For Republicans to take control of the United States Senate after the midterm elections, they need to gain a net of just one seat. Yet several election modelers give the Democrats at least a two-thirds chance to keep control.
Why have the GOP’s Senate chances been relegated to a 1-in-3 shot? Because, with Dr. Mehmet Oz running poorly in his attempt to keep Pennsylvania’s seat out of Democratic hands, Republicans have only one solid geographic path to victory: flipping both Nevada and Georgia. Those are the only two states where the Republican challenger is running neck-and-neck with a Democratic incumbent.
The Republican map has shrunk with Arizona’s Blake Masters trailing Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly by six percentage points, and New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc down eight points against Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan, according to RealClearPolitics poll averages. Sen. Rick Scott, who heads the Republicans’ national Senate campaign arm, not too long ago spoke optimistically of expanding the map into Colorado, Connecticut, and Washington State, but that looks fantastical at the moment.
Granted, we should be careful not to treat poll numbers as gospel, especially considering the 2020 Senate elections featured some very big whiffs. Maine’s Susan Collins didn’t lead in a single autumn survey yet won by nearly nine percentage points. Montana polls suggested a tight Senate race, but Steve Daines coasted to a 10-point victory. North Carolina’s Cal Cunningham was up by 2.6 points in the final RCP average, but Thom Tillis came out on top by 1.8 points.
But the proof of the pudding is in the spending. The Super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last week pulled out of Arizona, presumably seeing little hope for a candidate who once said convicted domestic terrorist Ted Kaczynski has “a lot of insight there that is correct.” Democrats in Arizona have outspent Republicans 2-to-1, and Kelly ads have aired four times more frequently than Masters ads.
McConnell’s Super PAC has not yet abandoned Bolduc, but he only became the nominee on Sept. 13. He will likely have to narrow the poll gap soon to maintain national party support.
Republicans have also not given up on Oz. Some mid-summer polls showed the Democratic nominee John Fetterman with leads between nine and 13 points, but now holds a more modest 4.2 point lead in the RCP average.
Oz, who survived a bruising primary, appears to have consolidated Republican support. But Oz has not cut into Fetterman’s level of support, nor has he endeared himself to voters. After the hits he took in the primary as a creature of Hollywood, Fetterman’s campaign pilloried him as a creature of New Jersey. In a recent Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll, Oz had an atrocious 29% favorable rating, with 53% of respondents holding an unfavorable impression. Fetterman, in contrast, was slightly above water, 44% favorable and 41% unfavorable.
Nevertheless, Republicans have reason to stick by Oz. Fetterman’s health following his May stroke remains a political wild card. In a CBS News/YouGov poll, 59% said Fetterman is “in good enough health to serve in public office.” But we can’t rule out the possibility that something could happen in a debate or on the campaign trail which could alter those numbers. Furthermore, as I noted above, taking Pennsylvania off the gameboard makes the Republican battle twice as steep, requiring wins in both remaining competitive contests. So Republicans aren’t going to rush to surrender the Keystone State.
Meanwhile, Democrats have done a better job expanding their map. Mandela Barnes’ early lead versus Wisconsin’s incumbent Republican Ron Johnson has vanished following a barrage of ads accusing him of being a “Defund-the-Police Democrat” who has paroled “murderers” and “child rapists.” (Oz’s campaign is similarly trying to use Fetterman’s record chairing the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons as fodder for attacks.) But Johnson’s RCP lead is a spare 1.5 points, keeping Barnes in the mix. Plus, Democrats are running only two points behind in Ohio and North Carolina, and about three points in Florida, with candidates who are more moderate than Fetterman and Barnes.
All of these races may be stretches, but they give Democrats multiple geographic paths for avoiding a net loss of Senate seats and retaining control.
In all likelihood, the Republicans’ majority hopes rest on the shoulders of Nevada’s Adam Laxalt and Georgia’s Herschel Walker. Laxalt has the much stronger political pedigree, for better or worse. His father Paul Laxalt was a longtime fixture in Nevada politics, a popular governor and senator. Adam’s own record is more mixed: while he won the attorney general’s race in 2014, he lost the gubernatorial election four years later.
While the pro-life Laxalt may prove too conservative for the light blue, libertine Silver State, he knows what it is like to run statewide, which gives Republican leaders some comfort with his electoral prospects. Walker, on the other hand, is a former football star who has never run for office before. He has made a series of bewildering comments on the campaign trail. And Democrats are airing ads with a clip of Walker admitting he “put a gun to [the] head” of his ex-wife. Despite those attacks, the race is effectively tied in the polls, so Walker could pull it off. But one imagines Republican leaders can’t be thrilled that their majority depends on the political resilience of a scandal-tarred political novice.
We can’t know which way the Senate will go in November. But we do know the Republican path to victory is much narrower than it had to be.
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