KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— As we approach Election Day, the basic fundamentals of this midterm may be reasserting themselves, to the benefit of Republicans.
— That said, there are also a lot of contradictory signs.
— We are highlighting a number of deep sleeper potential upsets in today’s issue, ranging from Senate races in Iowa and Washington to gubernatorial races in New York and Oklahoma.
— Most sleeper races will not feature an upset come Election Day, but some may under the right set of circumstances.
— We are making several rating changes to our Senate, House, and gubernatorial ratings.
Table 1: Crystal Ball Senate rating changes
Table 2: Crystal Ball House rating changes
Table 3: Crystal Ball gubernatorial rating change
Where to watch for upsets
With 3 weeks to go until Election Day, there are a few signs that some of the usual midterm dynamics — which push such elections to break against the White House — are reasserting themselves.
President Biden remains unpopular, and House generic ballot polling — probably the best polling catch-all we have for the overall political environment — has gotten a little bit better for Republicans as of late. The headline-grabber was a New York Times/Siena College poll released on Monday that showed Republicans moving into a 49%-45% lead on the generic ballot. As of this writing, the Democratic edge in the FiveThirtyEight generic ballot tracker is down to half a point, and the Republicans are up a couple of points in the RealClearPolitics tracker (the latter uses fewer polls and is also more sensitive to short-term changes).
It would not surprise us if the numbers improve a bit for Republicans down the stretch. Despite Democratic improvements after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and some candidate and image problems for Republicans, the usual midterm headwinds remain for Democrats. It’s just tough for a party to thrive with an unpopular president and with the public having significant concerns about issues, like the economy and inflation, that the opposition can pin on the party in power. This is why the House remains very likely to flip to the Republicans and why, despite the aforementioned challenges, Republican chances to win the Senate remain no worse than a coin flip.
With that out of the way, we’ll also say this: There are some weird things going on out there. And there probably will be races that upset our expectations. If in fact Republicans end up doing better down the stretch, that’ll involve races where Democrats appear favored flipping to the GOP. But there are also some opportunities for Democrats to potentially play spoiler, or at least come closer than expected in certain places.
Those following the day-to-day churn of the polls could cherry-pick their way to telling very different stories about the election. For instance, some closer-than-expected polls in the New York gubernatorial race, where Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) is trying to win her first full elected term against Rep. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1), might indicate that we’re in a clear Republican wave environment.
Likewise, a series of polls showing Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) tied or trailing state Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister (D) might indicate the opposite.
It may be that these particular gubernatorial races don’t tell us much about the environment. Maybe it’s a classic case of the dominant party in a given state being underestimated in polls for one reason or another. Or maybe there are localized reasons that both races will end up being close in the same election. It’s hard to know.
What follows are some deep sleepers we’re watching. This involves a handful of rating changes in all 3 categories of races we rate (Senate, House, and governors). But instead of focusing, as we usually do, on the most competitive races (those rated as Toss-up or Leans), we’re instead going to look more at races in the Likely and Safe categories as we try to identify some races that could shock us come Election Night.
Over the weekend, Ann Selzer, the Hawkeye State’s foremost pollster, raised some eyebrows: Her numbers gave Sen. Chuck Grassley, the most senior Republican in the Senate and an institution in state politics, just a 3-point advantage in his bid for an 8th term. Grassley has typically run far ahead of the state’s GOPs baseline, but Selzer’s poll gave House Republicans a 51%-43% lead and showed Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) up almost 20 points in her reelection contest — those 2 toplines aligned better with our expectations.
While Selzer’s poll was the closest public survey of the race that’s come out this year, previous polls also showed Grassley up by less-than overwhelming margins. A previous Selzer poll, from July, gave Grassley a 9-point lead over retired Navy Admiral Mike Franken, who was then the newly-minted Democratic nominee.
So far this cycle, Grassley has not raised that much more than Franken has, although the former enters in the final phase of the campaign with a roughly 3-to-1 cash on hand advantage. In September, Franken got some negative headlines when one of his former campaign staffers filed a police report claiming he had kissed her on the mouth without her permission — however, no charges were filed against Franken.
Though Grassley appears to be in good health — each morning, he wakes up early to run — he turned 89 last month. Considering his relatively weak poll numbers, it seems possible he could be paying something of an “age penalty.” If that ends up being the case, there would be some precedent. In 1996, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-SC), who was well into his 90s, ran for an 8th term. Thurmond was pushed in the primary, taking “only” 60% against a state legislator who made age an issue, then won the general election by 9 points, the closest reelection margin of his career. Adding to this analogy, state Sen. Jim Carlin took close to 30% of the vote against Grassley in the June primary. On the other hand, some other very senior senators have made out fine. In 2006, the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who turned 89 shortly after Election Day, won a 9th term by an easy 64%-34%. In addition to his own strengths, Byrd probably benefitted from being a senator from the non-White House party during the 2006 midterm — that is a dynamic that could also now be working in Grassley’s favor.
Still, all this is enough for us to move the race (barely) onto the board. It may be worth watching if outside groups begin to book time here during the final stretch of the race. But, for now, Iowa is moving from Safe Republican to Likely Republican.
On the other side of the aisle, the most senior Democrat seeking reelection this year is Washington state’s Patty Murray. Murray is seeking a 6th term against nurse and veterans advocate Tiffany Smiley (R). In August, after the state’s all-party blanket primary, we moved the Senate race from Likely Democratic to Safe Democratic. Our reasoning was that Democrats beat our expectations in the primary, which is often seen as a bellwether for November — in the Senate race, Democrats outvoted Republicans 57%-43%.
Though their primary result still left something to be desired, national Republicans still claim they can compete in the Evergreen State. In an interview from earlier this month, for example, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-FL) listed Washington as one of his party’s top pickup opportunities. During the 3rd quarter, the Smiley campaign raised $6 million, which was almost double what the incumbent took in.
While we remain skeptical Washington will actually flip — if Seattle’s King County votes 72% Democratic, as it did in the primary, that should be a good enough cushion for Murray — we think this race may still belong at the very edge of the playing board. In 2010, when she faced a truly competitive race, national Democrats pulled out all the stops for Murray: the party’s heaviest guns, such as then-President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, made trips up to the Pacific Northwest for her. We haven’t seen that type of engagement there this cycle, although Murray is trying to nationalize the race by hitting Smiley as too conservative on abortion rights. We are moving Washington back to Likely Democratic.
Staying out west, a pair of adjacent states may be sleepers for either side. In Colorado, Republicans have talked up their nominee, Joe O’Dea, as a candidate who can win back some of the former GOP-leaning voters who soured on the party during the Trump era. O’Dea takes some softer stances on abortion rights than most of his Republican counterparts in Senate races across the country, and he has tried to reach across partisan lines — if elected, O’Dea says he would aim to be the GOP’s equivalent to moderate/conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). O’Dea has also been able to do some self-funding: $2 million of the $6.5 million he has raised this cycle came from himself.
Despite more than a decade in office, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet remains one of the more anonymous senators — he arguably lacks the type of personal brand that Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) or Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) have cultivated. For now, we are comfortable holding it at Likely Democratic, although if the national environment moves markedly in the GOP’s direction over the next few weeks, that may be something that pushes the race into more competitive territory. Colorado, at least over the past few cycles, has seen relatively accurate public polling, and current averages suggest a high single-digit Bennet lead.
In one of the Colorado race’s more recent developments, Trump took to social media badmouthing O’Dea. While this may prompt the former president’s dedicated followers there to vote third party, or skip the race altogether, it’s also possible that earning Trump’s scorn may help O’Dea in the state’s college-educated suburban pockets.
One state west of Colorado, Utah is seeing one of the cycle’s more unusual races. Evan McMullin, an independent who some may recognize from his 2016 presidential campaign, is running against Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT). As Democrats aren’t running a candidate of their own, the thinking is that their voters will back McMullin en masse. McMullin has cited the state’s other senator, Mitt Romney (R-UT) as a role model. Romney is the only sitting Republican senator who has not endorsed Lee for reelection — the McMullin campaign is hoping that Romney’s silence may be enough of a green light for moderate Republicans to abandon their party’s nominee. McMullin maintains that, if elected, he wouldn’t caucus with either side — if control of the chamber remains tight, that pledge may have some crucial implications.
There have been some dueling public polls in the Beehive State in recent weeks. Earlier this month, state pollster Dan Jones found Lee with a 41%-37% lead — that margin about matched their findings from a July survey. Another early October poll, from OHPI, gave Lee a more solid 47%-32% advantage. According to OHPI’s crosstabs, while McMullin is winning over Democrats and unaffiliated voters, Lee takes 64% of Republicans (who make up a majority of the state’s registered voters). We are holding Utah at Likely Republican.
The final Senate contest that we currently put in the Likely column is Florida — in fact, we have had it rated as Likely Republican all cycle. Rep. Val Demings (D, FL-10) was actually about as strong a recruit as Democrats could have gotten against 2-term Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). But our rating has, above all, reflected the fact that Florida is a tough (and expensive) state for Democrats. Early voting data from Republican pollster John Couvillon shows Florida Republicans faring significantly better in the mail-in vote than they were at this time in 2020.
If there are big upsets in the House this year, it probably will be because Republicans were broadly underestimated to the point where they actually do make significant numerical gains in the House (north of 20 seats) and win some surprising victories over Democrats in seats where it seemed like Republicans were significant underdogs.
What would count as a really big House upset this year? Probably Republicans flipping a seat that Joe Biden won by 15 points or more. Per tracking by Rob Pyers of the nonpartisan California Target Book, the bluest of the 59 districts that have seen outside House spending is TX-34, a Biden +15.5 district in South Texas that features a battle between incumbent Reps. Mayra Flores (R) and Vicente Gonzalez (D). We moved this race to Toss-up a couple of weeks ago, and we noted that it has been trending Republican despite Biden’s decent-sized margin there. At this point, Republicans winning this district wouldn’t feel much like a big upset at all. So maybe it’s better to say that a huge Republican upset win would be in a Biden +15 or more district other than this one.
One deep sleeper we’ve had in the Likely Democratic column is VA-10, a Northern Virginia district held by Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D). Wexton was outraised by retired Navy officer Hung Cao (R) last quarter, and he appears to be running a real race in a district that has moved strongly toward Democrats in recent years. The presidential topline — Biden +18 — also overstates how Democratic the district is, which is sometimes the case in “realigning” places. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-VA) came within a couple of points of carrying it last fall. We’d expect a Democrat to do better than that in a federal race in this district, but it does merit watching. Cao recently released an internal poll showing himself down 43%-41%. Of course, be skeptical of internal polls — when they see the light of day, assume that they are painting a rosy picture for the campaigns releasing them.
In Pittsburgh, we’re moving a Safe Democratic district, Biden +20 PA-12, to Likely Democratic for a variety of reasons. Rep. Mike Doyle (D) held the previous (and even bluer) version of this reliably Democratic district, but he is retiring. State Rep. Summer Lee (D), a left-wing candidate, won a competitive primary and is facing … Mike Doyle … in the general election. Not that Mike Doyle, but a different, unrelated Mike Doyle, a Republican local official. The Democratic Mike Doyle is working to make sure that voters indeed know he is retired — he announced his retirement, again, last week. Republicans have also been attacking Democrat Chris Deluzio, running in the more competitive PA-17 that is adjacent to this seat in western Pennsylvania, by tying him to Lee, which may have the impact of doubling as an attack ad on Lee in the sleepier PA-12 race. We have heard rumblings of close polling in the district, although it’s probably hard to poll because of the unusual circumstances. As in these other races, we ultimately expect Lee to win, but it merits mention as another sleeper race.
If in fact Kathy Hochul comes close to losing the New York gubernatorial race, she probably will end up doing poorly in many places outside of New York City, providing no help to Democrats in key swing districts. Last year, Republicans did quite well in local elections in Nassau County, and Democrats are defending a couple of districts primarily based there: the Toss-up Biden +8 NY-3 that covers northern Nassau, as well as NY-4, a bluer, Biden +15 district that covers the southern portion of the county. We’re moving that open seat from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic, mostly as a precaution against some sort of Democratic collapse outside of New York City. Laura Gillen (D), a former Hempstead town supervisor, faces Anthony D’Esposito (R), a member of the Hempstead Town Council.
Out west, Montana got back its second House seat after losing it in the 1990 census. Rep. Matt Rosendale (R) won the state’s single at-large district in 2020, and he will be defending what is now MT-2, a strongly Republican district that covers the redder, eastern two-thirds of the state. In the open MT-1, which covers the more populous western third of the state, former Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) is trying to return to the House following a stint as President Trump’s first Interior Secretary plagued by a number of ethics investigations. His opponent is Monica Tranel, an attorney and former Olympic rower. MT-1 was a Trump +7 district, though it’s arguably more competitive than that down the ballot: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) carried it by 10 points in his 2018 reelection, and former Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT) nearly carried it even as he was losing by about 10 points statewide to Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) in the 2020 Senate race. There are some similarities here to Alaska’s recent House special election, won by now-Rep. Mary Peltola (D, AK-AL), as a talented Democratic woman runs against a former elected official (Zinke) who became a national figure and lost some luster as a result of it. There is also a Libertarian in the race who probably would hurt Zinke more than Tranel to the extent he gets votes. Anyway, we still think Zinke is favored but we now list this race as Leans Republican.
Finally, there’s one more race to mention, a race that we are effectively making a sleeper. Rep. Annie Kuster (D, NH-2) faces Robert Burns, a former local official who was one of several pro-Trump Republicans that Democrats effectively helped in primaries. Burns didn’t even reach 6 figures in third-quarter fundraising, giving Kuster a giant money advantage if she needs it. At this point it’d be a considerable upset if Kuster lost, so this race moves to Likely Democratic.
Our overall House math, despite this week’s changes, remains the same: 214 districts at least Lean Republican while 195 at least Lean Democratic. Splitting the 26 Toss-ups evenly would result in a Republican net gain of 14. We do think it’s probably likelier now that Republicans do at least a little better than a tie in the Toss-ups, so our best guess on Republican gains is now somewhere in the high teens.
We noted the recent close polling in the New York and Oklahoma gubernatorial races above. We discussed Oklahoma in some detail last week when we moved it from Safe Republican to Likely Republican, so we won’t repeat ourselves except to note that the Republican Governors Association started spending in that race this week, another sign of competitiveness.
New York, meanwhile, moves from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic this week. Polling in the race has gotten closer over the past couple of weeks, with Quinnipiac University showing Hochul only up 50%-46% on Zeldin. Some others have shown Hochul leading by more but perhaps going in the wrong direction: Siena College had Hochul up 11 recently, although that was down from 17 back in September. Republicans have been trying to make the race about crime and have attacked Hochul and other Democrats for a cashless bail system that the state passed in 2019 (Hochul was lieutenant governor at that time). Republicans have also been tying Democratic congressional candidates to Hochul in the state’s most competitive House districts, which are located outside of New York City, an indication that Republicans see Hochul as an anchor for Democrats. Hochul may very well end up losing several key districts located upstate or on Long Island — that alone wouldn’t really be enough for her to actually lose, though, so long as she doesn’t see some sort of collapse in extremely blue New York City.
In both the New York and Oklahoma gubernatorial races, we do wonder if the polling is understating the majority party in each state. For instance, let’s look at what some of the polling is telling us about the Senate races in each state. Over the last 7 Senate races in New York, the closest margin was 28 points, which was Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D) first victory. In Oklahoma, the margin has not been closer than 30 points in the last 5 elections. The New York Quinnipiac poll showed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D) up just 12 points, which feels light to us. Likewise, Republicans led the Sooner State’s pair of Senate races by just the low-to-mid double digits in a few recent polls that showed Hofmeister tied or leading in the Senate race. That feels way light to us. It seems clear in both states that the respective gubernatorial races will be closer than the Senate races, but if the majority party Senate margins are being underestimated, their gubernatorial numbers probably are too.
The bottom line here is that even though we no longer categorize these races as Safe for the incumbent party, Likely does in fact mean Likely.
As we peruse the other gubernatorial races in the Likely or Safe column, it’s probably worth mentioning Alaska as a deep sleeper, if only because of the state’s new ranked-choice voting system, which produced Peltola’s special election victory earlier this year. Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R-AK) is seeking a second term against, most notably, former state Rep. Les Gara (D) and former independent Gov. Bill Walker.
Another possibility — in a state that uses a more conventional balloting format — is South Dakota. Recent polling from South Dakota State University gives GOP Gov. Kristi Noem a 45%-41% lead over state House Minority Leader Jamie Smith (D). Noem won the governorship by just over 3 points in 2018, and Democrats complain that she is more interested in raising her national profile than in tending to state issues. We still rate this race as Safe Republican.
There has been a little bit of poll tightening in the much higher-profile Michigan race, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) faces conservative media personality Tudor Dixon (R), although Whitmer still clearly leads. But Democrats are a bit leerier about Michigan, where the Republican Governors Association is remains engaged, than they are about, say, Pennsylvania, a state that the RGA has avoided.