ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As Hillary Clinton expands her lead over Donald Trump in polls, Republicans feel grim, and it's not just because of the presidential race. Republicans took control of the Senate two years ago, and now many of them are afraid they will lose it in November. NPR's Susan Davis has been talking with Republican campaign operatives who are in charge of holding onto the Senate. And Sue, what are they telling you?
SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: What I found was an incredible amount of pessimism among Senate Republican campaign strategists that there is very low confidence that Donald Trump is going to win the White House and an increasing view that they are likely to lose the Senate.
SHAPIRO: And these people you're describing - generally, their role when they talk to reporters is to spin you and say, oh, no, everything's going to be great.
DAVIS: Right, and this is how we're going to keep the majority. And that's what made the candor so striking to me, is that there is a real clear-headed assessment that the climate right now does not lend itself to Republicans keeping the Senate.
SHAPIRO: Describe what the Senate map looks like. What's the big picture?
DAVIS: OK so brace for a little bit of math. Republicans have a 54-seat Senate majority, and every election year, about a third of the Senate is up for re-election. Now, if their concerns about a Clinton White House win holds, Democrats will only need to win four seats. And they're already halfway there. They're favored to win in Illinois and Wisconsin, which means they need to pick up just two seats. And now Republicans are defending 10 seats this cycle, and Democrats only have one seat to defend.
SHAPIRO: What are some of the names people might have heard of people who Republicans fear could be out of a job in the next few months?
DAVIS: OK, there are five core states that also are running through the presidential battleground. Probably one of the names you hear the most is Marco Rubio, a Florida senator who was going to retire from the Senate but decided to run again. He's in a very competitive race. In Ohio, Senator Rob Portman - he's a former trade representative - is up for re-election. And Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire - she's the only Republican woman up for re-election this cycle.
But the map is also expanding. We're now talking about races in states like Arizona, where Senator John McCain is facing possibly one of the toughest re-election campaigns of his career. And there's even efforts to make states like Georgia competitive. The Clinton campaign is putting staff and resources into there. And this is a race that both Republicans and Democrats said, keep an eye on it.
SHAPIRO: This whole campaign we've heard pessimistic Republicans say, well, maybe people will split the ticket. They might not vote for Trump for president, but they might vote for Republicans for the Senate. What's the likelihood of that happening?
DAVIS: It's incredibly unlikely. Increasingly voters simply do not split their tickets. Voters, like Congress, are more partisan. And if Clinton is going to win a state like Ohio, a senator like Rob Portman is going to have to win over some voters that voted for Clinton. That's a really tall order, especially if the top of the ticket is winning by a really big margin.
The other problem that Republicans have is that the Trump campaign has no real organization on the ground in these battleground states. Now, the Republican National Committee is doing some of that work, but he's running a really untraditional campaign. And that puts even more burden on Senate Republicans to find and identify these voters and make sure they turn up in November.
SHAPIRO: With a little over 80 days until the election, how much of this is baked in already?
DAVIS: I did talk to election analysts who said, look; 2016 is a weird year, and we could see an uptick in ticket splitting that we haven't seen before in recent years. The bottom line is if the election were today, Democrats would likely take the Senate and maybe by a large margin.
SHAPIRO: And the campaign strategists who are crying in their beers who you talked to - what's their plan?
DAVIS: Fingers crossed, and things can change. And there's still time to change the conversation.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Susan Davis, thanks a lot.
DAVIS: Thanks, Ari.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.