Two popular state governors put West in play for Senate Democrats

FILE PHOTO: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidates former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney and Montana Governor Steve Bullock on the first night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A pair of popular two-term state governors have put Democrats within striking range of winning control of the U.S. Senate after Tuesday's election, and with better than a bare 50-seat majority.

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who both ran for president before jumping into the Senate campaign, could complete a Western sweep of Republican-held Senate seats, along with fellow Democrat Mark Kelly in Arizona.

Such an outcome would all but give Democrats the Senate majority, if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the White House and the party maintains its majority in the House of Representatives.

Hickenlooper and Kelly are favored over Republican Senators Cory Gardner and Martha McSally, respectively, according to nonpartisan political analysts.

But Bullock is running neck and neck with Republican Senator Steve Daines in a race that could depend on how Republican-leaning independents, angered by the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, view Republican President Donald Trump's chances for re-election.

"If people think Donald Trump is going to lose nationally, do these voters who lean Republican punish the Republican Party because of Trump, or do they put in place somebody who can be a check on the Democratic administration?" said David Parker, a political science professor and pollster at Montana State University.

Hickenlooper and Bullock were recruited to expand the number of paths Democrats had to ending the current 53-seat Republican Senate majority, according to party officials.

They have raised huge sums. Hickenlooper collected about $40 million in campaign donations vs. $24 million for Gardner as of Oct. 14, though each had about $4 million cash left over for the final three weeks. Bullock had more than twice as much cash as Daines, after out-fundraising the Republican by approximately $43 million to $26 million.

Democrats could capture Senate control Nov. 3 by gaining a net four Republican seats, or just three if Biden wins the White House and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, wields the tie-breaking vote in the Senate as vice president.

Democrats are favored to win Republican-held seats in Arizona, Colorado and Maine, and could pick up North Carolina and Iowa as well.

Montana, considered a safe Republican seat at the outset of the campaign, has since joined a list of highly competitive races in other former Republican strongholds including Georgia, Kansas and South Carolina.

Much of the change stems from voter disaffection with Trump, particularly his performance on the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 225,000 Americans and made millions more jobless.

Recent polling shows Hickenlooper leading Gardner by as many as 9 percentage points, with Biden up 14 points over Trump.

Forty-three percent of the state's 4.1 million voters have already cast ballots, including 54% of Democrats, 42% of Republicans and 37% of independents, according to the U.S. Elections Project.

Hickenlooper's most powerful weapon is the state's growing Democratic base, fueled by an influx of voters from California and a rising Latino population.

"His 'aw-shucks' style doesn't really appeal to everyone. But he didn't throw a big gaffe. And that's really all he had to do," said Kyle Saunders, political science professor at Colorado State University.

In Montana, just under half of the state's 740,570 registered voters have already cast mail-in ballots, U.S. Elections Project data show.

Bullock's chances for unseating Daines could depend on how many Trump voters split their tickets in a state where voters have not joined the national trend to vote by straight tickets.

Pollsters say that Trump-Bullock voters existed in substantial numbers in 2016, when Bullock won re-election with more than 50% of the vote and Trump carried the state with more than 56%.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Scott Malone; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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