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Polls: Senate races in Alaska and South Carolina are surprisingly competitive for Democrats

Republicans are still favored in Alaska and South Carolina. But overall, Democratic hopes of a Senate majority are looking up.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham (R-SC) listens during a Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, October 15, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Anna Moneymaker/Pool/Getty Images

A pair of new Senate polls from the New York Times and Siena College this week show Democrats pressing for an advantage in two traditionally conservative states — Alaska and South Carolina — as November 3 closes in.

In Alaska, the Times/Siena poll found independent Senate candidate Al Gross — who is running as the Democratic nominee — trailing incumbent Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan by about 8 percentage points, with third-party candidate John Howe’s support at 10 percent.

And in South Carolina, the Siena pollsters found that Senate Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham continues to face a far closer race than expected, with Democrat Jaime Harrison just 6 percentage points behind his rival and riding a wave of momentum. In 2014, by comparison, Graham won reelection by more than 15 percentage points.

Though Republican incumbents are still the favorites to win in Alaska and South Carolina, challengers Gross and Harrison have seen major influxes of campaign cash in recent weeks — Harrison set an all-time record by raising $57 million in a single quarter. Data for Progress’s Sean McElwee recently told Vox’s Matthew Yglesias that it isn’t too late for campaigns to use large cash injections — meaning these large fundraising hauls could affect the final outcome of each race. And other recent polls show much tighter races in both states.

One Alaska poll released this week, from Harstad Strategic Research, found Gross leading Sullivan by 1 percentage point, though that’s well within the 4 percentage point margin of error. A survey taken slightly before Harstad’s, Alaska Survey Research’s September 25 to October 4 poll, found Sullivan ahead by 4 percentage points.

This close polling is reflected in experts’ predictions of the outcome in the state: On Tuesday, Cook Political Report shifted its Alaska Senate race outlook from Likely R to Lean R.

And J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, told Vox’s Ella Nilsen in August, “I wouldn’t sleep on the Senate race.”

Cook also now rates South Carolina as an outright toss up, and Data for Progress found Harrison with a 2 percentage point edge over Graham in early October — again within the poll’s 3.5 percent margin of error. A Quinnipiac University poll taken in late September found Harrison and Graham tied, while a CBS News poll taken in the same period found Graham to have a 1 percentage point lead.

That either Democratic candidate is even remotely close to their Republican rival with just 17 days until the election is striking. The results of both elections won’t necessarily shake out the way polling suggests, but the fact Alaska and South Carolina are in play for Democrats underscores just how broad the Democratic path to a potential Senate majority has grown.

Democratic chances of a Senate majority are looking up

To gain the majority outright, Democrats need to pick up four seats in a chamber currently controlled by the GOP, 53 seats to 47 (including independent Sens. Bernie Sanders and Angus King, who caucus with the Democrats).

The work of pollsters and forecasters suggest a Democratic majority in 2021 is looking like an increasingly realistic outcome: According to FiveThirtyEight’s Senate forecast, Democrats are favored outright in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina against Republican incumbents; Montana and Kansas — in addition to Alaska and South Carolina — could be in play as well.

In total, Cook Political Report’s Jessica Taylor says that Democrats could pick up as many as seven seats if everything breaks their way on November 3.

In some states, this optimism is being reflected in spending.

In Colorado, for example, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is scaling back its investment in incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner. The group has spent less than $150,000 in the state through the first half of October, according to the Denver Post, compared to millions spent in Iowa, Montana, and elsewhere.

And one Democratic PAC is also pulling its investment in Colorado — for the opposite reason. That group, Senate Majority PAC, is reportedly so confident in Democratic Senate nominee John Hickenlooper, who is leading by a comfortable margin stretching into the double digits, it is moving funding it allocated for the state to other races.

There are some areas of concern for Democrats, however. In Alabama, where Democratic Sen. Doug Jones won an improbable victory against Republican Roy Moore in 2018, Republicans are favored to unseat the Democratic incumbent. And the race in Michigan, where Democratic Sen. Gary Peters is up for reelection, is also shaping up to be competitive.

Joe Biden’s agenda might rest on a Democratic Senate majority

Though unseating President Donald Trump is Democrats’ top priority, control of the Senate could prove nearly as important heading into 2020.

Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell — who is expected to win reelection in November — prizes his title as “Grim Reaper” of the US Senate. And if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden takes office in January with McConnell still majority leader, marquee Democratic priorities — like health care, climate change, and voting rights — are likely dead on arrival.

The good news for Democrats is that Gross and Harrison aren’t the only Democratic candidates swimming in money. From July 1 through the end of September, the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue processed $1.5 billion in donations, ensuring the party’s slate of candidates will be very well funded heading into the last three weeks of the race.

These current polling and fundraising successes have some Republicans sounding the alarm: Republican pollster David Flaherty told the Denver Post this week that “the train wreck and implosion of the president will bring a historic number of other Republican candidates down, and if you don’t believe that then you have your head in the sand.” And Texas Sen. Ted Cruz raised the specter of “a bloodbath of Watergate proportions” for his party on CNBC last Friday.

As always, polls can be ephemeral — they’re a snapshot in time, not a forecast of how the race will shake out on Election Day. Things can change, and suddenly. But there’s not much time left in the race, and the current state of affairs has many Democrats feeling confident about their chances at the Senate majority.