KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— It will take some time to assess any possible fallout from the Pennsylvania Senate debate on Tuesday night. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) very clearly struggled.
— Early voting has begun in our pair of Senate Toss-ups, Georgia and Nevada, with inconclusive signals.
— Democrats should be more worried about the races we have rated Leans Democratic than Republicans should be worried about those that we have rated Leans Republican.
— As the 2022 battle for the Senate winds down, it is worth noting the 2024 Senate map, which gives the Republicans many opportunities to play offense and Democrats hardly any.
The state of the Senate races
With just under 2 weeks to go to Election Day 2022, we figured it would be worth surveying the race for control of the Senate — on the House side, we made several changes yesterday, all in the GOP’s direction. While we aren’t updating any Senate ratings today, some of the top races remain in flux.
We’ll start in Pennsylvania. On Tuesday night, the Keystone State was the scene of the most highly anticipated senatorial debate of the cycle: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) faced off against television doctor Mehmet Oz (R).
As best we can tell, the situation in Pennsylvania is this: John Fetterman remains very narrowly ahead, although whatever lead he does have is small and tenuous. We could say something very similar about Sen. Mark Kelly’s (D-AZ) lead in Arizona. One of the differences between Arizona and Pennsylvania, though, is that Republicans are throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Pennsylvania, but that is not happening in Arizona.
Any professional debate coach would easily award the debate to Oz, and not just because Fetterman, still recovering from a stroke, clearly had trouble communicating. Oz’s extensive television experience showed, and he was quite comfortable making his points. If Oz overtakes Fetterman, the debate and broader questions about Fetterman’s health will be part of the reason why — although the more important factor would probably just be the Republican lean in this broader electoral environment. The prevailing “elite” opinion of the debate (which was especially reflected on Twitter) was that Fetterman bombed. For now, we are watching if the broader public reacts similarly — that is, if the debate even makes any waves at all, which is never guaranteed.
Democrats are hoping that any public reaction isn’t in sync with the “elite” consensus and that enough voters will continue to see Oz as the Fetterman camp has portrayed him: a snake oil salesman from out of town. It is still the case that Oz’s favorability numbers are considerably worse than Fetterman’s, even as the latter has taken an immense amount of incoming fire over the past couple of months. There is also widespread consensus that state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) is doing quite well in the gubernatorial race — so well that some Republicans are trying to attack Fetterman by contrasting him with Shapiro in advertising. Similarly, as Ben Forstate, a state Democratic operative, warned, the more erratic Doug Mastriano, the GOP’s far-right nominee for governor, appears, the more palatable Oz may look by comparison. This contrast may be important to a crucial bloc of swing voters: lapsed Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs who may have voted for Joe Biden in 2020 but are not exactly true-blue Democrats. The now-outgoing Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) owed his 2016 reelection victory to his relative strength with that demographic.
If nothing else, both candidates provided soundbites that the opposing sides are already utilizing in their messaging. The Oz campaign is pointing to some of Fetterman’s conflicting statements on fracking (Fetterman’s answer to a question on his fracking inconsistency led to what was probably the most painful moment of a painful night). Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to make hay over Oz’s not-artfully worded abortion answer — and using it to tie Oz to Mastriano.
The Pennsylvania race is fluid — we’ve seen Fetterman as a small favorite since late summer but it’s not hard to imagine the race breaking to Oz, particularly after the debate. If we get good evidence of such a break over the next several days, we’ll change our rating.
There has been a lot of focus, justifiably we think, on questionable Republican Senate candidates this year. Oz is one of them — had Toomey run again or someone else been nominated, we doubt Fetterman ever would’ve seemed like a favorite to begin with. But if Fetterman loses to Oz, there will rightly be a lot of second-guessing in Democratic circles about the quality of Fetterman’s candidacy and whether the party should have gone with someone else (or whether Fetterman should have dropped out after his stroke, which he has been less than transparent about since it occurred).
In New Hampshire, which occupies a firmer spot in our Leans Democratic category than Pennsylvania does, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan got something of a break late last week: Senate Leadership Fund, the massive outside spending group linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), essentially pulled out of the state. SLF canceled close to $6 million worth of ad time, although the National Republican Senatorial Committee more recently came in with a smaller, $1 million buy that was reserved jointly with their nominee, Don Bolduc. While Hassan can’t rest easy — several recent polls have given her single-digit leads — SLF’s cancellation has not been interpreted as a sign of confidence in Bolduc.
According to numbers from AdImpact, which tracks campaign spending, Democratic candidates, and groups supporting them, are poised to outspend Republican forces in 7 of the 10 most expensive races during the final couple of weeks of the campaign. The balance is most tipped towards the Democrats in Arizona, where Democrats will be spending close to $13 million to just over $2 million for Republicans. If Mark Kelly comes up short for reelection, it will almost certainly be because the national environment pushed his very marginal state too far towards the GOP.
Though public polls often show both contests to be within the margin of error, our thinking for basically the entire cycle has been that North Carolina and Ohio would stay in the red column. Going down the home stretch, Republicans will be spending at least a few million more than Democrats in both states. The spending is more mixed in Wisconsin, with Democrats holding a tiny edge, although we still consider Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) to be a favorite. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) has struggled under the weight of GOP attacks — if he comes up short, this is another race where there will be Monday morning quarterbacking about the Democratic candidate (but, again, the larger political environment looms large there, as it does in other key races).
Given the overall trajectory of the election, we think Democrats should be more concerned about their races rated Leans Democratic (Arizona, New Hampshire, and especially Pennsylvania) than Republicans should be about their Leans Republican races (North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin).
Over the past week or so, voters in Georgia and Nevada, our 2 Toss-up states in the Senate, have been casting early ballots. In parsing through the data, Democrats are probably cautiously optimistic about the former, even if they’re chewing their fingernails over the latter.
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced that, with 2 weeks until Election Day, over 1 million ballots had been cast in the Peach State. The state cast nearly 4 million votes in 2018, 5 million in 2020, and a little under 4.5 million in the January 2021 Senate runoffs. So this may represent something like a fifth or a quarter of the total vote, give or take.
Georgia doesn’t have partisan registration but the racial composition of the electorate can sometimes be a useful proxy for partisanship. Democrats began early in-person voting with a bang — on the first day, close to 39% of the electorate was Black. That number has dropped steadily in the days since and sits at about 31%, which is roughly equal to the overall share of the state’s registered voters who are Black. As Republican pollster (and early vote tracker extraordinaire) John Couvillon has pointed out, the Black share of the early vote in southern states often notches upwards during weekends — that will be something to monitor early next week. In a racially-polarized state, the Black share of the electorate is vitally important to Democratic chances.
Despite a few weeks of bad press, Sen. Raphael Warnock’s (D-GA) challenger, former professional football player Herschel Walker (R), very much remains viable. To us, a runoff continues to be the likeliest outcome. While we strive to push all competitive races to the Leans Democratic or Leans Republican columns in our final ratings (coming the Monday before the election), our handicap in Georgia may very well stay at Toss-up in anticipation of a runoff (this is how we handled the Senate races there in 2020).
As for the Silver State, the Nevada Independent’s early vote blog — written by state political guru Jon Ralston — will be an indispensable tool over the next week and a half. As Ralston points out, Nevada has transitioned from being primarily an in-person state to one that mails a ballot to every voter. Under the leadership of the late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, state Democrats built a versatile turnout machine. But 2022 will put Democrats’ organizational abilities to the test: The state’s electorate may just be in a foul mood, with factors like high local gas prices and the fallout from Covid potentially working against Democrats in this tourism-heavy state.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), who took Reid’s place in the Senate, is running for a second term against former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R). Laxalt is probably a weaker candidate than Cortez Masto’s 2016 opponent, then-Rep. Joe Heck (R, NV-3), but he arguably lacks the baggage that some other Republicans in key races, like Oz, are saddled with. Generally speaking, we have been pessimistic about Democratic chances in Nevada’s Senate race, although maybe what we learn from early voting will change our minds.
We touched on this somewhat last week, but Colorado has become, possibly, an early frontier in the 2024 GOP presidential primary. The GOP’s nominee, businessman Joe O’Dea, has tried to frame himself as a relative moderate — in doing so, he’s worked to keep Donald Trump at arm’s length. Right on cue, the former president lashed out at O’Dea. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who is on an easy path to reelection in his own state, affirmed his support for the party’s Colorado nominee. In a subtle way, moves like this might make DeSantis seem like more of a “team player” to a national electorate. That said, our sense is that Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) should be fine for reelection — we have his race at Likely Democratic, although it may be closer to Leans Democratic than Safe Democratic if the trajectory of the election continues to move toward Republicans.
Overall, we have Democrats and Republicans favored in 49 seats apiece, with Georgia and Nevada as Toss-ups. If Fetterman’s lead in Pennsylvania holds, Republicans will need to win both Toss-up races to reach an outright 51-seat majority — something they seem perfectly capable of doing. Democrats, who only need 50 seats, thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote, would only need to win one of the Toss-ups. That said, if we actually start to see some post-debate pro-Oz momentum in Pennsylvania, there will be even more pressure on Georgia and Nevada Democrats to perform.
Looking to 2024
While we will certainly be writing more on this in the coming months, something that looms large over this senatorial cycle is the 2024 map. Even with a subpar national political environment, there is at least some chance that Democrats will come out of next month’s elections with a net gain in the Senate. By contrast, there is almost no potential upside for them in 2024, as they will be defending 23 of the 33 seats up that year — that includes the 2 nominal independents who caucus with Democrats, Sens. Angus King of Maine and Berne Sanders of Vermont.
In addition to the sheer number of seats that they will be defending, the decline of ticket-splitting is something that seems likely to work against Democrats. The last cycle where this class was up in a presidential year was 2012. Ten years ago, ticket-splitting was considerably more commonplace in federal elections: several Democratic incumbents in marginal and even heavily GOP states ran double-digits ahead of then-President Obama’s margins. In the presidential election cycles since then, 2016 and 2020, only 1 state (Maine) voted differently for Senate than it did for president. If that pattern continues, Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Joe Manchin (D-WV) would all be in perilous positions.
Additionally, Democrats are defending several states that voted for Joe Biden in 2020, but only marginally: Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These will all be presidential and Senate battlegrounds next cycle.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Republican-controlled seats should be easy to hold. It is possible that Democrats could run competitive races against Sens. Rick Scott (R-FL) or Ted Cruz (R-TX), but both would start the cycle as favorites. The total number of seats Republicans are defending appears very likely to go up by one, assuming Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) resigns after his pending appointment as president of the University of Florida. There would be a special election in November 2024 for the last 2 years of his term — in the short-term, a gubernatorial appointee would fill his spot. Still, no one should expect Republicans to have problems with either Nebraska Senate seat.
The bottom line, as this Senate cycle concludes, is this: It seems very likely that if Republicans grab the majority this year, they will start as huge favorites to hold it in 2024. Likewise, if Democrats hold the Senate this year, they will have an awfully difficult time defending that majority in 2024.