) in Michigan. James, who lost a bid against Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) in 2018 by 6.5 percentage points, raised nearly $3.1 million in the third quarter, more than the almost $2.5 million Peters pulled in.

Peters still has a significant cash edge over James in a state likely to be at the heart of the presidential contest. Two recent polls have shown Peters running ahead, though one conducted by a Republican-linked public relations firm showed the incumbent scoring only 43 percent of the vote.

In Iowa, Democrats have been impressed by Theresa Greenfield, a real estate executive who ran briefly for a House seat in 2018 before a signature snafu kept her off the ballot. Greenfield raised $1.1 million in the third quarter, more than Sen. Joni Ernst (R) pulled in, though Greenfield faces three other Democrats in a primary next year, one of whom has given his campaign $1 million.

Ernst ended the quarter with nearly $4 million on the bank. 

Former North Carolina state Sen. Cal Cunningham (D) topped $1 million in the third quarter. Sen. Thom Tillis (R) raised almost $1.2 million, though his campaign has started to spend on advertisements ahead of what could be a competitive primary against self-funded businessman Garland Tucker (R).

The leading Democratic candidates in Arizona and Colorado both pulled in huge sums. In Maine, state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D) raised more than $3 million, a million more than Sen. Susan Collins (R) as she races to match Collins’s fundraising head start. And Democratic candidates running for Republican-held seats in Georgia, Texas and even deep-red South Carolina all pulled in seven-figure hauls. 

“These are better Democratic opportunities in this cycle than they were in the past. And we have to be prepared to take advantage of that,” said J.B. Poersch, who heads the Senate Majority PAC, the largest outside group that backs Democratic candidates. 

Democrats are even hopeful that a divided Republican field in Kansas may present a long-shot chance to pick up a seat in a state that has not sent one of their own to the Senate since 1932. Republicans still privately pine for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has $992,000 left in his campaign account from his time serving in Congress.

And Republicans have warmed up to Corey Lewandowski, President Trump’s firebrand former campaign manager, who has toyed with the idea of running against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.). Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general, raised only $240,000 last quarter, and while both state and national Republicans don’t believe Lewandowski would beat Shaheen, they are intrigued by his likely ability to raise money.

All told, candidates running for Senate seats have stockpiled more than $180 million in their campaign accounts by the end of September. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has more in the bank, $10.8 million, than any other senator; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and retired astronaut Mark Kelly (D), running in Arizona, both have campaign accounts north of $9 million.

No candidate raised more money in the last quarter than Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel challenging McConnell in Kentucky. In her first quarter as a candidate, McGrath pulled in a whopping $10.7 million, retaining $6.7 million in the bank, almost twice as much as the $5.5 million Kelly raised in Arizona.

The two parties are engaged in behind-the-scenes efforts to prop up some of the candidates they hope will be competitive in the longer run. In North Carolina, Cunningham crossed the million-dollar threshold thanks to $118,000 in contributions that came in over the final day of the quarter, donations from leadership PACs run by other Democratic senators. 

“This guy would have looked dead in the water if they hadn’t administered an emergency cash infusion,” said Steven Law, who heads the Senate Leadership Fund, the most influential Republican super PAC.

In Iowa, Greenfield received a similar late infusion from Democratic senators and allied political action committees. Law said Republicans are now keeping an eye on a state Trump won by more than 9 percentage points in 2016.

“There’s a wide gap between how most Republicans view this race versus how Democrats seem to view it,” he said.

But Democrats and Republicans privately acknowledge that Trump — and the impeachment proceedings underway in the House — remain a significant and frightening unknown. Few are confident that they can game out scenarios before all the evidence is released, before formal votes are held or before a potential Senate trial.

Law, who ran the National Republican Senatorial Committee as the Senate held former President Clinton’s impeachment, said it remains unclear how or whether impeachment will factor into voters’ minds over the next 13 months.

“A lot of people are assuming that impeachment will be politically harmful to congressional Democrats in the same way it was for Republicans after the Clinton impeachment,” Law said. “I’m not yet convinced that will be the case.”

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