GOP tries to save its Senate majority, with or without Trump

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FILE - In this June 9, 2020, file photo Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., left, speaks to reporters following the weekly Republican policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., center, and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., right, listen. Republican senators are fighting to save their majority against an onslaught of challengers in states once off limits to Democrats that are now hotbeds of the backlash to President Donald Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans are fighting to save their majority, a final election push against the onslaught of challengers in states once off limits to Democrats but now hotbeds of a potential backlash to President Donald Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill.

Fueling the campaigns are the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, shifting regional demographics and, in some areas, simply the chance to turn the page on the divisive political climate.

Control of the Senate can make or break a presidency. With it, a reelected Trump could confirm his nominees and ensure a backstop against legislation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. Without it, Joe Biden would face a potential wall of opposition to his agenda if the Democratic nominee won the White House.

In North Carolina, for example, the match-up between GOP Sen. Thom Tillis and Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham, among the most expensive in the nation, is close.

“At some point, you put it in the hands of voters,” said Dallas Woodhouse, a former executive director of the state's Republican Party.

Republican incumbents are straining for survival from New England to the Deep South, in the heartland and the West and even Alaska. Overpowered in fundraising and stuck in Washington until just last week to confirm Trump's Supreme Court nominee, they are fanning out some alongside Trump for last-ditch, home-state tours to shore up votes.

With the chamber now split, 53-47, three or four seats will determine Senate control, depending on which party wins the White House. The vice president breaks a tie in Senate votes.

What started as a lopsided election cycle with Republicans defending 23 seats, compared with 12 for Democrats, quickly became a more stark referendum on the president as Democrats reached deeper into Trump country and put the GOP on defense.