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As Trump’s poll numbers fall, these Senate races have become more competitive

With President Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in nearly every major national poll, Democrats see November’s election as a major opportunity. But the contentious political contests extend beyond the White House to the Senate. Jessica Taylor, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, joins Lisa Desjardins to discuss the current political trends and which key Senate races to watch.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With President Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in nearly every major national poll, Democrats see more opportunities for gains not just in the White House, but also in the us Senate.

    Lisa Desjardins zeros in on the races to watch.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republicans began the new year as the favorites, likely to hold on to the Senate in November.

    Just take a look at The Cook Political Report's Senate predictions from January, showing an uphill battle for Democrats. All of those red and light red states are likely or leaning Republican at that point. Yellow means tossup. Again, focus on the red and the yellow.

    Now look at latest Cook Political predictions just this week, far fewer red, more yellow. The map is moving toward Democrats, with the exception of Alabama.

    Here to explain all of this is Jessica Taylor. She is the Senate editor at The Cook Political Report.

    Jessica, so excited to talk about this wild year in the Senate.

    Tell us what's happening.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    So, what we have really seen is, the past few months, of course, everything has changed because of the pandemic, and we have seen really the political ground shift under Republicans and move toward Democrats because of that as well.

    So, even — we were beginning to sort of see some political shifts happening in March. But, in the past four months, what we have seen is a map that is now drastically favoring Democrats. We now see Democrats as a slight favorite in order to flip the Senate.

    And that is because Democrats have expanded the map. You have Republican incumbents. And this is a map where Republicans are almost entirely on defense, except for that Alabama seat that you mentioned, largely, and possibly in Michigan.

    But we now see states in tossup like Georgia, Iowa, Montana. None of these, we expected to be that competitive at the outset of this year.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You mentioned this is because of the pandemic, but it has to do with the president's response to the pandemic. Is that right?

  • Jessica Taylor:

    It does.

    We saw — as President Trump's approval ratings have dropped, and as we see his standing in the presidential race, as it moves toward favoring Joe Biden, who we have as the favorite to win the presidential race right now in our Electoral College ratings, that is very much hurting Republicans down-ballot.

    And Republicans that I have talked to recently, they increasingly see the sort of the Senate as their last firewall.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    OK, let's focus on some of these fascinating races.

    Let's start in Maine. Senator Susan Collins used to be the most popular U.S. senator of any party, or at least one of them. Now she is in the race of her life against Sara Gideon. Tell us about this.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Susan Collins, I think, sort of embodies just how difficult it is to be a centrist in the Republican Party that, over the past four years, has drastically remade itself into Trump's image.

    She finds herself in real trouble. And it is because, again, there is no sort of centrism that you are able to carve out with Trump these days. You're either with him, or you're without him. And that's a hard lesson she had to learn when she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, she voted to acquit President Trump in the Senate trial.

    All of that has really energized progressives against her in the state. And I think it's chipped away at her — that sort of coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents that she had been able to build for reelection.

    And she faces a very tough challenge from Statehouse Speaker Sara Gideon, who has been drastically outraising her as well.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let's try and get a couple more races quickly.

    In Arizona, we have got another Republican woman with a big challenge. That's Martha McSally. What's going on there?

  • Jessica Taylor:

    McSally is interesting, because she is the incumbent, but she was not elected to this seat. This is the late Senator John McCain's seat. And so this is actually a special election that's being held.

    McSally was appointed to this seat actually after losing what was a very contentious race in 2018 against Kyrsten Sinema. And she is running against who even Republicans will admit is Democrats' best recruit across the board in Mark Kelly, the former astronaut, the husband of Gabrielle Giffords, who is, of course, very beloved in the state too.

    And so she has a very tough task. She has very high negative still from that race. She has to move also to the right very much in that race in order to win a primary challenge. And she's not sort of been able to tack back toward the center very effectively, if at all.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And another race, North Carolina. Thom Tillis is the Republican incumbent.

    He's running against an Army Reservist, former state senator, but he's relatively unknown, the Democrat. Why is this race even in play?

  • Jessica Taylor:

    It is the nature of the state. Again, Arizona, that is a Senate battleground. So is North Carolina, a very close margin there in 2016, and is going to be one of the closest races this time around now.

    Now, no Senate seat is attracting more money, more outside money than this seat, from both Democrats and Republicans. It's going to be a battleground at the presidential level. It has a competitive governor's race as well.

    And Tillis is as part of this group that — of freshman Republicans that won in 2014, which was a wave year for Republicans. They took back the Senate then. And now, six years later, they're facing a very, very different political climate.

    And Cal Cunningham, a former state senator, a veteran, he sort of has that centrist Democratic, Blue Doggish-type profile. And that's one that they think can appeal not just to suburban voters, but possibly to rural voters as well.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Jessica Taylor of The Cook Political Report, I think we will be talking to you some more. Thank you very much.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Thanks, Lisa. Great talking with you.

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