Senate Democratic campaign chairman seeks to defy odds amid Manchin retirement and sets sights on Cruz and Scott

Sen. Gary Peters already had what seemed like an impossible task: Holding Democrats’ razor-thin Senate majority while defending twice as many incumbents as Republicans – all with limited pick-up opportunities and with two Democrats at risk in states former President Donald Trump won in 2020.

Then, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin announced he wouldn’t run for reelection. And now West Virginia is off the table – a reality the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee acknowledges as he adjusts his plans for a shifting landscape.

“West Virginia is a very tough state,” Peters, a Michigan Democrat running the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm for a second straight cycle, told CNN on “Inside Politics Sunday.” “Joe Manchin had the ability to win there because of his long career and the brand that he built. But we are focused on other states that also have those kinds of incumbents running for reelection.”

Peters’ new goal: Holding every other Democratic incumbent – including in red states like Montana and Ohio – and clinging to a 50-50 Senate with the hope that President Joe Biden wins reelection and gives them control of the chamber. And Peters says his party will try to pull off another difficult feat: defeating Republican incumbent Sens. Ted Cruz and Rick Scott, even as Democrats have long struggled to win statewide in both Texas and Florida.

Despite the odds, Peters said Democrats can defy expectations, pointing to the fact that incumbents are typically difficult to beat; the potency of abortion rights as an issue; and some messy GOP primaries that could end up hurting Republicans next November.

‘They’re not strong in their states’

But to do that, Democrats have virtually no margin for error next fall. Peters said they hope to go on the offensive in Texas and Florida, noting that Democratic donors in particular are eager to knock off the two GOP incumbents there.

“They’re not strong in their states,” Peters said of Cruz and Scott. “We’re going to have a very strong challenger coming out of the primaries of those two states. And we’ll be able to raise resources. Certainly donors around the country have very strong opinions about those two individuals. And we believe we’ll have the resources to make the kind of contrast necessary to win those states.”

But running competitive races in mega-states like Texas and Florida would drain precious resources — and it’s too early to know how much money national Democrats would dump into those GOP-leaning states. Scott, running for a second term in a state that has increasingly trended Republican, also has a vast personal fortune he could dip into.

“I wouldn’t want to run against me,” Scott told CNN.

Cruz’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment, but the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Steve Daines, said that national Republicans are keeping an eye on Cruz.

“Just because he’s Ted Cruz he’ll draw a lot of money from the other side to try to defeat Ted Cruz,” Daines told CNN in a recent interview.

Steep challenges

The daunting map – with Democrats defending 23 seats and Republicans just 11 – includes Democratic seats from several purple states like Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

They will have to defend two states that will draw the most amount of attention: Ohio and Montana, where Trump easily won in his first two White House runs and where Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown and Jon Tester face what could be the toughest races of their careers.

Added to their challenges: Biden’s unpopularity – particularly in red states – and real concerns among Democrats that he is losing support from key parts of his coalition that helped power his 2020 White House run.

But Tester is not too concerned.

“I don’t think it makes much difference,” Tester said of Biden on top of the ticket. “We haven’t had a popular Democratic president since LBJ.”

Yet Democrats will likely have to run ahead of Biden and pick up voters who would vote for Trump if he’s at the top of the ticket. Peters is fully aware of the challenges ahead for Montana and Ohio, but argued that Brown and Tester have “distinct brands” that will help them “outrun the Democratic ticket” in those states.

“The states that we’re competing in are traditionally battleground states for both the president as well as for the Senate so we have to run very good races and campaigns in those areas – and those places like Montana and Ohio that are clearly going to be very challenging,” Peters said.

And for others in swing states, campaigning with Biden may be their only choice.

“No,” Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, told CNN when asked if he thought Biden would drag him down in his race against Republican Dave McCormick, who lost in the GOP primary last cycle but so far has a clear field next year.

Asked if he would campaign with Biden, Casey said he would and already has.

“We’re gonna be on the ticket together. … I’ve got a damn good record on delivering for the state” even as he acknowledged McCormick is “tough … I’ll leave it at that for now.”

‘Very contentious’ GOP primaries

But Peters hopes that Republicans will undermine their chances in 2024 in their bruising primaries as they’ve done in past cycles – namely 2022, 2012 and 2010 – all of which saw weak GOP nominees collapse in the general election and effectively hand Democrats the majority.

Republicans are concerned that could happen in Michigan – a prime pickup opportunity with Democrat Debbie Stabenow retiring – as well as Montana, if hard-right Rep. Matt Rosendale runs against the NRSC’s preferred candidate, Tim Sheehy. In Ohio, Republicans are battling in a crowded primary, but NRSC officials maintain that they would be comfortable with whomever emerges as the nominee there.

“A lot of the dynamics that we had in the ‘22 race are the same in ‘24,” Peters said. “And we’re seeing very contentious primaries on the Republican side that will likely mean that a very damaged candidate comes out of those primaries to face a very strong incumbent.”

Despite the parallels, Senate Democrats in the 2022 midterms were not defending any states that Trump carried in the last presidential election.

Yet just like 2022, Democrats are buoyed by this year’s election results in Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky that underscored the power of abortion rights as an issue a year after the Dobbs decision, something Peters predicted will be a “powerful issue” in 2024.

Some states, however, present unique dilemmas – namely Arizona. There, Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego could face Republican Kari Lake in a general election.

But it’s still uncertain whether Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, will run again in Arizona and whether she would do so as a third-party candidate. If she does, Daines told CNN last month that Sinema would have a “difficult path” to win.

Both parties are uncertain how her potential candidacy could impact their respective candidate. So far, neither the DSCC nor Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has endorsed Gallego or detailed how they would handle a three-candidate race, instead waiting for Sinema to make her decision known.

“We are making investments in those states that we want to make sure that a Republican does not win,” Peters said when asked if the DSCC would back Gallego. “We’re going to continue making investments in Arizona like we do in other states.”

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