By cbennett@politico.com (Cory Bennett)

Democratic senators fighting to hold on to their seats next year are increasingly worried about a troubling reality: Russia appears set to mess with U.S. elections — again.

The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned last week that Russia’s second straight attempt to upend a major election appears certain. They pointed to hacked emails, fake news stories and other evidence of interference in France, Montenegro and elsewhere over the past year as signs Moscow remains determined to monkey with voting.

Democratic senators such as Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Jon Tester of Montana — who hail from states President Donald Trump won in 2016 — know they’re already facing stiff reelection challenges.

Now they’re concerned the Trump administration is dragging its feet on thwarting sophisticated Russian cyber operations that could have significant impact on their races — and could even sway which party wins control of the Senate. The red- and purple-state Democratic seats are top targets for Republicans hoping to expand their two-seat majority in the Senate; Democrats likely would have to hold all of them if they are to have any hope of retaking the chamber.

“If there isn’t some effort to take steps against Russian interference, every campaign is going to have to be on guard and working against it,” said Casey, describing himself as “very concerned.”

Trump has been reluctant to acknowledge, as various congressional panels have concluded, that Russia overtly interfered in last year’s election. The president has described Moscow’s purported meddling as a “hoax” and said Democrats are making excuses for his defeat of Hillary Clinton in November, even though some members of his own party believe it’s likely to happen again. “You can’t walk away from this and believe that Russia’s not currently active in trying to create chaos in our election process,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the Senate intelligence chairman, said last week.

Democrats say the president’s disinterest has meant there’s been little urgency behind preparing for the next wave of Russian threats, which U.S. intelligence has said included hacking and leaking Democratic operatives’ emails and creating fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to push stories that hurt Clinton.

Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, vice chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, said last week at a joint news conference with Burr that he was frustrated the Department of Homeland Security took nearly a year to notify 21 states that Russia tried to penetrate their election systems. Some states disputed that assessment, including Wisconsin, leaving a lack of clarity that Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) — who is also up for reelection next year — called “kind of disturbing.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, complained in a letter to DHS last month that his call for a briefing on election security concerns had been rejected because Republicans weren’t planning to attend.

Senate Democrats sought to attach a package of election security measures to a recently passed defense bill — and were turned down by Republicans who lead the chamber. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently said it asked its Republican counterpart to work together on cybersecurity issues but never heard back.

“We absolutely need to get ahead of this,” Heitkamp, one of the GOP’s top targets in the midterm elections, told POLITICO. “We need to understand the threat. But more importantly, states need to understand this is real.”

Warner and Burr said they intend to map out the breadth and depth of the Russian 2016 interference campaign by early 2018. But Burr said those findings wouldn’t necessarily point toward policy solutions — rather, it would be up to states and other committees in Congress to develop responses.

That leaves little time for states to respond ahead of the 2018 primary election season, which begins in Texas in March.

State election officials say they’re confident in the integrity of their vote-counting systems heading into 2018, with numerous upgrades responding to the breaches that marred last year’s election. States are creating cyber defense offices, adding extra security layers to network logins, revamping digital training for employees, establishing digital security positions and making plans for wholesale upgrades of voter registration systems.

Still, these same officials concede that money is tight, imperiling long-term investments such as replacing the country’s already old voting machines. Many blame a tight-fisted Congress for refusing to help fill the financial gap and express anger over Republicans’ attempts to defund a federal election agency.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, DHS labeled the country’s election systems as “critical infrastructure” in an attempt to get states more access to the government’s technical insight and expertise. The agency recently erected an election security task force to streamline its efforts.

DHS is setting up a coordinating council to align states’ work on bolstering electoral cybersecurity, spokesman Scott McConnell said.

“We continue to work with state and local election officials to improve the security of their election infrastructure,” McConnell said by email. “We are having regular and continuous dialogue and building trusted relationships. States have already taken steps to secure elections, and DHS’ efforts are meant to support, not replace, state and local efforts.”

But former DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson said in August that the U.S. elections were “almost as vulnerable, perhaps, now as we were six, nine months ago.”

The concerns are particularly acute for Democrats facing tough re-election battles.

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s home state was not one of the 21 notified by the Trump administration that Russia tried to interfere with voting, but he echoed other vulnerable Democratic incumbents in vowing vigilance against any repeat threat of electoral disruption.

“I think we have to get out in front of it,” Manchin said. “We’re watching everything that we possibly can.”

It’s not just Democrats fretting about potential Russian cyber-intrusions as the midterms approach. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) and …read more

Read more here: Senate Democrats worry Russia could jeopardize reelection bids

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