Uphill fight for Dems to retake Senate

  • by Lisa Keen
  • Wednesday August 1, 2018
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Arizona Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema. Photo: Courtesy Sinema for Senate campaign
Arizona Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema. Photo: Courtesy Sinema for Senate campaign

To take control of the U.S. Senate in the November midterm elections, Democrats need to hold onto all their existing seats and pick up two more.

Picking up two more doesn't sound so big, but it's misleading in the larger picture.

Polls in mid-July show Democratic Representative Kyrsten Sinema is doing well in her campaign to win the Arizona Senate seat being vacated by Jeff Flake (R). And polls look decent, too, for a Democratic try at booting Republican Senator Dean Heller in the blue state of Nevada.

But Sinema, as popular and moderate as she is, can't take anything for granted in such a Republican-prone state. And hanging onto all 24 seats currently held by Democrats who are up for re-election this year is going to be tough. Add to this that LGBT political action committees seem less equipped than in the past to contribute financially, and the LGBT community clearly has a lot of work to do to make a meaningful contribution on the midterm outcomes.

At least four Democratic Senate seats are in real peril - and that doesn't count Wisconsin's Senator Tammy Baldwin, who is the target of a well-funded effort by the right-wing Koch Brothers and others to push her out. All polls right now show that race "leaning" in favor of her re-election. And an NBC-Marist poll in mid-July showed 52 percent of voters in Wisconsin disapprove of President Donald Trump's performance in office (only 36 percent approve). That's important, given that Wisconsin voted for Trump in 2016. But with three months to go of heavy spending by both sides, polls could shift again before November.

The four Democrats whose re-elections appear most vulnerable all have high scores on LGBT issues, according to the Human Rights Campaign Congressional Scorecard. So their defeats would be a double blow for the community: an ally would be lost to an opponent, and the pro-LGBT Democratic Party could not win a majority in the Senate - a critical requirement for stopping anti-LGBT legislation and judicial appointees.

All four Senate Democrats whose seats are in peril - plus Baldwin and Sinema - are in states that Trump won in 2016. Their prospects will almost certainly ride on the voting public's opinion as to Trump's performance in, and fitness for, office.

Here, according to the latest polls, are the closest races right now for control of the Senate in November.


Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson will win his party's nomination in the August 28 primary, and he already knows who he'll face: Republican Governor Rick Scott. Nelson earned a 94 on LGBT issues on HRC's most recent Congressional Scorecard. Equality Florida says Scott promised an executive order against discrimination against LGBT people following the Pulse nightclub attack in 2016, but hasn't followed through. The group says Scott has also been "conspicuously silent" about a rash of violence targeting transgender women in Orlando. All polls show the two candidates either tied or with Scott slightly ahead. Scott has raised $22.5 million to Nelson's $16.3 million.


Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly won his primary in May and is facing a strong challenge from Republican state representative and businessman Mike Braun, who founded a national auto parts distribution company, Meyer Distributing. Donnelly has an 80 score with HRC and expressed support two years ago for a state bill to prohibit discrimination against LGBT people. Braun is a pro-Trump conservative. The latest polls show the race is tied. And the candidates are virtually tied in how much money they've raised: Donnelly $8.8 million, Braun $8.4 million.


Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill is facing six challengers in her primary August 7. Her expected Republican opponent, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, is hitting her hard for being a liberal. McCaskill's score with HRC is 95. Hawley has been supportive of county clerks refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, saying "we need new legal protections for people of faith and we need them now." McCaskill has raised $20 million, Hawley $5 million.

North Dakota

Democrat incumbent Heidi Heitkamp won her primary and Representative Kevin Cramer won the Republican nomination. Heitkamp has an 85 score with HRC, Cramer has a zero. Heitkamp won office in 2012 by 1 percentage point; six out of eight polls say this race is a toss-up and two polls say it leans Republican. North Dakota voted for Trump in 2016. Heitkamp has raised $9 million, Cramer $3.2 million. Cramer says, "every life is precious," he's against allowing women to have abortions and says he intends to "reinforce our Christian foundational values." CNN reported in June that the anti-LGBT group Public Advocate posted survey responses from Cramer that indicate he opposes school curricula including mention of gay history and other anti-LGBT responses. The survey is no longer on Public Advocate's website.

Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin. Photo: Courtesy Baldwin for Senate campaign  

After the candidate, the most important campaign tool is funding. It pays for advertising, campaign staffing, events, and personal appearances to get the candidate and his or her message to the voters. It can even pay for buses and phone banks to get voters supporting the candidate to the precincts on Election Day.

At one time, there were more than a dozen LGBT-specific political action committees - from the national, like HRC and the National Lesbian PAC, to the local, like Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco and the Dallas Lesbian and Gay Alliance PAC in Texas. Today, only three national LGBT PACs have filed reports of campaign activity this election cycle:

LPAC is a six-year-old organization dedicated to electing candidates "who champion LGBTQ rights, women's equality, and social justice." The Federal Elections Commission identifies LPAC as a "hybrid" PAC. That means it both makes direct contributions to candidates and, through a wholly separate bank account, pays for non-campaign-related activity. During the current election cycle, its report to FEC indicates LPAC has raised $1.2 million and contributed $19,500 to candidates.

Human Rights Campaign PAC has been around in one iteration or another since the 1980s and is designated as a Lobbyist/Registrant PAC. That means it is affiliated with an organization (Human Rights Campaign) that is registered to lobby Congress. FEC reports indicate the HRC PAC has raised $1.2 million this election cycle, has given $381,014 to other PACs, and has made $150,922 in independent expenditures on campaigns.

When asked several times for details about which candidates it has supported this cycle and which senate races specifically, HRC provided this response:

"HRC has contributed to, and is working to, turn out the vote for a multitude of pro-equality candidates across the country, including Senators Bill Nelson, Claire McCaskill, and Heidi Heitkamp," said HRC Communications Director Chris Sgro. "As we rapidly approach 100 days out from the election, HRC is kicking our unprecedented grassroots campaign - HRC Rising - into high gear. We are working harder than ever to ensure voters send a pro-equality majority to both houses of Congress and pull the emergency brake on Donald Trump and Mike Pence."

HRC's latest reports to the FEC also indicate its Equality Votes program has also raised $1.5 million for election activities.

According to http://www.OpenSecrets.org, an organization that collects and summarizes reports submitted by political action committees and candidates to the FEC, HRC, and its affiliates have contributed $235,158 to candidates, up through June 30, 2018. Of the $235,158, OpenSecrets states that $32,147 has gone to a dozen Senate candidates, all Democrats. Among them are Baldwin ($3,457), McCaskill ($4,800), Heitkamp ($1,000), and Nelson ($1,000).

LGBTQ Victory Fund Federal PAC is an affiliate of what used to be called the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, now the LGBTQ Victory Fund. It is also a long-standing political action committee. Its strategy is to both contribute to and "bundle" individual contributions and direct them to openly LGBTQ candidates who the organization has determined have a good chance of winning.

FEC reports show it has raised $264,563 thus far this cycle, contributed $34,420 to other committees, and made $118,000 in other disbursements. Spokesman Elliot Imse said the Victory Fund has contributed the maximum allowable under FEC regulations, $5,000, to Baldwin, and $1,500 to Sinema. It has also bundled $107,798 for Baldwin's re-election campaign since January 2016 and has raised $38,680 for Sinema since July 2017.