Snapshots from the trail: The final weeks in three close Senate races

PHOTO: Sen. Ted Cruz debates Rep. Beto ORourke in a televised debate on Oct. 16, 2018 in San Antonio.PlayTom Reel/Pool via Getty Images
WATCH Arizona Senate Race 2018: Martha McSally and Kyrsten Sinema

Three ABC News reporters covering the Senate races in Arizona, Tennessee and Texas joined Political Director Rick Klein and Chief White House Correspondent Jon Karl on the "PowerHouse Politics" podcast this week to give their insights on the three highly-watched contests.

White House Correspondent Tara Palmeri is in Arizona where the two Senate candidates faced off in their first and only debate on Monday night.

GOP Rep. Martha McSally, a retired Air Force officer and the first female combat fighter in American history, went after Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema for her participation in anti-war protests. Palmeri said McSally has been able to capitalize on Sinema’s anti-war past.

“Sinema has done a major transformation. She used to be an activist tied with the Green Party and she was very anti-war,” Palmeri said. “But she has voted with Trump 62 percent of the time. So she’s not entirely, you know, a progressive liberal.”

PHOTO: Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally and Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema prepare to debate at the studios of a public television station in Phoenix, Oct. 15, 2018. Rick DElia/EPA via Shutterstock
Republican Senate candidate Martha McSally and Democratic Senate candidate Kyrsten Sinema prepare to debate at the studios of a public television station in Phoenix, Oct. 15, 2018.

McSally, who did not endorse Trump in his 2016 bid, has closely aligned herself with President Trump during her campaign. Her voting record shows that she votes with Trump 97 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.

“She’s still clearly not willing to take any shots at the president. She defended his child separation policy at the border saying the only way to enforce the law is to separate families but she thinks there should be better options,” Palmeri said.

In another open race, Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen, a former governor, are going head-to-head in Tennessee to win the seat for retiring GOP Sen. Bob Corker. President Trump endorsed Blackburn and has rallied with her in what has shaped up to be the most expensive Senate race in Tennessee history.

ABC’s Chris Donato is in Tennessee to cover early voting. He said that, as is the case with other Democrats vying for seats in red states, the battle over Kavanaugh seems to have harmed Bredesen.

PHOTO: Democratic candidate and former Gov. Phil Bredesen and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn wait for the start of the Tennessee U.S. Senate debate at The University of Tennessee, Oct. 10, 2018, in in Knoxville, Tenn. Mark Humphrey, Pool via AP
Democratic candidate and former Gov. Phil Bredesen and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn wait for the start of the Tennessee U.S. Senate debate at The University of Tennessee, Oct. 10, 2018, in in Knoxville, Tenn.

“A lot of people on the ground are saying that that’s kind of deflated his base and that’s kind of causing him to lose the momentum on the ground here,” Donato said.

Bredesen, thanks to his time as governor, has the name recognition to back-up a Democratic bid for Senate in a conservative-leaning state. He’s tried to maintain his hold by promising Trump, and his voters, that he is willing to work across the aisle.

“He said ‘I’m not running against Donald Trump. I’m willing to work with him. I think if he proposes an idea that’s great for Tennessee, I’m all for it.’” Donato said of Bredesen. “‘If he proposes an idea that I think isn’t great for Tennessee then I’ll oppose it.’ He’s been trying to walk that fine line the whole time since Trump won by 26 points.”

In Texas, Trump had less of a sweep during 2016, beating Hillary Clinton by nine points. The almost-purple nature of the state has allowed one of the most hotly contested races to gain constant national attention.

ABC Anchor Paula Faris is headed to Texas to cover the race. She said O’Rourke’s message may remind voters of Obama, which is captivating progressives across the U.S. He recently broke the record amount raised for a Senate candidate in a single quarter, at a whopping $38.1 million in donations.

“That’s more than Obama raised in the third quarter of the 2008 campaign. Just to put it into perspective,” Faris said. “They’re all individual donations. He didn’t take any money from PACs and isn’t taking money from corporations.”

Polls at home don’t show O'Rourke in such a great position, though. The most recent numbers have Cruz in a high single-digit lead against O’Rourke, who had heavy momentum headed into October, and Cruz has benefitted from the fallout around Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Faris said.

President Trump is scheduled to rally with Cruz on Monday in Houston, but Faris said she is looking to see how the two men can mend their relationship after a nasty presidential contest.

“How can reconcile this relationship with a man who has said vile things about his wife, who said mistruths about his father?” Faris said. “How can he justify that relationship to the American people? Is it ‘support the policy but not the person’?”

Before the Kavanaugh nomination, Republicans feared losing control of the House and possibly the Senate. Since the fallout, though, Trump has been able to seize on the uptick in energy from the conservative base.

“He clearly senses that there is momentum. I think that everybody around him was preparing him for major Republican losses in the midterms,” Karl said. “But he’s getting a sense that things are moving in this direction, as the winds are back and, you know, frankly it seems like he’s not wrong.”

“If you look at the economy and look at the record, he’s got a lot of reasons to be confident. That said, the fundamentals of this election, and they could change a lot in 20 days, continue to favor the energy of the Democrats,” Klein said. “Not in the Senate. The Senate is a different thing. It’s two different countries that happen to be voting on the same day and it could mean a very split outcome.”