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With Campaigns in Remote Mode, Pandemic Upends Battle for Congress

Westlake Legal Group 05dc-virus-campaign1-facebookJumbo With Campaigns in Remote Mode, Pandemic Upends Battle for Congress United States Politics and Government Social Media Senate Republican Party Politics and Government North Carolina Montana House of Representatives Hickenlooper, John W Gardner, Cory S Elections, Senate Elections, House of Representatives Democratic Party Daines, Steve Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Colorado Bullock, Steve Arizona

WASHINGTON — As John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor and current Democratic candidate for Senate, began another campaign event via Facebook Live last week, he stated the obvious to his virtual audience.

“The nature of campaigns has changed,” Mr. Hickenlooper said as he beamed his message out to the political world from his family room in a joint appearance with Kathleen Sebelius, the former Obama administration health and human services secretary who was back home in Kansas, to talk about coping with the novel coronavirus. “These times really are different, and we are going to be doing things differently on this campaign.”

Mr. Hickenlooper, who is hoping to oust Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, is not the only one adjusting to a radically changed campaign reality. The sudden onslaught of coronavirus has upended the nation’s congressional races as many were just getting started, altering the political landscape in unpredictable ways and forcing candidates in the battle for the Senate and House to adapt to unique circumstances.

Campaign officials and strategists are trying to carefully game out the new reality. The crisis could prove to be a boost for incumbents who have a built-in advantage in providing services to constituents at a time when voters are on edge and in need. But it is also shining a potentially unflattering spotlight on Washington’s response to the pandemic, which could hurt lawmakers who were already facing an uphill climb to re-election.

While awaiting new polling and other information, it is difficult to gauge who stands to gain.

“There are multiple logical scenarios, but it’s too early to know,” said Nathan L. Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Elections. “The response is just getting started and there won’t be enough race-specific data to make a sweeping conclusion for at least a few weeks.”

What is certain is that the Rotary Club lunches, community gatherings, door-knocking and fund-raising receptions that are ordinarily the lifeblood of congressional races are gone for now. They are being replaced with tele-town halls focused on how to contend with the pandemic, virtual fund-raising get-togethers and appeals to contribute not to campaigns, but to nonprofit community groups as incumbents and challengers try to stay relevant in a grim news cycle dominated by a single topic over which they have no control.

In one example, Senator Thom Tillis, a first-term Republican facing a difficult re-election fight this fall in North Carolina, has been holding daily conference calls for constituents to dial in with questions about the pandemic. They are a chance for Mr. Tillis, who polls show to be deeply unpopular in his state, to present himself more as a social worker tending to voters’ needs than as a politician clinging to his seat in a close race.

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In Arizona, Senator Martha McSally, another embattled Republican, announced she would devote 15 days to raising money for the Salvation Army, not her political organization. Theresa Greenfield, a Democratic challenger in Iowa hoping to replace Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican, has been urging Iowans to donate to food banks.

Applying his unique background to the situation, Mark Kelly, a Democrat and former astronaut trying to oust Ms. McSally, has been offering tips on how to cope with isolation during long days spent at home based on his time in space.

Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana, who decided to run for Senate only in March after saying for months that he was not interested in the job, is at the center of his state’s response to the pandemic. As the only sitting governor running for the Senate this year, Mr. Bullock, who hopes to defeat incumbent Senator Steve Daines, a Republican, has the potential advantage of being in the spotlight as Montanans confront the outbreak, sparing him the typical struggle challengers face in trying to grab attention from a well-known incumbent.

Audio leaked out last week of a conference call between the nation’s governors and President Trump in which Mr. Bullock challenged the president on lack of testing supplies. And Mr. Bullock is appearing regularly on television to speak out about the situation in his state. Republicans concede he could gain from his high-profile leadership role, but warn it could also hurt him if the state response is deemed wanting or bungled.

For now, the situation has given Mr. Bullock a chance to portray himself as above the partisan fray, as his advisers insist he is not thinking in terms of the political ins and outs.

“There will be a time for a campaign, and he looks forward to it,” said Matt McKenna, the governor’s political adviser. “But right now he is focused on fighting this pandemic, keeping Montanans safe and getting front line workers the resources they need.

House contenders have also sought to emphasize their constituent work. Representative Harley Rouda, Democrat of California, rerouted campaign volunteers away from their usual calls, directing them to contact older adults for wellness checks instead. Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, has used his email list to send out fund-raising links to local food banks.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, normally a bastion for Trumpian name-calling and hard-edge partisan attacks, used its Twitter account on Friday to circulate a link to guidance for small businesses on how to obtain newly available loans through the just-enacted economic stimulus law. In a memo, the committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, also urged candidates to watch their tone in messages to voters.

“At times like this, you need to ask yourself if your press release or snarky comment are in poor taste,” the memo said.

Some incumbents have already experienced the risks of being tied closely to the government’s response to the pandemic. During one tele-town hall, Mr. Tillis, who is facing a challenge from Cal Cunningham, a former Democratic state legislator, came under criticism from a constituent who said the economic relief measures enacted in Washington in recent weeks — including $1,200 direct payments to taxpayers — were not enough. While most of those who spoke sounded unconcerned with politics and more interested in learning how to collect unemployment benefits and other aid, a woman named Sarah lashed out at Mr. Tillis for what she argued were overly restrictive stay-at-home policies that she said were harming the economy and costing working families jobs. The nation’s elected leaders, she said, ought to be making hard decisions to minimize the impact of the coronavirus while keeping the country at work.

“Your one-time check to my family isn’t going to help us recover from what we are suffering right now,” said the woman, who declined to share her last name. “I just find this extended lockdown to be outrageous.”

Mr. Tillis offered a meandering answer, but stood firm in defense of the current social distancing program.

“If we send everyone back to work, I guarantee you the peak will be greater, the number of hospital beds will be fewer and people will die,” he said. “What we are trying to do is minimize that, flatten the curve and get back to work.”

The crisis has provided several Republican senators in highly competitive races the opportunity to emphasize their role in both fashioning the $2 trillion stimulus package and in helping secure needed medical supplies for their states. Mr. Gardner, who is trying to hold off Mr. Hickenlooper, said he used connections he made through his work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to help secure 100,000 masks for Colorado out of one million that Taiwan donated to the states.

Republican campaign officials said they were urging senators to focus on the crisis, rather than shift into campaign mode.

“The only guidance we have is be a senator,” said Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “Stay in touch with people, be a point of reference, just go do your job.”

The Senate website of Mr. Daines, who had hoped to escape a contest with Mr. Bullock, reflects that approach. It features a compilation of favorable video clips from Montana news outlets about Mr. Daines’s role in the coronavirus aid legislation — including a White House shout out from Vice President Mike Pence — under the headline “Sen. Daines is fighting for Montana on Covid-19 ” Also prominent were releases about benefits he had pushed, including a timeline of his role.

Some analysts said they were skeptical that Senate incumbents would receive a bounce from the legislative package. Mr. Gonzales suggested that even in this extraordinary environment, the battle for control of the Senate would come down to the public perception of Mr. Trump.

“In the end, I expect voters to fall back to their partisan corners and the most competitive Senate races will be significantly impacted by the president’s standing,” he said.

Democrats are counting on that as well, pointing to public unhappiness with the president’s response.

“In this evolving crisis, people want reliable information and steady leadership,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Democrats are focused on solutions to address the spread of coronavirus and mitigate its impact on their states, sharing resources, hosting virtual town halls with experts and working to support their communities.” One thing both sides agree on is that even given the stakes in the fight for congressional control, campaigning is hardly uppermost in anyone’s mind at the moment.

“We have to deal with this,” Mr. McLaughlin, the head of the Senate Republican campaign group, said of the pandemic. “If we don’t fix this, it just doesn’t matter.”

Nicholas Fandos and Catie Edmondson contributed reporting.

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Where Is Cory Gardner?

Westlake Legal Group merlin_145161267_fab6f769-8a6f-4a02-8707-2514718e62df-facebookJumbo Where Is Cory Gardner? Trump, Donald J Presidential Election of 2020 impeachment Hickenlooper, John W Gardner, Cory S Elections, Senate Colorado

DENVER — They keep expecting to see Senator Cory Gardner everywhere — on the local Fox affiliates in Colorado, on Facebook, on literature crammed inside their mailboxes. They are voters who wear tasteful crepe blouses and carry structured Kate Spade totes, who like how their 401(k)’s are performing but say they could do without President Trump’s “temperament.”

They are members of one of the most coveted groups in electoral politics: suburban women. But in their field of vision, Mr. Gardner, Colorado’s top Republican officeholder, is almost nowhere to be found.

“I don’t hear him speaking out on things,” said Jennifer Gremmert, 50, the executive director of an energy nonprofit. She is the kind of voter who could help Mr. Gardner win re-election in November, a registered Democrat who considers herself “nonpartisan,” “not that enthusiastic” about her party’s Senate candidates, and “totally” open to Mr. Gardner. But when it comes to the bipartisan stands that Ms. Gremmert said she prized in a candidate, “I don’t see him.”

On one level, this is strange: Many of these voters were crucial to Mr. Gardner’s narrow Senate victory in 2014, when he carried the suburban vote and was ahead among independents, according to exit polls. And they may be even more essential to him now — he is widely considered to be one of the most at-risk G.O.P. senators seeking re-election this year.

But Mr. Gardner’s invisibility — he hasn’t held a town hall-style meeting in two years — is also pragmatic, a means of avoiding questions about his ties to the divisive president, especially as the Senate impeachment trial nears. If Mr. Gardner ends up vocally supporting the president, or votes to acquit him in the trial, it will complicate and perhaps even endanger his race to hold onto his seat.

Unlike most Republican senators, Mr. Gardner has been largely mum on the articles of impeachment against the president and the Senate trial starting Tuesday. Early in the process, he called the impeachment inquiry a “total circus,” but notably refused to answer questions about whether the president’s conduct with Ukraine had been appropriate.

Mr. Gardner hasn’t indicated one way or the other whether he’d vote to subpoena witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, even as some other senators facing tough re-election fights, like Senator Susan Collins of Maine, have expressed an openness to doing so. Last week on Capitol Hill, he evaded reporters eager to pin down his thoughts, his handler hurrying him into the nearest elevator. On Thursday evening, when a local Colorado reporter caught him at the Denver airport, a smiling Mr. Gardner offered still no clarity. “We have a trial,” he said. “That’s where we’re at right now.”

While Ms. Collins and some other senators open to calling witnesses have been critical of the president at times, Mr. Gardner is far more circumspect about Mr. Trump, and relies heavily on Republicans and conservatives for votes — people who are intensely loyal to the president.

But if Mr. Gardner is going to win in 2020, in a state that votes Democratic in presidential elections, he is also going to need voters like the women who joined Ms. Gremmert for lunch on a recent Friday in Denver’s Greenwood Village. They consider themselves moderate Republicans and likely to support Mr. Gardner, but want to hear him make a case for himself and his record.

“I think his presence is being overshadowed by Donald Trump,” lamented Sandra Hagen Solin, a 51-year-old Republican who runs her own lobbying firm. “He needs to get his message out.”

That message, many Republicans insist, is a strong one. Mr. Gardner’s supporters often note how in the last four years, he has had more legislation signed into law than the rest of Colorado’s congressional delegation combined. But such is the trade-off, perhaps, of Mr. Gardner’s disappearing act: While it allows him to sidestep uncomfortable questions about the president, it also prevents him from aggressively promoting the record that Republican strategists believe he can win on.

Dick Wadhams, a veteran Colorado Republican operative, was not bashful about calling out Mr. Gardner’s fear of public exposure. “If I had one criticism of him,” Mr. Wadhams said, “it’s that his team keeps him locked up in a fortress.” (Mr. Gardner and his aides did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Impeachment has served only to highlight Mr. Gardner’s silence, whether on his own record or the national issues du jour, according to other Colorado Republicans. His caginess has frustrated some Trump supporters in Colorado, whose votes Mr. Gardner will almost certainly need to prevail in November, when Democrats are likely to come out in force in the presidential election.

“I think he wants to please everybody, but he needs to be more transparent,” Angela Carr, a 44-year-old flight attendant, said at the Denver Republican Party’s recent monthly breakfast.

Ms. Carr, who said she became a Republican “because of Trump,” recalled the October day that Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a resolution condemning the House impeachment inquiry. “We’re watching all the other Republican senators sign on it, and we’re like, ‘O.K., Cory …’” she said. “And he finally did toward the end, but you kind of want to see your guy or gal more out there.”

She and others at the Denver breakfast acknowledged the political considerations that prevent Mr. Gardner from mirroring the approach of a Southern lawmaker like Mr. Graham on impeachment. In 2016, Mr. Trump lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton by just under five percentage points. In 2018, Democrats swept every statewide office in Colorado in what was largely seen as a rebuke to Mr. Trump’s administration. And now, Mr. Gardner, according to Morning Consult, has an approval rating of just 36 percent.

But many Republicans were quick to point out that Mr. Gardner is no stranger to long-shot races and the complicated political dynamics that come with them.

In 2014, Mr. Gardner, then a congressman, challenged Senator Mark Udall in a race where “Cory was seen as a dead man walking,” according to Tyler Sandberg, a Colorado Republican operative. The reason: Just two years earlier, President Barack Obama had beaten Mitt Romney in the state by more than five points.

But Mr. Gardner won his seat in 2014 by 2.5 percentage points, or about 50,000 votes, in a year when Republicans flipped nine Democratic-held seats nationwide and took control of the Senate. He was able to do so in large part, Mr. Sandberg said, “because he refused to let himself be pigeonholed into something he wasn’t.”

In his campaign, Mr. Udall sought to characterize Mr. Gardner as an extreme social conservative, which Mr. Gardner — in a steady stream of television ads, digital media and public appearances — consistently pushed back on.

It’s an approach that Republican strategists believe would work well in this environment, too, as some Democrats try to portray him as too pro-Trump and some conservatives say he is not pro-Trump enough.

“I’m confused as to why he’s not out on the stump more, because that’s what he was so good at in 2014,” Mr. Sandberg said.

In addition to not holding a town hall event since August 2017, Mr. Gardner has no upcoming events listed on his Facebook page. In an August 2019 editorial, The Greeley Tribune, which serves Mr. Gardner’s former congressional district, criticized the senator for his dearth of public events. “Gardner has been largely absent during the past five years when it comes to being available for his constituents, to whom he needs to be accountable,” the editorial board wrote.

And on impeachment, he has rankled even local talk radio hosts for dodging interviews. In late November, Steffan Tubbs, who hosts a Denver station owned by the conservative broadcast company Salem Media, told his viewers that Mr. Gardner’s team had declined a request to interview the senator about “the impeachment inquiry, campaign, and Thanksgiving plans.” Mr. Tubbs, who called Mr. Gardner “a friend,” criticized the senator for his “crickets” during “a very critical time in this administration.”

Some Republican voters sympathize with Mr. Gardner’s predicament. In his last town hall event, which was his first in a year, Mr. Gardner was all but shouted offstage by liberal protesters as he tried to explain his efforts to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t blame a senator or congressman for trying to find another way to engage that’s actually productive and collaborative,” said Debbie Brown, the president of the Colorado Business Roundtable, who considers herself a moderate Republican.

But other observers think he missed an opportunity, if only to make a point about liberals like those who shouted him down. “I thought Cory should have held one town hall after another right away, then stopped them on the grounds the left was so asinine,” said Lynn Bartels, a former longtime political reporter in Colorado.

Mr. Gardner’s supporters are optimistic that once voters hear the extent of his record “separate from Trump,” as Ms. Solin put it, his stance on the president will matter less. His supporters point to his yearslong effort to relocate the Bureau of Land Management from Washington, D.C., to Colorado, which the administration has announced as officially underway. They also promote his work with Democrats including Senator Elizabeth Warren to allow cannabis businesses access to the banking industry in states like Colorado, where marijuana is legal.

Mr. Gardner is likely to end up facing John Hickenlooper, the former Democratic governor now running for Senate, in the general election, and he will probably maintain many Republican votes — even if cast grudgingly.

At the recent Denver G.O.P. breakfast, where some people wore “Make America Great Again” and “Keep America Great” hats, but where Mr. Gardner’s campaign was limited to a leaflet, Herb Glasser, a 54-year-old public accountant, said he planned to support Mr. Gardner despite resigning himself to being “unhappy” with the senator a long time ago.

“We have no choice,” said Mr. Glasser, who described himself as a “true conservative.”

According to Mr. Sandberg, the G.O.P. operative, it’s now up to Mr. Gardner’s campaign to reach those Coloradans who, despite their disdain for the president, might still be persuaded to give his party a chance.

Voters, perhaps, like Amy Conklin. Ms. Conklin, a former Littleton City Council member, is a registered Democrat, but says she has long “put out yard signs for both sides.” She was a legislative aide when Mr. Gardner was a member of the state House, and remembers him as “a really good legislator,” someone who “would reach across the aisle.”

Her feelings since have changed. “I’ve been intensely disappointed in his behavior since he’s gone to Washington,” she said.

Ms. Conklin conceded that Mr. Gardner had done some good work in the Senate. But what looms largest in her mind, what she says she’d be hardest pressed to forget, are a handful of photographs she’s seen of Mr. Gardner, including one from last winter, in which she described him as “smiling and waving, following Trump out of Air Force One.”

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Both Parties See Control of the Senate as Pivotal. Here Are the Key Races They’re Watching.

WASHINGTON — The battle for the White House may be the marquee political event of 2020, but it is the rapidly intensifying struggle for control of the Senate that will determine how power is truly wielded in Washington come 2021.

As Republicans assess President Trump’s uncertain re-election chances, they see maintaining control of the Senate as their last line of defense against the prospect of Democrats controlling both the House and the White House. Democrats view gaining the Senate as a way to stymie Mr. Trump should he win a second term. And they say that winning the White House only to have Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, remain in charge of the Senate would stifle any legislative effort to undo the effects of the Trump presidency.

Strategists for both parties and independent analysts currently give Republicans the edge in narrowly holding on to the Senate given the small universe of highly competitive races. But the distinct possibility of wild cards adding to an already volatile atmosphere was underscored this week by the news that Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, will retire at the end of the year. His departure unexpectedly put another seat in play and gave Democrats a second pickup opportunity in a state they believe is trending increasingly blue.

“We have a decent shot,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader. “Republican incumbents and Donald Trump are far weaker in the challenger states than people realize.”

Democrats would need a net gain of three seats to assume Senate control if they win the White House and four if they do not since the vice president serves as the tiebreaker in a 50-50 Senate. “The math is simple,” the advocacy group Emily’s List heralded in a fund-raising email, “the work is hard.”

Both sides agree that just a handful of seats are truly up for grabs at this point, limiting Democratic opportunities for the gains they want.

“They need to put another seat on the board or pull another rabbit out of their hat in Alabama and I’m not sure they can,” said Jennifer E. Duffy, who handicaps Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_151133544_5d4859ad-2f7c-4880-ae4c-fa157ae23b1d-articleLarge Both Parties See Control of the Senate as Pivotal. Here Are the Key Races They’re Watching. United States Politics and Government Trump, Donald J Tillis, Thomas R Schumer, Charles E Primaries and Caucuses Politics and Government McSally, Martha McConnell, Mitch Kelly, Mark E (1964- ) Jones, Doug (1954- ) Isakson, Johnny Hickenlooper, John W Gideon, Sara (1971- ) Gardner, Cory S Ernst, Joni Elections, Senate Daines, Steve Cornyn, John Collins, Susan M Bullock, Steve

Mark Kelly, a prized Democratic recruit and former astronaut, is planning to challenge Senator Martha McSally for her seat in Arizona.CreditMike Christy/Arizona Daily Star, via Associated Press

Her Alabama reference points to the fact that Senator Doug Jones, a Democrat, faces re-election there after an upset victory in 2017 over Roy S. Moore, a former judge who was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. Washington Republicans are determined to deny Mr. Moore a rematch. But other Republican candidates will be heavily favored in a very conservative state, making Mr. Jones the only seriously endangered Democratic incumbent at the moment. The party is defending a dozen seats compared with 23 for Republicans.

In contrast to 2018, Republicans otherwise will be almost entirely on defense in 2020 with Republican-held seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina considered by both parties to be the top targets; seats in Iowa and elsewhere could move on to the list as the campaigns there develop.

Republicans believe they can hold on in most of the chief battleground states — Mr. Trump won two of the four in 2016, Arizona and North Carolina, and won one of Maine’s four electoral votes. And they say Democrats themselves are helping strengthen their hand.

Republicans in charge of the party’s overall Senate strategy say that the progressive agenda being embraced by leading Democratic presidential candidates and other prominent voices in the party — “Medicare for all,” the Green New Deal, public benefits for undocumented immigrants — is turning off the swing voters that Democrats will need to win Senate seats in places like Iowa and Arizona. Republicans are doing their best to brand Democrats as far out of the mainstream. The term “socialist” will be a regular feature of Republican ads and speeches.

“Every week Democrats offer up a different radical proposal that alienates mainstream voters in competitive states, so it’s best to let Democrats keep talking,” said Senator Todd Young of Indiana, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Some Democrats privately agree but say the identity of the party’s eventual presidential nominee will play a more significant role in determining the outcome of the battle for the Senate. And while Republicans have sought to tie the progressive policies to top contenders such as Mark Kelly, the former astronaut and a prized Democratic recruit against Senator Martha McSally, Republican of Arizona, he and the other Democratic candidates have distanced themselves from proposals such as a government-run health insurance program that would end private coverage.

Democrats say that it is Republican candidates who are caught in a squeeze, trapped between independent and suburban Republicans uncomfortable with Mr. Trump and base voters who will brook no dissent when it comes to the president. Mr. Schumer noted that the same crosscurrents helped Democrats defeat the Republican senator Dean Heller in Nevada last year.

“As Dean Heller learned, when they embrace Trump, they lose the middle, and when they run away from Trump, they lose the base,” he said in an interview, describing what he sees as the quandary for Republican incumbents in contested states.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine is facing challenges in Maine after supporting the confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.CreditErin Schaff/The New York Times

Democrats say they see opportunity in the low poll numbers for embattled incumbents such as Senator Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Senator Susan Collins in Maine, who is facing the challenge of her political life after supporting the nomination of the Supreme Court justice Brett M. Kavanaugh as well as a tax bill that has proved unpopular with some in Maine. But Ms. Collins has shown in the past that she can overcome waves of discontent in her party and survive in a tough environment, similar to the way Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, has managed to defy the political odds in his state.

Democrats have struggled to land their preferred candidates in Georgia and Montana. They hold out hope that Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana will tire of his second-tier status in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination and decide to run against Senator Steve Daines. John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado, cheered national Democrats when he made that same switch to oppose Senator Cory Gardner, perhaps the most threatened Republican incumbent, in a state Mr. Trump failed to carry in 2016.

But Mr. Hickenlooper’s decision to run for the Senate after his presidential bid faltered — and the national party’s embrace of that move — have angered the 11 Democrats who were already running for Mr. Gardner’s seat and do not seem inclined to give him a pass.

National Democrats have rallied behind several other candidates facing primaries, including the speaker of the Maine House, Sara Gideon, who is challenging Ms. Collins, and Theresa Greenfield of Iowa, who will be stressing her deep farm roots against Senator Joni Ernst, who won a first term in 2014 by emphasizing her own farm background.

They also like their candidates with military credentials such as Mr. Kelly and Cal Cunningham, a North Carolina Democrat and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan trying to unseat Mr. Tillis, who will face a primary of his own given Republican discontent with his performance.

Democrats believe they can potentially bring other races into play including Texas, where Senator John Cornyn, a former member of his party’s leadership, is running for a fourth term, and perhaps Kansas if Kris Kobach, a divisive Republican who lost the governor’s race last year, is the nominee for an open seat. Republicans have their eyes on Michigan, where John James, who lost a Senate race last year, is trying again with strong party backing against Senator Gary Peters, who Republicans think is vulnerable.

And both parties have their eyes on Kentucky, where Democrats would dearly love to defeat their nemesis, Mr. McConnell. But even if they cannot, they intend to focus on the race as a way of helping amplify the message that Democrats need to capture the Senate to thwart the man who has thwarted them so successfully. Mr. McConnell will be a part of every Senate race.

“Mitch McConnell is the Nancy Pelosi of 2020,” said Ms. Duffy, the analyst, referring to past Republican attempts to make the House Democratic leader the face of her party.

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John Hickenlooper Mulling Ending Presidential Bid to Run for Senate

Westlake Legal Group merlin_158675946_9cfb95be-23b6-4683-8b99-9c0560d1fd5b-facebookJumbo John Hickenlooper Mulling Ending Presidential Bid to Run for Senate Senate Presidential Election of 2020 Hickenlooper, John W Gardner, Cory S Elections, Senate Democratic Party Colorado Bennet, Michael Farrand

CLEAR LAKE, Iowa — Former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado is in discussions about ending his presidential bid and entering the race for his state’s Republican-held Senate seat, potentially giving Democrats a strong candidate in a race they must win to have hopes of retaking the chamber in 2021, according to four Democrats familiar with his thinking.

Mr. Hickenlooper, who is mired at the bottom of public polling of the presidential race, hopped into Senator Michael Bennet’s car on Friday night in this Northern Iowa town to discuss his impending decision, said Democrats familiar with the discussion, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential talks.

The two drove around Clear Lake for about 20 minutes ahead of the Wing Ding dinner, a Democratic fund-raiser that drew 21 presidential candidates. Aides and advisers to the two men, who have been both allies and rivals over their careers in Colorado politics, declined to reveal what was discussed.

[Who’s in? Who’s out? Keep up with the 2020 field with our candidate tracker.]

Officials who have been in discussions with the Hickenlooper campaign said Tuesday that the former two-term governor is giving serious consideration to switching to the Senate race but stressed that a final decision has not yet been made. Short of a massive change in political momentum, Mr. Hickenlooper is certain to fail to qualify for the next round of presidential debates in September, an additional blow to a campaign struggling to attract attention and financial contributions.

A spokesman for Mr. Hickenlooper, Peter Cunningham, declined to comment on the former governor’s plans or what was discussed during his Friday night drive with Mr. Bennet, who is also running for president. A Bennet aide also declined to comment on their discussion.

Recent days have brought unsubtle messages that high-ranking Democratic officials in Colorado and Washington believe Mr. Hickenlooper is in the wrong race.

The Denver Post on Sunday published polling done on behalf of “a national Democratic group involved in Senate races” that showed Mr. Hickenlooper holding a 51-point lead over two other Democrats in the state’s 2020 Senate race.

On Monday, the 314 Action Fund, a super PAC that backs candidates who are scientists, announced a “Draft Hick for Senate” campaign along with a poll it commissioned showing Mr. Hickenlooper leading Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Republican seeking re-election, by 13 percentage points in a head-to-head matchup.

[We asked Mr. Hickenlooper and other Democratic presidential hopefuls the same set of 18 questions. Watch them answer.]

Colorado is key to Democratic hopes of retaking a Senate majority in the 2020 election. Senator Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, has spent months trying to recruit Mr. Hickenlooper to enter the contest to face Mr. Gardner. Mr. Hickenlooper would join a Democratic primary that already has 11 declared candidates, including Mike Johnston, a former state senator who placed third in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor; Andrew Romanoff, a former Colorado House speaker; John Walsh, a former United States attorney for Colorado; and Dan Baer, a former Obama administration official.

Mr. Hickenlooper has pooh-poohed his interest in running for the Senate. In February he told reporters in Iowa that he is “not cut out to be a senator.”

Mr. Gardner is seeking a second term in office but faces headwinds in a state where President Trump is highly unpopular. In 2016 Mr. Trump lost Colorado to Hillary Clinton by five points. A July poll of likely Colorado voters from a Republican-aligned firm found Mr. Trump with a 39 percent approval rating in the state and concluded he trails a generic Democratic general election opponent by 12 percentage points.

Democrats must win a net of three Republican-held Senate seats and win the White House to take control of the Senate.

Mr. Hickenlooper in recent weeks has seen an exodus of senior campaign aides, who advised him in the spring to end his presidential bid if his fund-raising and polling status did not improve by the end of July. He qualified and participated in the first two televised debates in June and July, but his performances were not memorable and there has been little improvement in his fund-raising, according to people familiar with his campaign’s finances.

During the three-month fund-raising period that ended June 30, Mr. Hickenlooper raised $1.1 million and spent $1.7 million, an unsustainable pattern for a candidate who has not caught fire with voters. He had $800,000 in his campaign account at the end of June, according to his Federal Election Commission report.

Mr. Johnston and Mr. Baer each raised more campaign funds for their Senate campaigns in the second quarter than Mr. Hickenlooper did for his presidential bid.

Yet when he appeared before Democratic activists in Clear Lake Friday night, Mr. Hickenlooper appeared unbowed. Amid the sounds of people chattering and eating their baked beans and pulled pork, he said his case for the presidency relies on his stature as a chief executive untarred by Washington politics.

“My plan to beat Donald Trump is to start by looking at our history,” Mr. Hickenlooper said. “No sitting senator has ever beaten an incumbent president. Go backwards with Clinton to Reagan to Carter to Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson, all former governors who defeated incumbent presidents. Just want to make that clear — governors are closer to the people.”

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