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Bill Straub: While McConnell is ‘shaking the treat box’ for money, Republicans will likely keep the Senate

Anyone who has cats (we have four, which, at times, is five too many) can tell you they can be very, well, cat-like sometimes, leaving you wondering if they’re off hiding somewhere or if they somehow snuck out of the house when you weren’t looking and are out in the street ducking traffic.

The only way to get them out of their undisclosed location, to cite a chestnut from the President George W. Bush administration, is to shake the treat box, whereupon you face the terrible possibility of being trampled by starving felines looking to grab as many of the crunchy nuggets they can ingest.

It seems Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch’’ McConnell is doing a little treat box shaking of his own, only on a much higher scale, looking to induce party supporters with deep pockets to “reach in them jeans and pull out them greens’’ as Gary Burbank used to say, to make sure the GOP retains the majority in the upper chamber and he can continue to exist in the manner to which he has become accustomed.

Sen. Mitch McConnell

Looking at the electoral map and perusing the poll numbers that show “President’’ Trump’s (you’ve GOT to be kidding) dipping below the 40 percent mark into territory usually confined to dead people, the Louisville lawmaker is growing a bit wary that the Republican majority, which already rests at a razor-thin one seat, is in trouble as the November 6 election approaches.

Meeting with reporters in Louisville this week, McConnell allowed that the “wind’s going to be in our face’’ in the march toward Election Day and contests earlier thought to be in hand for Republicans are looking a bit more dubious.

“Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, and Florida — all of them too close to call, and every one of them like a knife fight in an alley,’’ ol’ Root-‘n-Branch noted. “I mean, just a brawl in every one of those places.

“I hope when the smoke clears, we’ll still have a majority,’’ he said.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. While the Republican majority in the House has been seen teetering on the brink for months, the party’s status in the upper chamber, while not a sure thing, was certainly solid.

Thirty-five of the Senate’s 100 seats are up for grabs this year. Of those 35, 24 are currently held by Democrats, with two others maintained by Independents who caucus with the Dems. That left Republicans with a clear advantage since they only have to defend nine seats. What’s more, 10 Democratic incumbents, folks like Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-ND, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-IN, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-MT, hail from states that Trump carried in overwhelming fashion less than two years ago.

The Republicans looked to have trouble only in Nevada, where Sen. Dean Heller has done everything possible over the past six years to give the seat away. And there were some early concerns in Arizona, which is selecting replacements for McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, who is retiring. Otherwise, seas appeared calm.

But Republicans have grown noticeably nervous of late. Manchin appears to have a comfortable lead and, to the surprise of many, a recent NBC News/Marist poll shows Donnelly leading GOP challenger, businessman Mike Braun, by six points, with Donnelly pulling up just short of the magic 50 percent mark.

But the big story is in Texas, where the Democrat, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, is giving Sen. Ted Cruz, a man despised by friend and foe alike, all he can handle. It’s gotten to the point in the Lone Star State where Trump, who once insulted Cruz’ wife and intimated that his father was somehow in on the Kennedy assassination, is going down to campaign in his behalf.

And the open seat in Tennessee, currently held by retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker, is also giving the party angina. Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen, who remains popular despite the state’s shift to the GOP, is running neck-and-neck with Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who often makes Trump look sane, a monumental achievement. A loss here would be extremely bad news for McConnell.

Republicans have better cards

While it’s safe to assume the Senate is in play, it still appears the Republicans are drawing the better cards. All they have to do is maintain the status quo and they can continue to achieve what has become their primary goal – completely revamping the federal judiciary from the Supreme Court on down and doing it with young jurists who will be there for a generation even if Democrats grab control in the future.

Democrats seemingly would have to run the table in order to gain the majority and there are any number of bumps. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, is running slightly behind Gov. Rick Scott in recent polling. The GOP appears confident Heitkamp is a goner in North Dakota and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO, is running no better than neck-and-neck with GOP Attorney General Josh Hawley in a state Trump carried by double-digits.

It’s too early for either side to pop the champagne corks but McConnell is playing with scared money. According to USA Today, his political action committee, the Senate Leadership Fund, is suddenly pouring dough into races that few anticipated would need the cash. In all, the Senate Leadership Fund is expecting to spend $60 million in the midterm elections. Some of that, $1.1 million, is being dedicated toward television ads in Tennessee, once considered a safe haven.

This does provide McConnell with an opportunity to do what he does best – beg money from rich, white Republicans, who are legion. Presenting the fat cats with the specter of a Democratic majority sans reliable conservatives like Cruz will undoubtedly give GOP donors the willies, making ol’ Root-‘n-Branch’s job of picking their pockets that much easier.

If there’s one thing Republicans can do it’s outspend Democrats, thanks in large measure to the Citizens United case in which the Supreme Court abolished caps on donations an individual can make to a candidate in a two-year cycle. With that ruling in place, Republicans are almost always destined to outspend their Democratic foes.

It shouldn’t have been this difficult for McConnell and his gang. It’s true that the party that controls the White House usually loses seats in the midterm election. That will almost certainly happen in the House.

But the GOP had everything going for it in the Senate – few seats to protect, Democratic incumbents from states carried by Trump, Citizens United, and an economy that’s humming along despite some danger signals – business disruptions caused by Trump’s tariff strategy and a budget deficit expected to hit $1 trillion this year, thanks in large measure to an unconscionable tax cut.

Trump less a magnet for voters

But Trump is proving to be something significantly less than a magnet for voters.

The latest from the essential political website, 538, places his approval at 39.9 percent. The Plague had better numbers back in Eurasia in the 1300s (listen, if Trump can say his poll numbers are better than Lincoln’s, I can use surveys from the 14th Century). Suburban voters are turning their backs on him in droves. And white women, who inconceivably afforded him 52 percent of their votes in 2016, have seemingly, finally, had enough.

And there is the changing demographics. America is becoming browner every day and those folks are voting Democratic, given the overt racism of the leader of the Republican Party. That factor could play a significant role in states like Texas and Arizona, GOP strongholds that are tightening up.

It looks from here that Senate Republicans will survive the onslaught – for the time being.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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