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U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham listens to one of his staffers during a meeting in Washington on Oct. 15, 2020, the fourth day of the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

ANNA MONEYMAKER/The New York Times News Service

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham was clearly enjoying himself this week as he led the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Justice Amy Coney Barrett. As chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, Mr. Graham got loads of priceless airtime making the case for President Donald Trump’s latest judicial pick. His star turn defending Justice Coney Barrett’s religious convictions and conservative credentials could not have come at a better time for him as he faces the toughest re-election battle of his nearly three decades in the U.S. Congress.

Say what? Lindsey Graham is in trouble? In one of the reddest states in the country?

“There has been no more surprising race on the Senate map than South Carolina,” the highly-regarded Cook Political Report declared this month as it moved the state’s senate election into the “toss up” category from the “safe Republican” column. A strong challenge from a previously unelected Black Democrat, and Mr. Graham’s flagging personal popularity, explained the shift.

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Jaime Harrison has raised record amounts of money – US$57-million in the third quarter alone – as voters from across the country donated to his campaign in hopes of unseating Mr. Graham, whose tight embrace of Mr. Trump (after denouncing him in 2016) has singled him out for particular disdain among Democrats. A similar push by Beto O’Rourke to unseat the equally loathed (by Democrats) Texas Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 narrowly failed. But with the 2020 race shaping up to become a Democratic landslide nationally, Mr. Graham is running scared.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hoping that Mr. Graham’s performance this week on the judiciary committee will be enough to mobilize staunch conservatives, who have never been hardcore Graham fans, to turn out for the Republican candidate on Nov. 3. Otherwise, Mr. Graham could end up as one of several incumbent GOP senators to lose.

It may already be too late for Mr. McConnell to protect his majority. The Cook Political Report this week said Democrats are now the “clear favourite” to take control of the Senate, an astonishing turnaround from their underdog status just a few months ago. An increasing number of seniors and suburbanites who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 are now telling pollsters they intend to vote for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, turned off by the President’s handling of the pandemic, his vow to end Obamacare and his unhinged Twitter rants.

Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate. The Democrats need a net gain of three seats to take control if Mr. Biden wins the White House, and four if he does not. (In the case of a 50-50 tie in the Senate, a sitting vice-president casts the deciding vote.) Republicans are expected to regain the Alabama Senate seat they lost in a 2017 special election, meaning the threshold for a Democratic victory rises to five pick-ups. In any normal year, that would be a nearly impossible task, given the historical weight of incumbency in U.S. elections.

But as an increasingly desperate Mr. Trump plays to his basest instincts, Democrats are poised to sweep Senate seats they never dreamed of taking a year ago. Republican strategists have already written off GOP incumbents Cory Gardner and Martha McSally in Colorado and Arizona, respectively.

Four-term Maine Senator Susan Collins, considered a moderate Republican, has been unable to shake her association with Mr. Trump and appears likely to lose her seat. Ditto for first-term Iowa Senator Joni Ernst. North Carolina GOP Senator Thom Tillis, who contracted COVID-19 at the same time as Mr. Trump, remains the underdog in his race against a Democratic challenger who recently apologized for sending sexually suggestive texts to a woman who was not his wife. Cook rates both of Georgia’s Senate races as toss-ups.

Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appears closer than ever to getting his career-long wish of winning the Senate’s top job, which is arguably the second-most powerful position in Washington. No legislation ever reaches the President’s desk unless the Senate majority leader wants it to. Mr. McConnell skillfully – or shamelessly, depending on your perspective – wielded his power to thwart former president Barack Obama’s judicial picks and smooth the way for Mr. Trump’s. Though his own Kentucky senate seat looks safe, his majority looks dead in the water.

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That may not mean a radical change in direction under Mr. Schumer, however. While the New York Senator will pay lip service to progressive causes as majority leader, he will do so conscious that his party’s Senate newbies will have owed their victories to swing voters in purple states. They are likely to hug the centre, frustrating progressive Democrats' calls for Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, stricter gun laws and wealth taxes. Much like Mr. Biden himself.

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