KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— We’re now less than 4 weeks from 2022’s Election Day. We have several rating changes this week in House and gubernatorial races, and we also wanted to update our thinking on the Senate.
Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes
Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating changes
Probably the biggest recent news in the Senate has come in Georgia, where the campaign of former NFL star Herschel Walker (R) was rocked by reporting that the anti-abortion candidate had paid for an abortion for a girlfriend. The report fits in with broader questions that Walker has faced about his personal and professional background. But it’s unclear whether the story has changed the race in any enduring way.
Walker’s travails illustrate a larger question about 2022: Senate Republicans are running a weak crop of candidates in an era where candidate quality may very well be declining in importance, with partisans likelier to stick with their candidate and downplay other factors, such as personal behavior or incumbency. In other words, Walker may have an easier time getting by with his baggage now than in a previous era. The likeliest outcome may still be a runoff in this race.
In other races, polling has indicated Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) may be trailing former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R), although Nevada is one state where polling may be likelier to understate Democrats: For instance, former Rep. Joe Heck (R, NV-3) led in 8 straight polls against Cortez Masto in their 2016 race from early September to early October, according to RealClearPolitics. Two years later, the RCP average was even at the end of the race between then-Sen. Dean Heller (R) and now-Sen. Jacky Rosen (D), but Rosen won by 5. We continue to think Cortez Masto is the most vulnerable Democratic senator, but we did want to offer this caveat. Nevada is one of the few places where early voting patterns, as deciphered by the great Nevada analyst Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent, can tell us a lot about what to expect in the results. We’ll be watching those trends closely when early voting begins later this month.
Meanwhile, polling in Pennsylvania may be likelier to overstate Democrats. While Toomey’s 2016 challenger, Katie McGinty (D), almost always led in the last couple weeks of that cycle, Toomey ended up prevailing by about 1.5 points. Presidential polling in 2016 and 2020 also overstated the Democrats, although the averages closed in the final days of the campaign. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) has never trailed television doctor Mehmet Oz (R) in public polling, although his lead has been shrinking as of late (there also hasn’t really been anything fresh in the state in a couple of weeks). Fetterman’s favorability has clearly weakened under the weight of GOP attacks that are often focused on crime — as we discussed in our ad roundup last week — and he has also faced questions about his health following a stroke earlier this year. But Oz’s favorability is still worse — here is another case where Oz, like Walker, is reliant to some degree on a Republican-leaning electorate both showing up on Election Day and choosing to vote against the Democrats despite reservations (which is certainly something that could happen). State Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D), meanwhile, has appeared to create some distance between himself and state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) in the gubernatorial race. Maybe Shapiro helps Fetterman over the finish line.
The general consensus, with which we agree, has these as the 3 likeliest Senate seats to flip in some order. We continue to give a small edge to Fetterman in Pennsylvania while rating the other 2 as Toss-ups. We don’t feel particularly tempted to push any of our other Leans-rated states — Arizona and New Hampshire on the Democratic side, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin on the Republican side — to Toss-up, even though they all remain hotly contested. A late Republican break could also endanger Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO), but as of now he appears to be fine.
Our ratings show 49 states either not on the ballot or at least leaning to the Democrats and 49 to the Republicans, with Toss-ups in the Democratic-held seats of Georgia and Nevada.
The overall House playing field continues to be large and made up predominantly of currently Democratic-held seats. The battlefield does not really seem to be expanding, in the sense that there does not appear to be a lot of seats that seemed uncompetitive before that are now moving into more competitive categories. For instance, we haven’t seen the need to push a bunch of Leans Democratic races to Toss-up or to move a lot of Likely or Safe races into more competitive categories. But Republicans also remain within reach of flipping seats where Joe Biden did considerably better than he did nationally — we reference one of those, RI-2, below — even as they have not clearly put away many of what appear to be their easier targets. For instance, even a couple of Democratic members that we have listed in our Leans Republican category, Reps. Cindy Axne (D, IA-3) and Tom Malinowski (D, NJ-7) are still in the game, as best as we can gather.
Democrats also have some opportunities to play offense: One seat to really watch is CA-22, where Rep. David Valadao (R) is seeking reelection against state Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D). The district got a little worse for Valadao in redistricting, moving a couple of points to the left (Biden +13), and we have heard that Valadao is struggling to consolidate Republican support following his vote to impeach Donald Trump at the start of last year (this weakness showed up in the state’s top-2 primary).
A sometimes-overlooked silver lining for Republicans as they continue to hold an advantage in the overall race for the majority is the greater number of challenging open seats that the Democrats are defending. Of the races rated in the most competitive categories — Toss-up or Leans — there are 20 districts with no incumbent on the general election ballot. Democrats are effectively defending 13 of these seats, while Republicans are defending only 5 (a couple of others, CO-8 and OR-6, are entirely new seats created after the states each gained a seat in redistricting, so they aren’t counted in either side’s tally). That also does not count a handful of open Democratic seats that we rate as Likely or Safe Republican takeovers; redistricting was a major factor in many of these. Even in an era where incumbency is probably not worth what it once was, open seats are often just harder to defend, leaving Democrats a little more overextended than they might have been had fewer of their incumbents headed for the exits. This also has some bearing on the rating changes we’re making this week.
A retirement looms large in RI-2, an open seat that state Treasurer Seth Magaziner (D) is trying to defend against former gubernatorial nominee Allan Fung (R). Had Rep. Jim Langevin (D, RI-2) run for another term, we doubt the district would be in play; indeed, Fung, a strong challenger, didn’t announce his run until Langevin retired. A couple of recent independent polls have shown Fung leading by mid-to-high single digits, although he is several points short of 50% himself. Magaziner may still be trying to consolidate Democrats after a late primary, and the district is still fundamentally Democratic: Joe Biden won it 56%-42%. But we find it increasingly difficult to justify a Leans Democratic rating in a district where Fung has now led a couple of recent polls and where both sides are spending money. So this is now a Toss-up.
Meanwhile, we may have been a bit too bullish on Republicans in CO-8, the newly-drawn district that Biden won by about 4.5 points. This is the kind of swing seat that an opposition party should be able to flip in a midterm, but it remains close and competitive with heavy and bipartisan outside spending. Moving this seat to Toss-up also helps to balance out the Leans Republican group a little bit, as the GOP grip on a number of these is tenuous (we mentioned a couple above — open seats in AZ-6 and NC-13 are others).
Our final change is a seat where there was another damaging Democratic retirement, early in the cycle: WI-3, an Obama-to-Trump southwestern Wisconsin seat. Rep. Ron Kind (D, WI-3) decided not to run again after a close call in 2020, giving retired Navy SEAL Derrick Van Orden (R) a good shot at winning the seat on his second try. According to reporting over the weekend by Axios’s Josh Kraushaar, it does not appear that the Democratic candidate, state Sen. Brad Pfaff, will be getting outside spending help in this Trump +5 district. Pfaff is going against history: 1990 was the most recent midterm where the White House party held an open seat in a district that the sitting president lost 2 years earlier. We’re moving this race from Leans Republican to Likely Republican.
This week’s changes add a couple of races to our Toss-up column — there are now 26. Splitting them down the middle would still result in a 227-208 Republican House, or a net gain of 14 for Republicans. This is the same basic arithmetic from last week.
In terms of the overall net change in governor’s mansions this year, our outlook has been the same for months: Democrats are heavy favorites to flip open-seat contests in deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts. But, aside from those 2 cases, we don’t peg either side as a clear favorite to flip any additional states.
As September closed out, we made Democrats more prohibitive favorites in a pair of marginal Biden-won states: Michigan and Pennsylvania. In both states, well-known and electorally-proven Democrats, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, respectively, are running against underfunded and polarizing Republicans. To us, the contest in Minnesota, which we had in the Leans Democratic category, is increasingly shaping up like the ones in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tim Walz (D-MN) won his first term in 2018 by a 54%-42% margin, and has kept generally positive approval ratings throughout his term. The most recent survey of the race, from SurveyUSA, gives him a 50%-40% lead against former state Sen. Scott Jensen (R) — in most polls, Walz has been at or near 50%. Jensen isn’t as polarizing as some other Republican gubernatorial challengers in blue states this year, but is at a significant financial disadvantage. Presidential partisanship isn’t everything when it comes to gubernatorial races (more on that later), but Biden did several points better in Minnesota than he did in either Michigan or Pennsylvania, which may give Walz more of a partisan cushion. We are moving Minnesota to Likely Democratic. None of these 3 races look like they’ll be decided by landslide margins, but we do like the Democrats’ chances in all of them.
In Colorado, we are confident enough in Gov. Jared Polis’s prospects that we are upgrading his contest from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. Republicans fielded University of Colorado Board of Regents member Heidi Ganahl — who is the sole remaining GOP statewide official left there — but the race hasn’t emerged as a top contest. In public polling, Polis usually fares at least a few points better than his Senate counterpart, Michael Bennet: in an early October poll from Marist, the former was up 54%-36% while the latter led by a smaller 48%-41%. We are keeping the Senate race as Likely Democratic, but adjusting our gubernatorial rating to reflect that dynamic.
Our final rating change for this week comes in one of the reddest states: Oklahoma. According to an internal poll that Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt’s campaign released last week, the governor has a 15-point lead, 48%-33%, over his opponent, current state Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. Stitt’s numbers show that while Oklahomans give Biden a dismal 29/67 approval spread, Hofmeister, who was elected to her current job as a Republican but switched parties to run against Stitt in this election, is less defined. On Friday, the Sooner Poll released a survey that showed Hofmeister leading 47%-43%. Earlier this week, Hofmeister got a boost, as the leaders of the state’s 5 largest tribes, which often eschew formally endorsing candidates, put out a statement backing her. That decision is especially notable given that Stitt himself is a member of the Cherokee Nation, although the governor and tribal leaders have butted heads over several issues. Democrats have enjoyed a huge advantage in the race in terms of number of commercials run recently, according to Wesleyan Media Project tracking, as outside groups who dislike the governor have flooded the airwaves. While it may be hard to envision a Democrat actually winning in Oklahoma, all this suggests that the election isn’t as clear cut as a Safe Republican rating would imply. With these recent developments in mind, we are moving Oklahoma from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
While all our gubernatorial ratings changes today have been in favor of Democrats, some better news for Republicans may be coming down the line. Currently, our gubernatorial map features 5 Toss-up contests: Arizona, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, and Wisconsin. With the exception of Arizona, those are all states where Democrats are playing defense. We will eventually push those races to one side or the other, but we can see potential for Republicans to do well with this group of races — on a good enough night, they could possibly even run the table. Even though all of these races remain exceedingly close, they could break in an unpredictable way.
Oddly, considering its presidential lean, the Toss-up state where Democrats may be best positioned is Kansas, a state that Biden lost by 15 points. Public polling there has been rare, but according to numbers from Emerson College, Gov. Laura Kelly (D-KS) has a +11 favorability rating and narrowly leads state Attorney General Derek Schmidt. As in her 2018 campaign, Kelly has earned several prominent cross-party endorsements, including from former Republican Gov. Bill Graves, who Schmidt worked for earlier in his career.
In some ways, Oregon seems to be the opposite of Kansas: in a state that Biden carried by a little more than 15 points, Democrats have increasing cause for concern. In every poll that has been released since August, former state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R) has posted a slight lead over former state House Speaker Tina Kotek (D). Some Democrats may blame the third-party candidacy of former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson, but a late September poll from Clout Research put Drazan up 53%-47% over Kotek in a 2-way matchup (though it is worth noting that Clout is a Republican pollster). Beaver State Democrats may also be weighed down by current Gov. Kate Brown’s (D) subpar standing: Morning Consult published fresh numbers this week, and Brown continues to be the most unpopular governor in the country.
Ultimately, core partisanship could eventually push Oregon and Kansas back to their respective majority parties, but the overall dynamic has been fascinating.
So, while our current ratings (setting aside the Toss-ups) show Democrats netting 2 governorships, Republicans still have a path to coming out of this election with more governorships than they hold now if they do very well in the Toss-ups — which is a real possibility.
— Crystal Ball intern Anna Brown, an Oklahoma native, contributed to the section on gubernatorial races.