Two Days Out: A Senate Deep Dive

Barring a realistic Democratic surprise on the level of, I don’t know, Donald Trump becoming president of the United States or something, the Republicans are about to win back control of the House of Representatives. The Senate picture is cloudier, however, and today will be my last deep dive into the chamber before I lock in my predictions on the morning of the November 8 midterm elections, now just two days away.

For those reading my work over this year, you know I’ve steadily honed into what I considered the five most competitive races. (That’s a number that might have changed, and a group that might have been adjusted, over the last few weeks. We’ll find out together below.) However, today I want to broaden my analysis, just to make sure nothing slips by us.


Part I: The Facts

Fact #1: Only about one-third of the Senate is up for election every two years.

Fact #2: This year, there are 34 regularly scheduled Senate elections and another special election in Oklahoma to fill a retiring Senator’s seat, giving us a total of 35 Senate elections across the country.

Fact #3: That means 65 of the 100 Senate seats are not up for re-election.

Fact #4: Of those 65 returning senators, 36 are Democrats and 29 are Republicans.

Fact #5: Democrats can get to a majority with 50 senators, as they have Vice President Harris breaking ties. Republicans needs to get to 51 for the outright majority.

Fact #6: That means Democrats want to win at least 14 of Election Day’s 35 races. That gets them from 36 to at least 50. Republicans want to win 22 of Election Day’s 35 races. That gets them from 29 to at least 51.

Fact #7: These are the 35 races that will hold elections on Tuesday:

The red square in the middle of Oklahoma reflects a special election to replace a retiring Senator‘s seat, an election that’s in addition to Oklahoma’s normally scheduled Senate election.

Part II: The Locks

Most of these 35 races aren’t remotely competitive. Loyal readers know that I prefer the Cook Report to sort out competitive from uncompetitive races. Today, however, we will leave no stone unturned! Instead, I want to know what other heavyweight prognosticators think as well.

The awesome website 270 To Win can help us out here, as it creates a “consensus” forecast, which identifies states where at least six of seven top forecasts (Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, Politico, FiveThirtyEight, Split Ticket, and Elections Daily) are in agreement that a seat is “safe” for one party.

This consensus forecast identifies 8 seats that are totally safe for Democrats (California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, and Vermont) and 14 that are totally safe for Republicans (Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma regular, Oklahoma special, South Carolina, and South Dakota).

We can therefore start to evolve an equation that helps narrow our focus:

  • Democrats: 36 returning senators + 8 safe seats = 44
  • Republicans: 29 returning senators + 14 safe seats = 43
  • Remaining: 13. Democrats want to win at least 6 of those 13 to get to 50. Republicans want to win at least 8 of the 13 to get to 51.

The remaining 13 states are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Thirteen seats to pick? How lucky. Time to start whittling.


Part III: The PPFA Locks

Today’s predictions will move from my most to least confident pick. Nothing of short of going 13 for 13 will please me. (Okay, 12 out of 13 — which would hopefully be part of 34 out of 35 overall — would be pretty great.)

First up, my most confident pick on the list:

Iowa

  • Candidates: Senator Chuck Grassley (R) vs. Michael Franken (D)
  • Real Clear Politics polling average: The two October polls average out to Grassley 47.5 – 40.5 Franken
  • Quirk of the race: The last poll, a mid-October survey from Best Pollster Ever Ann Selzer and the Des Moines Register, has it at just a three-point race (46-43)! That’s down from 8 points in July (47-39).
  • Quirk #2: Grassley is 89 years old. A win here and the seat is his until he’s 95.

Analysis: You know Democrats are desperate when they cite a high quality poll that has them losing by three points. It’s a pipe dream. Iowa has two Republican senators. It has a Republican governor. It voted for Trump twice, including by eight points in 2020. Does a midterm during a time when Democrats are in power and inflation is high seem like the time it’ll turn blue? Does that sound right to you? Of course not. Use your heads, people.

PPFA pick: Senator Grassley wins re-election. Republicans 44, Democrats 44. Twelve to go.

Washington

  • Candidates: Senator Patty Murray (D) vs. Tiffany Smiley (R)
  • RCP polling average: Murray 49.3 – 46.3 Smiley
  • Quirk of the race: After Senate pro tem Pat Leahy retires, Murray will be the second most senior Democrat in the Senate (after Dianne Feinstein), now 30 years into her Senate career. People say bad things about career politicians…. when they’re in the other party.

Analysis: It’s surprising to see Washington competitive, but there’s good reason why it’s not a safe state. That Real Clear Politics average shows it just a three-point race. Of the three October polls it uses in that average, two of them have the race within two points. Murray could be in trouble.

Or, is she in just as much trouble as Grassley in Iowa? Washington is a state that has reliably voted Democratic, including a 19-point win for Biden in 2020. Plus, for what it’s worth, both the close polls came from Republican-affiliated pollsters (American Greatness and Trafalgar). Every other poll dating back months have Murray with a safe lead of 6+ points.

PPFA pick: Senator Murray wins re-election. Democrats 45, Republicans 44. Eleven to go.

Florida

  • Candidates: Senator Marco Rubio (R) vs. Val Demings (D)
  • RCP polling average: Rubio 51.0 – 43.5 Demings
  • Quirk of the race: It’s Florida.

Analysis: Wow, remember when people thought Florida would be competitive? PPFA never fell for it. Rubio’s lead is large and getting larger in what’s become a solid pink state.

PPFA pick: Senator Rubio wins re-election. Democrats 45, Republicans 45. Tied up with ten to go.

Colorado

  • Candidates: Senator Michael Bennet (D) vs. Joe O’Dea (R)
  • RCP polling average: Bennet 49.3 – 44.0 O’Dea
  • Quirk of the race: Michael Bennet ran for president in 2020 and you totally forgot that happened.

Analysis: Like Florida, Colorado was once a swing state that has since turned much more favorable for one of the parties. Unlike Florida, however, it’s drifted toward the Democrats. Bennet’s numbers have hovered near 50 points according to every pollster for quite some time, with O’Dea in the low-to-mid 40s. With plenty of people undecided, there’s an excellent chance Bennet wins enough undecideds to secure the majority.

PPFA pick: Senator Bennet wins re-election. Democrats 46, Republicans 45. Nine to go. Democrats needs just 4 to get to 50. Republicans need 6 to get to 51.

The Dems are looking pretty good, right?

Not so fast…


Part IV: The PPFA Likelies

Utah

  • Candidates: Senator Mike Lee (R) vs. Evan McMullin (I)
  • RCP polling average: It doesn’t have an average for us. The Deseret News conducts polling every month or so and has always found it a 3- to 6-point race before two out-of-state pollsters came and found bigger leads for Senator Lee.
  • Quirk of the race: It’s the quirkiest of all the races!

Analysis: A year ago, if you told me that two days before the election, lily white, conservative, Mormon Utah would neither be “safe” according to the consensus forecast or even a “lock” from PPFA, I’d have called you crazy. But with apologies to the four-way chaos in Alaska that will certainly yield a Republican, Utah is the weirdest race of the cycle.

Before this election, Evan McMullin was best known for his random and hopeless third party bid during the 2016 presidential election. His niche was clear then as it is now: McMullin is a conservative Republican who can’t get behind Donald Trump. (For his efforts, Trump awarded him the nickname “McMuffin,” which is objectively hilarious.)

Of all the heavily Republican states, Utah has been the most reluctant to support Trump. (Something about morals or whatever.) It’s this dynamic that allows Mitt Romney to stay conservative but still critical of the former president, including voting against Trump during the latter’s impeachment. That has opened up a lane for someone like McMuffin — er sorry, McMullin — to gain some traction in Utah as a conservative third party candidate. Utah Democrats recognized that and endorsed McMullin for the seat rather than running someone against both conservatives. McMullin has said he will not caucus with either party if elected, which could keep Republicans from getting to 51.

Just how seriously should we take his chances? Well, there’s a reason this race is down in Part IV! FiveThirtyEight has been a bit more inclusive than Real Clear Politics with its polling aggregation, listing the following surveys:

It’s dark days for polling when one poll show one candidate up 6 and the next poll has the other guy up 15. What’s going on here??

Well, there’s one glaring problem: the best polls for McMullin are clearly from Hill Research Consultants, and the Hill Research Consultants survey was funded by the pro-McMullin Super PAC “Put Utah First.” Its sample was also a bit small — only 500 Utahns, which I swear to Brigham Young is what you call someone from Utah. I can’t help but be a bit skeptical of their polls. Meanwhile, Lee’s next best poll was Center Street PAC, a moderate Political Action Committee who needed to broaden its pool to Registered Voters to make the Independent candidate look competitive. Bias alert: I’m rooting for McMullin, and I hope the weirdness of the race prevails, but I just don’t see it.

PPFA pick: Senator Lee wins re-election. Democrats 46, Republicans 46. Eight to go.


North Carolina

  • Candidates: Ted Budd (R) vs. Cheri Beasley (D)
  • RCP polling average: Budd 49.3 – 44.3 Beasley
  • Quirk of the race: It’s an open seat, with Senator Richard Burr (R) retiring. It’s funny to me that the GOP has replaced someone named “Burr” with someone named “Budd,” as if they’re hoping no one notices.

Analysis: North Carolina was a tantalizing seat for Democrats this cycle. It’s been considered a swing state since Obama won it in 2008. Polling has also shown Cheri Beasley close all year, and she even led a couple polls during the summer.

But a couple of favorable summer polls does not a competitive election make. The last six polls aggregated by Real Clear Politics shows Budd with leads of 4 to 7 points. That’s in a state Trump won twice and Romney before that. North Carolina has voted Republican for Senator dating back to 2014. A midterm with a Democratic president is not when it flips blue.

PPFA pick: Ted Budd becomes a US Senator and keeps the seat red. Republicans 47, Democrats 46. Seven to go.


Ohio

  • Candidates: JD Vance (R) vs. Tim Ryan (D)
  • RCP polling average: Vance 49.3 – 44.3 Ryan
  • Quirk of the race: It’s another open seat, with Senator Rob Portman (R) retiring.

Analysis: In many ways, the Senate race in Ohio mirrors that of North Carolina. Both have a retiring Republican leaving behind an open seat. Both take place in former swing states that have turned pink during the Trump era. Both had surprisingly tight polls this summer, with the Democrat sometimes leading. Both were factored into other (inferior) prognosticating websites as a potential Democratic pickup, inflating the chances that Democrats would retain or even grow their Senate majority. And despite all of the above, both were steadfastly picked by PPFA as relatively safe Republican seats.

To be sure, I’m a little less confident in Ohio than North Carolina, thus ranking it lower here today. We mustn’t forget that Democrat Sherrod Brown — the Presidential Candidate That Makes Too Much Sense(c) — sits in the other Senate seat from Ohio. There’s still a great deal of Ohio Democrat holdouts from the old days.

Polling is closer here, too. A couple recent polls from Marist and Siena have the race tied, and these are A-rated pollsters according to FiveThirtyEight. Another recent and sizable poll of over a thousand likely voters had Ryan up 4. Tim Ryan, a Congressman who’s built a reputation as a working-class advocate, has found a way to stick around and has a shot.

Yet, I keep coming back to the kind of cool logic that you expect from Presidential Politics For America: it’s a midterm with a Democrat in office. That’s not the time for a pink state to turn blue.

PPFA pick: JD Vance keeps the seat red. Republicans 48, Democrats 46. Six to go.


Wisconsin

  • Candidates: Sen. Ron Johnson (R) vs. Mandela Barnes (D)
  • RCP polling average: Johnson 49.4 – 46.2 Barnes
  • Quirk of the race: No state had more pro-Democratic polling bias in the last two presidential elections.

Analysis: Senator Johnson was once seen to be in trouble. 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. Worse, the voters of Wisconsin didn’t seem too crazy about him. A poll from Marquette University found he was well under water: only 36% had a favorable opinion of him, while 46% went the other way. In fact, back in April, Morning Consult found that he was the country’s second most unpopular senator among their own constituents; at 37 approve/51 disapprove, he was one of only two senators with majority disapproval.

But when it came time for an election, all those numbers improved. This is what happens in politics these days. “I may not love my guy… but I really hate the other side’s guy.” When the alternative becomes apparent, all of a sudden your party’s candidate looks a lot better by comparison. That’s what happened in Wisconsin after Mandela Barnes won the Democratic nomination. Check out this swing:

Of course, this swing can be attributed just as much to the national climate as the candidates; either way the flipped lead is apparent.

It is interesting that recent polls have sent both candidates down, however. The further Johnson is from 50%, the better the chances for Barnes. Three of the last four polls have Barnes down only two points. Maybe Barack Obama’s visit to the state made a difference? I’ll be interested to see if we get any more polls in the last 48 hours.

Still, the recent polling misses in Wisconsin makes me think Republican voters outside of Milwaukee and Madison do a good job hiding from pollsters. Even if Barnes draws even in the polls, I like Johnson at the ballot box.

PPFA pick: Senator Johnson wins re-election. Republicans 49, Democrats 46.

Republicans have swept the “PPFA Likelies.”


Part V: The PPFA Leaners

Five states remain: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. Democrats need four of the five to get to 50. Republicans need two of the five to get to 51.

How will they go? I’ll tell you on Tuesday morning.

Tomorrow, I’ll have PPFA’s biennial “Election Night Viewing Guide.” I hope to see you then.

5 thoughts on “Two Days Out: A Senate Deep Dive”

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