Six Months Out: The Race for the Senate

(Here’s what I was hoping to post on Tuesday before a leaker at the Supreme Court forced me to write about that instead.)

On Monday, I reaffirmed my longstanding position that the Democrats’ House majority is doomed. This November, Republicans will re-take the House of Representatives.

But what of the Senate? The Dobbs v. Jackson leaked draft offered a reminder of the Senate’s impact on the Supreme Court. Since they have the “advice and consent” power over the President’s judicial appointments, Senate elections are the most direct way voters can send a message that the Court is marching at a different pace than the American people. Toward the end of today’s post, I have some state-by-state polling that shows legal abortion is popular in some of the midterms’ key battleground states, which could make the difference.

Might Democrats now rally enough troops to save the upper chamber? Let’s take a look.

Part II: The Senate

Senate elections aren’t as predictable as House elections. In the House, all 435 seats are up for re-election every two years, which captures the national mood. Right now, the national mood is anti-Democrat, and the House results will reflect that.

Recall that in 2018, the national mood was heavily anti-Republican. Democrats led the generic ballot by a Real Clear Politics polling average of 7.4 points on their to winning the House popular vote by 8.6 points — adding 41 seats and the new majority in the process.

And yet, not only did Republicans keep their Senate majority… they actually added two seats.

How is that possible? Well, in any given year, Senate seats aren’t as elegantly distributed as the coast-to-coast House elections. Every two years, only 33 or 34 states (or one or two more, if there are special elections to fill vacancies) hold elections for one of their senators. (To protect against volatility, the Constitution staggers our senators’ six-year terms so that only one-third of the chamber is up for re-election every two years.) A party can be fortunate if the contested states are more favorable to them than the national mood (as was the case for Republicans in 2018) and unfortunate if the contested states are not favorable.

In sum, even if the Democrats will have an almost impossible time holding the House, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Senate will fall with it.

So to figure out whether Republicans will make it a clean sweep or the Democrats hold on to half of Congress, let’s take a close look at the race for the Senate.

Senate’s current composition:

  • Democrats: 48
  • Independents: 2 (both caucus with Dems, making 50)
  • Republicans: 50
  • Wrinkle: Vice-President Harris serves as a tiebreaking vote, meaning Democrats have control of Congress at 50-50.
  • Number of Democratic seats NOT up for re-election: 36
  • Number of Republican seats NOT up for re-election: 29
  • Number of Senate seats up for grabs in 2022: 35
    • Number of those 35 seats that are Democratic: 14
    • Number of those 35 seats that are Republican: 21

The states up for grabs:

In this map, the blue states have a Democratic senator up for re-election and the red states have a Republican senator up for re-election. If the color is light, that particular senator is running for re-election. If the color is dark, that means that senator is retiring, making it an “open” seat. The weird square in Oklahoma reflect that Oklahoma has a regularly scheduled Senate election AND a second election to replace a retiring Senator, so both Oklahoma Senate seats have a race (just like Georgia in 2020).

Of course, just because there are 35 contested seats doesn’t mean these are 35 close races that could go either way. We know better. Many of these contests are in states that are heavily Democratic or Republican.

To break down the 35 elections, my first stop is always the gold-standard Cook Report. Its Senate ratings page is one of the most instructive bookmarks we can have as November nears. It shows us that of the 35 races, 10 are solid or “likely” Democratic (CA, “CO,” CT, HI, IL, MD, NY, OR, VT, WA), while 16 are solid Republican (AK, AL, AR, IA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, MO, ND, OK1, OK2, SC, SD, UT).

In the race to the majority, therefore, here are the starting points:

  • Democrats: 36 not up for election + 10 solid/likely = 46
  • Republicans: 29 not up for election + 16 solid = 45
  • Senate seats neither solid nor likely for either side: 9

So far so good for the Democrats. Not only do they have a likely one-seat lead heading into the nine competitive seats, but remember they also have Vice President Harris for that tiebreaking vote. They therefore need to only win four of the nine competitive seats to reach 50 and maintain their Senate majority. The Republicans, on the other hand, are not only one back of the Democratic starting point, but they also need to get to the true majority of 51, so they need to win six of the nine competitive seats.

Now the question is — what are the nine competitive races? Here’s where things take a downward turn for the Democrats. The Cook Report believes the following nine senate seats are competitive:

Here, we see that three seats lean toward the GOP whereas only one leans toward the Democrats. Worse for the Democrats, of those four leaner seats, I think the New Hampshire seat is the most vulnerable.

Considering the political climate, it’s hard to imagine how Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio go Democratic. These days, they’re light red states even in presidential years, with all three voting for Trump in 2016 and 2020. Now in a midterm with an incumbent Democratic President (which, as yesterday’s analysis noted, both work against the Democrats this year), it would make little sense for them to turn blue. The challengers’ campaigns will certainly be flush with Democratic cash and the races will likely remain single-digit competitive all cycle, but I’ll need to see good Democratic polling in the fall to believe they can actually win in any of these three states. I’m ready to predict all three stay Republican.

If this analysis is correct, Republicans actually start at 48 with six states to play. Republicans winning three of those six gets them from 48 to 51, the outright majority they need to take control of the chamber. Democrats are still at 46, and they therefore need to win four of the six remaining states to get them from 46 to 50 plus the Vice President.

With all that in mind, let’s try to read some tea leaves in those six states. I’ll address them alphabetically: Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin

The Battlegrounds in the Great Senate War

I should be clear that six months out is far too early for confident predictions in competitive states. Consider that:

  1. There is a half-year of politics and potential momentum shifts ahead.
  2. This far out, we have little general election polling.
  3. We sometimes don’t even have an obvious nominee for one of the major parties

So a lot can change! That said, we’ll take a quick look at each of these races, and I’ll give my general feel for it.

Senate Battleground #1: Arizona

  • Incumbent: Mark Kelly (D)
  • Potential challengers: Mark Brnovich (Arizona Attorney General); Jim Lamon (chair of the solar power company Depcom); Blake Masters (chair of the Thiel foundation); Michael McGuire (retired Major General)
  • GOP Primary date: August 2

Too Early Analysis: In the primary fight, OH Predictive Insights has conducted polls every couple of months dating back to September:

With a clear plurality in the fall and winter, AG Brnovich seemed to benefit from being the only statewide official in the primary. As voters have gotten to know other candidates, however, his total and lead have fallen. Although General McGuire was once seen as his chief competition, he too has dropped. It looks like businessman Jim Lamon is winning some people over.

In general election polling, Kelly leads all potential Republican nominees by between 4 and 10 points, but usually with numbers in the mid-40s, which should be concerning to his campaign. It’s reasonable to assume Senator Kelly’s lead in all head-to-head polls has name recognition to thank. Not one of the Republicans hits 40% in those polls, but in a purple state we can be certain the Republican nominee will win close to 50% of the vote, especially in a midterm. Once they nominate someone, we can expect Arizona Republicans will rally to the nominee’s banner.

Democrats have to like that the state voted blue for their current senators (Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema) and President Biden, but the elections that produced those results — 2018 and 2020 — had favorable climate for the Dems, whereas 2022 does not.

PPFA Too Early Call: A true toss-up

Senate Battleground #2: Georgia

  • Incumbent: Raphael Warnock (D)
  • Potential challengers: Herschel Walker (former NFL running back and Texas resident up until like last week)
  • GOP Primary date: May 24

Although I like Republicans to generally pick up momentum as they consolidate around nominees and head toward a favorable midterm climate, Georgia is the exception. Walker, who’s blowing away the Republican field, already has sky high name recognition in the state. He was born in Georgia, went to high school there, and was one of the great college football players of all time at the University of Georgia. We can also already see that in general election polling, he edges out Warnock more often than not.

However, thanks to name recognition and Georgia Republicans knowing he’s the nominee, I think Walker is already at his ceiling. The campaign trail will not be good to him, and I suspect we’ll hear plenty of gaffes and ignorance of the issues, as there already have been. Democrats will also dredge up past accusations of Walker’s physical and emotional abuse toward his ex-wife.

Walker is simply not nearly at the level we expect from senatorial candidates. The more prepared Preacher-turned-Senator Warnock will offer a strong contrast to Georgia voters.

I will say this for Heschel Walker, however: he has one of the most unintendedly funny lines of the political season: “At one time, science said man came from apes, did it not? If that is true, why are there still apes? Think about it.”

You got us there, Herschel. You got us there.

PPFA Too Early Call: Warnock & the Democrats (4847)

Senate Battleground #3: Nevada

  • Incumbent: Catherine Cortez Masto (D)
  • Potential challengers: Adam Laxalt (former Nevada Attorney General) and others
  • GOP Primary date: June 14

Too Early Analysis: Laxalt’s got the nomination wrapped up. He has a big polling lead on the primary field, and he has the valuable Trump endorsement.

As for the general election, surveys show Laxalt and Senator Cortez Masto splitting the polls:

Interestingly, dating back to August, Laxalt leads six of the nine polls, but Cortez Masto has the two biggest polling leads. As a result, an average of these polls have them neck-and-neck (Laxalt 41.3, CCM 40.6).

That said, there’s an interesting polling pattern to analyze. Note how Cortez Masto’s two big leads come from polls that surveyed “RV,” or Registered Voters. If we isolate only “LV”, or Likely Voters, Laxalt leads five of the six polls, including all the ones done since September of last year.

In a midterm election, you definitely want to be leading the LV category more than the RV, as hardcore voters punch above their weight in lower turnout midterms. The typical Registered Voter is much more likely to show up in a presidential election.

Meanwhile, the undecided numbers in those general election polls are huge — always double digits and sometimes a fifth of respondents. Why are they undecided? That’s almost certainly because they want to know more about the challenger. As Laxalt’s name recognition climbs, I think he’ll add a couple points to his polling — polling he’s already leading.

And yet, over the longer term, Nevada has been trending bluer. From 1968 to 2004, it only twice voted Democrat for president (Bill Clinton), but it has since voted Democratic in every presidential election, including in President Trump’s national win in 2016. Lower on the ballot, starting in 1998 it had a two decade run of Republican governors, but that seat flipped blue in 2018. In that same year, Republican Senator Dean Heller was defeated by Democrat Jackie Rosen. Considering this red-to-purple-to-blue trend, Nevada should keep moving toward the Dems this year.

On the other hand, the pandemic badly hurt tourism and large indoor gatherings — two things Las Vegas residents depend upon for their livelihood. (Here’s some trivia: no other city’s metropolitan area contains a higher percentage of the overall state’s population than Las Vegas does. It has 74% of the state’s population!) The GOP was the party of re-opening, and Nevada voters will remember that.

In sum, it’ll be an interesting battle of long arc trends, which favors the Democrat, against year-specific circumstances, which favors the Republican. I think the latter prevails.

PPFA Too Early Call: Laxalt & the Republicans (4947)

Senate Battleground #4: New Hampshire

  • Incumbent: Maggie Hassan (D)
  • Potential challengersDon Bolduc (retired brigadier general, 2020 Senate candidate),  Chuck Morse (state senator), Kevin Smith (former state rep and town manager)
  • GOP Primary date: September 13

Too Early Analysis: This primary is still four months away, and, with a filing deadline of June 10, we might get more candidates. (For the three previous states, the filing deadline has already passed.) New Hampshire was the one Democratic “leaner” of the competitive states, and it’s only a “leaner” for good reason. A recent poll from Saint Anslem College found Senator Hassan three points under water, with 46% of New Hampshire voters approving against 49% disapproving.

Still, she’s clearly the Democratic nominee. Who will the Republicans nominate as their potential seat-flipper?

Democrats probably like where the Republican field is headed. The one primary poll conducted is a fairly recent one. From April 14-18, UNH found that General Bolduc had 33%, and no other candidate had higher than 4%. Still, 58% of respondents were undecided. The primary, after all, is not for another four months.

Bolduc’s strong polling result probably stems from two factors: A) name recognition due to his run two years ago (he finished a strong second in the 2020 primary), and B) he has jumped aboard the Trump train and echoes the former President’s language about a rigged election. He’s out to right field on other stuff as well, calling Governor Chris Sununu — a fellow Republican! — a “Chinese Communist sympathizer” with a business that “supports terrorism.” Sununu is an incredibly popular governor, with polls showing him with 30- to 50-point leads for re-election this year.

If Bolduc is the GOP’s guy, Hassan, with a sizable war chest, will win re-election. Although a midterm with a Democrat in the White House means all swing states are vulnerable, I think she holds on.

PPFA Too Early Call: Hassan & the Democrats (4948)

I listed Senate Battlegrounds 1 through 4 alphabetically. Coincidentally, Democrats hold all four, whereas the two ahead are Republican-held. So far, I think the Democrats hold on to Georgia and New Hampshire, which brings them from 46 to 48 in our count, but I also think they lose Nevada to the Republicans, who therefore move from 48 to 49. Meanwhile, I had no feeling on Arizona and left it alone.

If I’m right about the three states I’ve awarded, that means Democrats, to keep the majority, need to either win one of the last two Republican-held states (if they win Arizona) or both (if they lose Arizona).

Conversely, Republicans, if they win Arizona, only need to win one of these last two states to get to 51. If they lose Arizona, they need to successfully defend both states to get to 51.

Make sense?

Let’s take a look at those last two states…

Senate Battleground #5: Pennsylvania

Too Early Analysis: The state is so far northeast you’d think it’s ripe for a Democratic pickup, but we mustn’t forget that Pennsylvania is not the typical northeast state. Although it borders dark blue New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware, it also touches red Ohio and West Virginia. Pennsylvania, like the country, is blue on the edges (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) with a whole lotta red in between. Trump won it in 2016 and Biden won it in 2020, and both won it narrowly (Trump by 0.72% in 2016, Biden by 1.17% in 2020). On brand for a battleground, Pennsylvania has one Democratic Senator and one Republican Senator.

Since their Republican Senator, Pat Toomey, is retiring, Pennsylvania is the only contest of these six tossups where we have two competitive primaries. That means the variables double.

These primaries are just two weeks from today, which is exciting for unethical horse-race journalists like myself. It also means we have more polling than we had in other states.

The Democratic Primary looks fairly decided. In two March surveys by separate polling outfits, Lieutenant Governor Fetterman led by 23 and 24 points. This is a lead he’s held since last year, even as the undecideds dwindle. He’s looking like the nominee.

For a Lt. Governor, Fetterman is a strange duck with baggage that came dangerously close to being the same as George Zimmerman‘s, except since Fetterman is a Democrat you probably haven’t heard about it as much. (It helps that he didn’t actually kill anyone.) However, perhaps a vigilant citizen protecting his community with a shotgun from a suspicious-looking black man might play well with crossover voters.

The Republican Primary is much more exciting, with five candidates threatening double-digit support:

The Dr. Oz charge at once-leader David McCormick is what has really made the race interesting. Trump has endorsed Oz, so between that and the polling momentum, you have to like the Doctor’s chances in such a tight nomination battle.

A general election matchup between Fetterman and Oz is truly too close to call — and it’ll also be the strangest. The one general election hypothetical poll was back in December and had Oz within the margin of error: 44-42 to Fetterman.

Oz will poll even better when he’s officially the nominee, although we can assume his name recognition is already at its ceiling. The question is how does he handle himself as the nominee? The general election will last over five months. That’s a long time for the bright lights to burn a first-time political candidate.

Then again, he’ll be well-funded in a change election, and we can expect a TV star will be better suited to speaking publicly than an athlete like Herschel Walker. I like his chances to avoid major gaffes, but I wouldn’t rule out a bunch of minor ones. It can be a volatile race, but if he avoids big mistakes I think Dr. Oz prevails.

PPFA Too Early Call: Dr. Oz & the Republicans (5048)

Even without Arizona, Republicans are now one away. Will the last state be #51 to give them the majority?

Senate Battleground #6: Wisconsin

  • Incumbent: Ron Johnson (R)
  • Potential challengersMandela Barnes (Lieutenant Governor), Tom Nelson (Outagamie County Executive), Alex Lasry (Senior Vice President of the Milwaukee Bucks), Sarah Godlewski (State Treasurer)
  • Democratic Primary date: August 9

Too Early Analysis: Like New Hampshire, Wisconsin is the other one of these six competitive states with a filing deadline still to come — in this case, June 1. Therefore, there’s still a month for other candidates to jump in the race.

Senator Johnson might be in trouble here. He had pledged to limit himself to two Senate terms, but now addicted to power (I mean, addicted to “fighting for the people of Wisconsin”) he’s reneged on that promise. It’s tough for the Senator to have such an easily understood flipflop.

Worse, the voters of Wisconsin don’t seem too crazy about him. Just last week, a poll from Marquette University found he’s well under water: only 36% have a favorable opinion of him, while 46% go the other way. In fact, Morning Consult just found that he’s the country’s second most unpopular senator among their own constituents; at 37 approve/51 disapprove, he’s one of only two senators with majority disapproval.

In sum, it’s a great opportunity for Democrats to pick up a seat, perhaps even more than Pennsylvania. If they lose one or two of the Democratic incumbents from those other states, Wisconsin essentially becomes a must-flip for them.

Who will be Johnson’s challenger? Lt. Governor Barnes had been looking pretty good for a long time, but recent polls have the race narrowing:

It appears to now be a two-person race between Barnes and Alex Lasry, a high-ranking member of the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA’s defending champions (until my Celtics come back to win the series!). With three months until the primary, anything can happen. Both candidates could offer a good contrast to a vulnerable Senator.

But will they actually win in November? That’s a different story. Wisconsin is as purple as it gets, voting for Trump by 0.77% in 2016 and then Biden by 0.73% in 2020. Its current governor is a Democrat, but both chambers of its state legislature are Republican, as was its prior governor, Scott Walker. Of their two US senators, Johnson is a Republican, while Tammy Baldwin is a Democrat.

Johnson’s numbers will rise as Republicans circle the wagons against the Democratic opponent. Remember how Johnson is the second most unpopular senator in the country? The most unpopular is Mitch McConnell. He was also the most unpopular heading into his last re-election in Kentucky, and yet he won by 19 points once Kentucky Republicans got a look at a Democratic alternative. Never underestimate the power of Republicans hating Democratic nominees more than they dislike their own. Although Wisconsin isn’t as conservative as Kentucky, a similar phenomenon can help Senator Johnson.

A super purple state in a midterm with a Democrat in the Oval Office makes me think Republicans keep Wisconsin.

PPFA Too Early Call: Johnson & the Republicans (5148)

And that gets Republicans to 51, with Arizona an opportunity for 52. They take the Senate.

It’s important to note that unlike my House prediction, I currently have very little confidence in my Senate one. These are six true tossups, and a little Democratic momentum could make a huge difference. The news out of the Supreme Court had Democratic Senate candidates, like lieutenant governors Fetterman and Barnes, seizing on the news to push for their own victories to help keep a Democratic Senate majority.

It might work. The New York Times just isolated state-by-state polling on the issue to find where voters most value legalized abortion. The battleground states of Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, voters prefer legalized abortion at a rate of +13. In Nevada it’s +33, and in the libertarian state of New Hampshire it’s +35. If the Roe decision remains top-of-voters’ minds in November, that could send the Democratic senate candidates to victory. My guess, however, is that a struggling economy will still be the most salient issue to voters.

If I maintain my energy (often directly tied to how much you read and share!), we’ll revisit these states at various points across the next six months.

As of now, from where I sit, the GOP is a heavy favorite to win the House and a decent favorite to win the Senate as well.

Today’s featured image was lifted from after they confiscated my photo from when I stormed the chamber with Viking horns and paint splattered across my body.


9 thoughts on “Six Months Out: The Race for the Senate”

  1. […] As I noted in that post, both the ruling itself and the fact that there was a leak are each really big deals and deserve attention from the media and our lawmakers, although depending on one’s partisanship they’ve chosen to emphasize one or the other. I also discussed the potential political implications of Roe v. Wade getting overturned, including, perhaps, a badly needed adrenaline boost into the arm of Democratic Senate candidates. […]


  2. […] Of course, such a bill would bring the country remarkably close to the Mississippi 15-week ban, which triggered Dobbs v. Jackson in the first place. I can’t imagine Democrats have esophagi wide enough to swallow that amount of pride. Instead, they’ll attempt to use unrealistic abortion legislation in order to force Republicans to announce their opposition to abortion on the record. Republicans from red states will all too happily comply, but the issue may be the difference in a couple key Senate battlegrounds. […]


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