By Tom Howell Jr. – The Washington Times
The battle for control of the Senate remains a jump ball just days before elections, with Democrats leading or within striking distances in seven races — more than enough to take the chamber from Republicans.
Republicans have built leads in races for seats their party holds in Ohio and Arizona and see a potential pickup in Nevada.
But Democrats have been able to expand the map by putting into play North Carolina and Missouri, which seemed safely Republican just a few months ago. Add those to Republican seats that have been targets in New Hampshire, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania Indiana and Wisconsin, and Democrats are increasingly hopeful.
“Democrats have an edge in several seats and are poised to take majority control. They just have to be careful not to be caught up in the backdraft of the Clinton email issue,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “If Hillary Clinton’s margins drop too far, that would endanger Democratic control.”
Unforced errors by Republicans have made contests even tougher — particularly in North Carolina, where Sen. Richard Burr was caught privately joking about gun owners taking aim at Mrs. Clinton.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday showed Mr. Burr trailing Democratic candidate Deborah Ross by 4 percentage points — though other polls tilted toward the incumbent.
Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, might have sealed his fate with an awkward debate quip about Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s ethnic heritage. The senator later apologized, though he still trails the Democrat by double digits.
Republicans are now pouring money into Wisconsin to try to rescue Sen. Ron Johnson, a first-term senator who for most of the campaign seemed a lost cause in his rematch with former Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat he defeated in the 2010 tea party wave.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican Party super PAC, reportedly has ponied up $12 million in a last-minute ad buy as polls show the race tightening. A Marquette Law School poll puts the race a statistical tie.
Democrats said Republicans are searching for a firewall.
“The desperation of this latest ad buy tells you everything you need to know about Republican Senate races: They are struggling, and their only chance is a last-ditch bailout to try to save candidates who have been vulnerable all cycle,” said Sadie Weiner, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Senate races are not immune to the politics of the presidential race. Republican senators have struggled to calibrate their approach to their nominee, Donald Trump, holding him at arm’s length but hoping not to alienate his enthusiastic voters.
That has hurt Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, who has refused to announce whether he will even vote for Mr. Trump. He says he is undecided.
“I don’t think they’ve opened the polls yet, so I’ve got a little bit of time,” he told Fox 29 on Thursday. His Democratic challenger, Katie McGinty, holds a slight lead in polling.
For Democrats, last week’s announcement by FBI Director James B. Comey that agents were poring over more emails related to the probe of Hillary Clinton’s private server while she was serving as secretary of state could infect their base voters.
Also last week, the Health and Human Services Department confirmed that Obamacare premiums are soaring, delivering ammunition to Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whose state is bracing for a massive surge in premiums for those buying plans under the president’s health care program.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, the Democrat challenging Mr. McCain for his seat, argued that she is closing the gap in the race and pleaded Thursday for financial reinforcements.
Democrats need to flip at least five Senate seats to guarantee control of the Senate next year, erasing the Republicans’ 54-46 majority. They would need only four seats if Mrs. Clinton wins the White House because her vice president, Tim Kaine, would break any tie votes.
Democrats could lose ground in Nevada, however, where Rep. Joseph J. Heck is leading former Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto by low single digits in the race to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, has been battling her Democratic challenger, Gov. Maggie Hassan, for the entire campaign. Both have held leads in different polls this week.
In Missouri, Republican Sen. Roy Blunt has led nearly every poll — though by a thin margin.
In Indiana, former Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democrat who retired in 2010, is seeking a comeback, though his lead over Republican Rep. Todd C. Young has dissipated.
One likely bright spot for Republicans is Florida, where, despite his own botched presidential campaign and heavy attention from national Democrats, Sen. Marco Rubio retains a lead over his Democratic challenger, Rep. Patrick Murphy.
President Obama was in the state Thursday to campaign for Mrs. Clinton but also rallied for Mr. Murphy.
“Unlike his opponent, Marco Rubio, Patrick actually shows up to work,” said Mr. Obama, offering a dig at the incumbent’s missed votes during his presidential campaign.