The Race for the U.S. Senate

Five days to go.  The U.S. Senate is currently controlled by the Democrats, but the partisan mix is 50-50.  Democrats control the Senate because Kamala Harris as Vice President is president of the Senate and breaks the tie.  That alone makes the 2022 midterm elections important – one net seat pick up for Republicans and the majority changes hands.  Elections for senators are staggered so only roughly one-third of the Senate is up for election in any one cycle.  This year 34 seats are up for regular election and there is one special election to fill the seat of Sen. Jim Inhofe who is resigning early.  21 of these seats are held by Republicans and 14 by Democrats – meaning Republicans have more seats to defend. 

Senate campaigns are different from House campaigns.  A Senate candidate runs statewide.  While a House candidate can appeal to a subset of the electorate – like a rural area or an urban area – a Senate candidate must build a majority coalition of the entire state.  Senate races are also extremely expensive.  More than $1.6 billion has been spent or booked on TV ads in just a dozen states with $3 out of every $4 being spent in six states, according to NPR.

Some states are solidly blue and some are solidly red.  Some tilt or lean one way or the other and a few are truly swing states.  The Cook Political Report rates 22 states as solid for either the Republicans or Democrats.  This year, the Senate races that were thought to be truly competitive are:

  • Arizona
  • Georgia
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • Pennsylvania
  • Wisconsin

A few other states have real races, but one of the parties is believed to have a significant advantage

  • Ohio
  • North Carolina
  • Washington

If the Republicans can hold their 2 toss up seats, (PA & WI) they only need to pick off one of the Democratic held toss-ups (AZ, GA, NV, NH) to win the majority.  In many ways that has been the dominant story all year in the Senate – despite defending more seats, the Republicans have an excellent chance because Democrats are actually defending more toss up seats.  But the other dominant story has been the candidates the Republicans nominated.  Hard right MAGA candidates prevailed over more moderate Republicans in key primaries.  Combined with the Democrats Summer surge post the Dobbs decision, Republicans went into Labor Day trailing in Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and even solidly red Ohio.  North Carolina was really close and Washington state was out of reach.  FiveThirtyEight at one point gave Republicans just a 28% chance of capturing the majority.  Today, FiveThirtyEight gives the Republicans a 53% chance.  What happened?

As reported, voters have shifted back towards Republicans on the generic ballot polls in dramatic fashion since September. We have also seen extremely high turnout in early voting, which significantly impacts how we view the already-close polling data. Below is a closer look at the individual toss-up races.

Arizona:  Incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly is running against first-time candidate Blake Masters.  Sen. Kelly is a former astronaut and husband of former congresswomen Gabe Giffords who was shot and severely injured in 2011.  Blake Masters is 36 years old, a venture capitalist and aligned himself in the primary with Donald Trump.  At one point, Masters trailed by double digits and the race was beginning to look out of reach for the Republicans.  But buoyed by a strong Republican campaign at the top of the ticket in the governor’s race, Masters has pulled close to even.  Arizona has a history of political independence – with famous senators like Barry Goldwater, John McCain and Krysten Sinema.  It is also one of the states that endured the most political controversy over the 2020 presidential election.  RealClear Politics (RCP) average of the polls has Kelly currently leading by 2.3%, but Kelly remains below 50% in the polls – a dangerous position for an incumbent. 

Georgia:  Another state that endured a tumultuous 2020 presidential election.  Sen. Raphael Warnock (elected in 2020) is running against former Heisman trophy winner and University of Georgia football legend Hershel Walker.  Again, the Republican candidate trailed badly for most of the summer and Walker has faced significant controversy over his personal life.  But he now leads by 1.6% in the RCP average of polls.

Nevada:  Sen. Catherine Cortez Mastro has long been the incumbent senator Democrats have been most concerned about.  She is running against Adam Laxalt, grandson of a Nevada political legend, Sen. Paul Laxalt.  Republicans have also made gains with Hispanic voters in the state.  The race has been close virtually all year and Laxalt currently leads in the RCP average by 1.9%.

New Hampshire:  This race was considered out of reach for the Republicans just a few weeks ago.  The Republican campaign arm pulled out of the state – only to return as the polls tightened.  Sen. Maggie Hassan was considered a vulnerable incumbent in the purple-leaning state, but the Republicans nominated a hard-right candidate, Don Bolduc.  He was thought to be a poor general election candidate and trailed badly.  Yesterday, the highly respected St. Anslem poll put Boduc up by 1 point.  The RCP average still has Hassan leading by 1%.

Pennsylvania:  Sen Pat Toomey is retiring this year – making this an open seat that Republicans must defend.  It is a large, deep purple state with distinct political regions of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the southwest.  The Democratic candidate Lt. Gov John Fetterman held double-digit leads most of the summer.  But he suffered a stroke that he has not fully recovered from and he has had some shaky media interviews and a widely considered poor debate performance.  He is running against first-time candidate Mehmet Oz, a surgeon and TV personality. Former President Trump is set to head back to Pennsylvania for the third time this year to stump for Dr. Oz. A move that some strategists are questioning as Dr. Oz gains momentum in the polls. Until recently, Dr. Oz was not seen as a strong candidate and had been dogged by questions about his ties to the former President and questions about his PA residency. The race has tightened and Fetterman leads in the RCP average by .6%.

Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson is a hard-conservative senator running for reelection in a solidly purple state. He is running against Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes. Despite Sen. Johnson’s perceived weaknesses, and a widely covered campaign speech by former President Obama intended to rally the Democrats, this race appears to be drifting toward the Republicans. Johnson’s allies are pushing a strong law and order narrative, with some criticizing him for using what is seen as race-baiting tactics in political ads. Republicans have also successfully connected Barnes to a perceived rise in crime in America's cities. Johnson now holds a 3% lead in the RCP average.

Taken in total, the conclusion is the race for control of the Senate is very tight.  Republicans have the momentum – the individual races have tightened in their direction and the generic polls have moved significantly toward the Republicans.  But each of these individual races are extremely close with just five days to go. 


Congress and the White House

Biden: ‘In our bones, we know democracy is at risk’

The president's speech was a closing argument for Democrats before the midterms.  President Joe Biden warned in a speech on Wednesday that the country’s democracy was dangerously close to crumbling, painting the closing stretch of the midterm elections in stark terms.  “We’re often not faced with questions of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy,” he said at another point. “But this year we are.”

Full Transcript of President Biden’s Speech on Democracy


In Virginia Midterm Battlegrounds, Republican Candidates Borrow From Youngkin’s Approach

School policy in the spotlight alongside inflation and abortion in three competitive House races.  In the final days of the midterm campaign with a trio of Democratic House seats in play, Virginia Republicans are embracing an approach that helped Glenn Youngkin capture the governor’s mansion: making the case that they listen to parents.  In a recent television ad, Republican Yesli Vega stands before a classroom and says she will “never co-parent with the federal government.” She references Mr. Youngkin’s upset victory last year, in which the Republican won over independents and some Democrats in a blue-leaning state that backed President Biden by 10 percentage points in the 2020 election.


In final stretch, candidates sharpen their appeals to 'ticket-splitting' voters

Democrats Stacey Abrams and John Fetterman want to tie their rivals to unpopular Republicans on the ballot, while GOP hopeful J.D. Vance is courting conflicted Republicans.  Trailing in the polls, Stacey Abrams is trying to tie her GOP rival, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, to the less popular Republican on the ballot: Senate hopeful Herschel Walker.  Abrams and Fetterman have a common strategy: They're seeking to appeal to Americans who are considering voting for contenders from different parties for high office. In Ohio, Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance and his allies are taking the same approach with voters who are considering supporting GOP Gov. Mike DeWine and Vance's opponent, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan.  Ticket-splitters are playing a starring role in 2022 polls, but a key unanswered question is whether most of them will persist in bifurcating their ballots or end up going all in with one party.


Democrats Twist and Turn on Immigration as Republicans Attack in Waves

Democratic candidates are either avoiding border issues or talking about them on Republicans’ terms. And the party’s grass-roots allies are struggling for cash and battling burnout.  The language from Republican candidates in ads and speeches is clear and negative, using the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico as a stark partisan dividing line.  President Biden’s policies, they argue, have led to unchecked borders and allowed immigrants, crime and fentanyl to pour into cities, turning every state into a border state.  Democratic candidates have a far murkier message, either avoiding the issue or leaning into tough talk that often addresses immigration on Republican terms. In Ohio, Representative Tim Ryan, the party’s nominee for Senate, said a border wall could be “a piece” of the solution. In Arizona, Senator Mark Kelly has called for more border enforcement officers and “physical barriers where they make sense."