The Five Races That Will Decide the Senate

Okay, so it looks like the Republicans will take the House. The Senate, however, will be tight.

Yesterday, I broke down the Senate race to its component bits. We know that of the 100 Senate seats, 65 don’t have elections this year (36 Democratic-held seats, 29 Republican-held seats), leaving only 35 that do. I determined that of those 35, only 10 were moderate competitive: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

And then, of those 10, I felt somewhat confident predicting five of them. I placed those five in “Tier 1: Far-Fetched Flips” — Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Ohio.

That leaves us with the following equations:

  • Dems: 36 returning + 9 solid/likely + 2 PPFA picks = 47
  • GOP: 29 returning + 16 solid/likely + 3 PPFA picks = 48
  • Remaining: 5

Since Democrats just need to get to 50 plus Vice President Harris to get the majority, whereas the GOP needs to get to 51 for the outright majority, that means that of the final five states, each side is hoping to win at least 3 of the 5 in order to reach their respective majority threshold.

These final five are Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Four weeks out is much too early for confident predictions in these states, as any momentum shift in the stretch run can make the difference. (In particular, I’m still eagerly anticipating the final monthly inflation number before the election, which will be released this Thursday.) 

But I promised predictions, and predictions you shall receive. I’ll list these in order of most to least confidence — or, rather, least to most unconfident. There’s a difference.

Building off of Tier 1 yesterday…


Tier 2: Lightly Colored Leaners

Wisconsin

Over in Wisconsin, Senator Ron Johnson hopes to hold the seat for Republicans against Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes, the state’s Lt. Governor. Barnes had a great summer, emerging from a contested Democratic primary into a general election that favored him in the polls. However, after the primary, those polling leads haven’t held up:

Relevantly, readers should note how the shift to Johnson coincides with the shift from Registered Voter models to Likely Voters models, an important and Republican-favoring transition I discussed last week.

Finally, if these polls stay close, or even if Barnes regains a small lead, Wisconsin is a state with which pollsters have had a lot of trouble; they’ve considerably underestimated Republican turnout in recent cycles. Both the Cook Report and Real Clear Politics call Wisconsin a toss-up, but upon closer inspection, Senator Johnson should win a third term.

PPFA Wisconsin pick: Democrats 47, Republicans 49

Four to go.


Arizona

By the polls alone, Arizona isn’t actually a toss-up. Democratic Senator Mark Kelly has led every 2022 poll over Republican challenger Blake Masters. Kelly currently has a Real Clear Politics average lead of 4.1 points and a 538 average lead of 5.4. This state, with Colorado and New Hampshire(discussed yesterday), is also the third and final “lean Democrat” state from the Cook Report. Unlike in New Hampshire and Colorado, however, where I thought the Cook Report was too timid calling them just “lean” Democrat states, in Arizona I think a “lean” call is too aggressive. This race could get tight.

Arizona is one of the purplest states in the country. Although it has two Democratic US senators — Kelly is joined by Kyrsten Sinema in Washington — both were elected by only a couple points in highly favorable years for Democrats. (Sinema was elected in the 2018 midterms and Kelly in 2020‘s special election — both against Martha McSally, that poor woman.) Meanwhile, the state has a Republican Governor, Doug Ducey, who won in Obama’s second midterm and then in a Democrat-favorable year, 2018, by 14 points. Arizona’s voter registration rolls show the state is 34.5% Republican to just 31% Democrat. Most visibly, in 2020, Biden won the state by just 0.3% of the vote over Trump. In a midterm, where the fundamentals usually work against the president’s party, it would have made sense for this state to revert back to the red column.

Still, I can’t ignore the consistent polling lead for Kelly. He leads all polls gathered by Real Clear Politics, more often than not by 5+ points. The problem for Republicans appears to be the Trump-endorsed Blake Masters. A theme of this cycle appears to be the former President’s continued grip on the GOP, potentially to the detriment of a party that refuses to learn from the mistakes of a lost election. Masters has made his bed as an election denier and abortion flipflopper, and Arizona’s independents aren’t feeling it.

Although I expect Republicans to make polling headway in the final month (for reasons I discussed last week), Kelly’s lead looks large enough to withstand that. Obviously we have to keep an eye on all five of these contests, but if I’m forced to pick a winner now, I’d go with Kelly to win re-election.

PPFA Arizona pick: Democrats 48, Republicans 49

Three to go. Each party wants two of them.


Nevada

Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto was always going to have a tough cycle here. Nevada was a narrow win for Democrats in the last two presidential cycles, so it stood to reason that a midterm environment during a Democratic White House would be dangerous for her.

Nevada Republicans have also followed a different path than their partisan brethren in several other key battleground states. Here, they nominated an experienced, statewide elected official in Adam Laxalt, the state’s former attorney general. Whereas New Hampshire went with Trumpy outsider Dan Bolduc and Arizona went with Trumpy outsider Blake Masters and Georgia went with Trumpy outsider Herschel Walker and Pennsylvania went with Trumpy outsider Dr. Oz — all of whom are probably underperforming Generic Republican right now — Nevada made no such mistake.

Meanwhile, Nevada may be paralleling the developments in Wisconsin — that is, the switch from Registered to Likely voters has favored the Republican:

Like in Wisconsin, it’s easy to see the political version of a redshift here in the Silver State. From where I sit, Laxalt will give us our first flip.

PPFA Nevada pick: Democrats 48, Republicans 50

With two to go, Republicans need just one more win to take the majority. Democrats need both to get to 50 plus the VP.

Both these states end up in the third and final tier…


Tier 3: Purple as Purple Can Be

Pennsylvania

Lacking all confidence, I could list these last two races in either order, but let’s start with what’s been the most entertaining race of the cycle, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Lt. Governor John Fetterman has led Republican TV doctor Mehmet Oz in every poll — but I don’t think for much longer.

Fetterman has relentlessly trolled Dr. Oz about his carpetbagging opportunism, running for Pennsylvania’s open seat despite spending most of his life in New Jersey and having only changed his voter registration to Pennsylvania two years ago. (Fetterman delightfully tried to “help” Oz get into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.) Fetterman has also brandished a working class persona, positioning Oz as out-of-touch, an accusation Oz was unable to sidestep during a misguided improvisation at a local grocery store (which he misnamed) in his quest to make the perfect “crudités,” a totally normal word that regularly shows up on all our grocery lists.

Oz is mostly out of his depth in their social media wars, and his admiral attempt to keep the election to the issues, especially the economy, has not gone well. His most notable effort at getting dirty was criticizing Fetterman for not eating enough vegetables and having a stroke, at which point Fetterman, who had clearly been the aggressor in these personal attacks, essentially responded with a “How dare you!” as if he didn’t have it coming.

It’s really been fun.

Essentially, each side is getting to feel what it’s like to experience Trump from the other side. Fetterman isn’t quite on the level of our former Troller-in-Chief (then again, who is?) but he’s taking pages from the same playbook, unleashing cheeky personal attacks while withstanding mean comments with the fragility of a Fabergé egg. Meanwhile, Dr. Oz just wants to talk about issues and have a debate, which Fetterman could care less about, and instead he just drags Oz down into the mud. Democrats have loved it. Republicans have been frustrated. Welcome to the other foot.

The polls have shown Fetterman withstand the shift to Likely Voter models, although it’s gotten closer in recent weeks:

Whether Oz will continue to close the gap is one of the biggest stories to monitor over the next four weeks. Democrats can take heart in leading every single poll in a state where polling did really well in 2020. (Although Trump led a few polls down the stretch there, the RCP average had Biden +1.2, which was exactly the result. Here, Oz leads zero polls.)

I will say my confidence drops off considerably from the above three races to this one, which is why I put these last two states into this separate tier. Arizona’s Mark Kelly, for example, leads by more than Fetterman more frequently. This weaker lead will almost certainly give way to Oz leading a few polls before election day, making Democrats fill their diapers. Still, as of now, it looks like Fetterman has what it takes to win the seat, flipping the state to Democrats and negating the loss in Nevada.

PPFA Pennsylvania pick: Democrats 49, Republicans 50

One state left, and it will decide the fate of the Senate.

Guess who’s back…


Georgia

Remember when both Georgia Senate races in 2020 went to a runoff, and the results of those runoffs determined the Senate majority? There’s a decent chance history is about to repeat itself. If I’m right about the above races, control of the Senate will come down to whether the Democrats can win Georgia to secure 50 seats plus the tiebreaking VP or whether the Republicans can get to 51. And, since Georgia is still a runoff state and it’s expected to be such a close race, a runoff is very much on the table if neither party’s candidate gets to a majority of the vote.

For these reasons, Georgia deserves more attention. There’s a lot to say.

The Democrats currently hold the seat with Senator Rafael Warnock, who won the special election in 2020, thereby filling the seat left behind by the retiring Senator Johnny Isakson. Isakson was a Class 3 senator, a group last elected in 2016, so his term had just two more years on it. Warnock has served those two years, and he now joins the other Class 3 senators due for re-election.

His opponent is the unintentionally hilarious former NFL star, Herschel Walker. He thinks evolution is disproven by the continued existence of apes. He can guarantee us Joe Biden didn’t win even 50 million votes. (The last time a presidential race without Ross Perot had a major party candidate earn less than 50 million votes was 1984, when the US had 235 million people, nearly a hundred million fewer than today, and the winner won 49 states.) He says abortion rights are “things that people are not concerned about,” a claim rejected by pro-choicers, pro-lifers, and other people who haven’t been repeatedly concussed. Asked his position on potential gun laws, he deduced “what I like to do is see it and everything and stuff.” On the subject of air, he explains, “Our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air, so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. . . . So it moves over to our good air space. Then, now, we got we to clean that back up.” There’s just an astounding lack of curiosity and preparation from this running back who wants to be a US senator.

I’ve heard plenty of well-deserved criticism of President Biden and Vice President Harris preparing similar quality “word salads,” and yet, as always, partisans only seem to think it’s a problem if the other side does it. Georgia Republicans seem fine looking the other way on Walker’s lack of preparedness because his most important quality is not his intelligence, his curiosity, or anything else about his character, but that “R” next to his name.

And these criticisms of Walker have left aside personal indiscretions that used to make “family values” conservatives shudder. He’s pro-life but paid for at least one abortion, an allegation he denies although the woman brandished evidence. On responsible fathers, he once said “If you have a child with a woman, even if you have to leave that woman–even if you have to leave that woman–you don’t leave that child.” And yet, the count on his illegitimate children has crept up to four, at least for now. And then there’s the allegations of domestic abuse that were serious enough for a judge to issue a protective order and restrict his gun possession. His own son, a Christian conservative commentator, is fed up with his “lying” father, tweeting “You’re not a ‘family man’ when you left us to bang a bunch of women, threatened to kill us, and had us move over 6 times in 6 months running from your violence.”

But hey, he has an R next to his name, and Warnock has a D. For most voters, that’s all that matters. In the words of conflicted conservative Andrew Sullivan, “Walker shows that there is no principle [Republicans] will not jettison, no evil they will not excuse, no crime they won’t ‘whatabout,’ and no moron they won’t elect, if it means they gain power.”

Democrats, too, are obsessed with power, and Georgia’s voters are a testament to that. The state’s partisan voters are incredibly committed, and by at least one measure it’s the second most inelastic set of voters of any state in the country, trailing only Alabama. These voters are dug in.

And yet, despite this inelasticity — or perhaps because of it — Georgia is also our most purple state. The 2020 election made that abundantly clear; Biden won it by just 0.24% of the vote, the narrowest edge for either candidate in the 2020 election. (And the only miss of my predictions!)

The polling is nearly as purple. Of the 25 Warnock v. Walker surveys compiled by Real Clear Politics, Warnock leads 14, Walker leads 9, and there are two ties.

They have a debate coming this Friday, which will be a great battle of reality vs. expectations. I can’t imagine a scenario in which Walker wins on substance, but his expectations will be so low that correctly tying his shoes might be enough to meet those expectations. The next day, conservative media will proclaim, “Walker Deftly Ties Shoes as Warnock Looks on in Shock!” (Of course, liberal media will counter with something like, “The Racist History Behind Tying Shoes.”)

Ultimately, as I said at my Six Months Out column, I think Walker is a bad enough candidate that at least a plurality of Georgians will eventually settle on re-electing Rafael Warnock. Whether it comes with a majority of the vote to avoid a runoff, however, I’m not sure. Chase Oliver has been nominated by the state’s Libertarian Party and pulled down 3% in a recent poll, with another few candidates hitting 1%. In the six polls currently used in the Real Clear Politics average, Warnock clears 50% only once whereas Walker tops out at 49%.

If neither candidate gets to a majority, Walker would have a month to reform himself before the December 6 runoff. Still, even if it does go to a runoff, I think the Republicans nominated a candidate bad enough that the 2020 result will repeat itself.

PPFA Georgia pick: Democrats 50, Republicans 50

Status quo, FTW.

But again, all five of these states need monitoring. Current forecasts that have Democrats’ chances of keeping the Senate at 70 to 80% are too high. Some even say Democrats have a shot at 52 seats. I don’t see it.

Of course, now that PPFA has finished its Four Week Out prediction, don’t be surprised to see others’ estimates react.


The image was made possible by amcharts.com’s interactive Visited States Map, although I had to lie about visiting two of the highlighted states and I feel terrible about it.

6 thoughts on “The Five Races That Will Decide the Senate”

  1. You mentioned the inflation impact that was released today. It came in just above expectations. Markets dropped and then swung positive as it was a near miss. How do you think it will effect the races. I’m of the camp not much. R will say the sky is falling and D will say it’s leveling out. Another geo-political factor also came out. Biden “allegedly” asked OPEC to hold off on their production cuts until after the election. Does any of this really matter?
    On a side note Thank you for being an amazing teacher and getting to the kids interested in politics . I never imagined I’d have two 16 year old sophomores ask me to take them to a congressional debate. Giovanni and Cura

    Like

    1. I think the inflation number doomed the Democrats’ chances in the House and in the Ohio and Florida senate races. It probably keeps out of reach North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Nevada as well. It looks like Walker has shot both his feet off, so I still expect Warnock wins in Georgia. That makes it 50-49 GOP heading into Pennsylvania, where Dr. Oz has a talking point for the next three weeks, so I still expect to lead some polls here soon. The Senate’s a tossup.

      I agree that the Biden/OPEC story is a non-factor.

      It’s a pleasure to teach them!

      Like

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