WASHINGTON - Steve Bullock was the lame-duck governor of solidly red Montana, fresh off a failed Democratic presidential bid, when he announced he'd challenge Republican Sen. Steve Daines for his seat.
Days after declaring his candidacy last month, Montana's first coronavirus cases appeared. That shifted the spotlight onto Bullock as he leads the state's pandemic response, leaving Daines in the unusual position of a sitting senator competing for attention.
"I look forward to when I can spend more time thinking about the campaign and doing that work," Bullock said last week. Right now, he said, he's making sure "lives are being saved."
The coronavirus, the resulting economic shutdown and President Donald Trump's stumbles addressing the crises have abruptly scrambled this fall's battle for Senate control. Democrats have rising hopes of gaining the minimum three seats they'll need to capture a majority, while Republicans who once banked on a robust economy and improving Trump approval ratings are showing signs of nervousness.
Old GOP assumptions about the political climate "are totally upside-down," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. "Republicans have to be prepared for an all-out battle, and it's going to be a challenge."
Reasons for Democratic optimism
Although much can change by Election Day, favorable signs for Democrats are evident.
Self-described democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., ceded the Democratic presidential nomination to former Vice President Joe Biden, a relief to moderate Democratic candidates everywhere.
Democrats outraised Republicans in nine of 12 higher-profile Senate races in this year's first quarter. Besides Bullock outperforming Daines, Democratic challengers raised more money than GOP Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Susan Collins of Maine and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham raised less than long-shot Democratic opponents.
Underscoring the direction the political arrow now points, two major GOP committees reserved $100 million for autumn ads in eight states. The spending by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund is entirely for defending GOP incumbents except in Michigan, where Democratic Sen. Gary Peters faces well-funded GOP businessman John James.
The Senate Democratic campaign committee went on offense, reserving $31 million for spots challenging GOP incumbents McSally, Daines, Tillis and Iowa's Joni Ernst.
Trump's ratings fall
Polls this month indicate the potential peril for GOP candidates. Fewer than 1 in 4 surveyed said they highly trust Trump's characterizations of the outbreak, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey showed. Trump's favorable rating tumbled to 43% in a mid-April Gallup poll, down from 49% two weeks earlier.
A recent Republican National Committee survey of 17 battleground states showed Trump's support eroding since the virus outbreak, a warning for GOP Senate candidates. The Republican senatorial committee sent candidates a 57-page memo by strategic communications firm O'Donnell & Associates, urging them to blame China for the pandemic and advising, "Don't defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China."
"More and more are signs the voters are looking for change, they're looking for greater stability," said J.B. Poersch, who runs the Senate Majority PAC, an outside ally to Democratic leadership.
Republicans have more cash
Happily for Republicans, their candidates have accumulated more cash than their Democratic challengers in most of the Senate's closest races. Indications the economy's revival may drag mean fundraising could be tough all year, helping those already boasting formidable bank accounts.
Both sides' advisers say stay-at-home orders shackling most Americans' movements generally disadvantage challengers, ominously for Democrats who must oust more incumbents to prevail.
Indefinitely eliminated are attention-grabbing public events and big-dollar fundraisers, forcing a reliance on virtual town halls and money-raising events.
"All you can do is hold a Zoom meeting your supporters show up at and a few bored reporters," Steven Law, who runs Republicans' Senate Leadership Fund.
Republicans control the Senate 53-47 but are defending 23 of the 35 contested seats.
Yet all but two GOP-held seats at stake, Colorado and Maine, are from states Trump won in 2016, mostly easily. Even so, Republican seats in Georgia and Kansas are plausible Democratic targets.
Sen. Doug Jones of solidly Republican Alabama is the Democrats' most endangered incumbent yet has banked a formidable $15 million. He narrowly won a 2017 special election against Republican Roy Moore, who faced accusations of sexually harassing teenagers decades ago when he was a prosecutor, which he denied.
In Arizona, McSally has blamed China for covering up and not containing the disease. Gun control advocate and former astronaut Mark Kelly, her Democratic challenger, has faulted Republicans for trying to repeal former President Barack Obama's health care law, arguing the virus makes its protections crucial.
In Maine, Collins already faced a difficult reelection following her 2018 support for Brett Kavanaugh, Trump's controversial Supreme Court pick. She's mixed generally positive ads thanking local employers like L.L. Bean for producing protective masks with occasional slaps at Democratic challenger Sara Gideon, the Maine House speaker.
Daines is reaching Montana voters with telephone town halls and Facebook chats. "I'm focused on ensuring the voice of Montana is heard in federal policy," he said.
While in the spotlight as governor, Bullock's been pressured by the Trump administration and Daines to ease his statewide stay-at-home order. Bullock let some curbs lapse this week, citing health care and economic realities, not politics.