As the race for control of the 50-50 Senate comes to a head, with Democrats trying to hold a defensive legislative line, the prospect of a politically divided Washington is increasingly likely.
Even as House Democrats’ odds of keeping their majority have worsened (the party spent millions to defend seats that President Joe Biden would have comfortably won in 2020), the Senate has more to nail down. That alone has been heartening for Democrats, especially amid grim economic news and the president’s low approval ratings, and renewed debate over whether factors like candidate quality and fundraising can help weather a challenging national environment.
But in an evenly divided Senate chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the vote to break the tie, Democrats have no room for error as they hope to prevent the GOP from gaining a majority in both chambers of Congress and even more on the run. Investigations that Republicans have pledged to open if they win the House.
Republicans need a net gain of one seat to win the Senate majority – Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire are among the top choices. All of those races have tightened since the summer, including New Hampshire, which appeared out of GOP hands when the party nominated an extreme candidate who raised a fraction of Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan’s millions.
To pick up seats for Republicans, however, they must defend their own, including two of the states that Donald Trump won in 2020, but it has required more GOP spending than Republicans would have liked.
While Republicans bash Democrats over inflation and crime, the Democratic strategy has been to try to paint contrasts between the candidates and the GOP on issues of character and policy, such as the Republican campaign charge that they would jeopardize Social Security and Medicare.
In Pennsylvania, for example, where Gov. John Fetterman is the Democrats’ best hope to flip a Senate seat, the Democratic candidate used his closing ad to tout his history of “fighting for the people,” as he called his Republican opponent. Mehmet Oz “has spent his life taking advantage of people.”
Oz’s struggles with his image (his approval rating is underwater in a recent Marist poll, for example) speak to the individual dynamics of Senate races, where some Trump-backed candidates have struggled to raise money in open-seat contests or shore up Republican support. dividing primaries. The difference in that equation for the Democrats is that some of their vulnerable incumbents are outperforming Biden in their states in recent polls.
Both of these factors underscore how challenging the national environment can be in Senate races. Domestic races – the candidates are much less defined – blow with the national winds. The blue wave of 2018, for example, when Democrats made big gains in the House in response to the Trump presidency, did not return to the Senate. Republicans were able to pick up seats that year, knocking out some Democrats in red states.
But the question this year is whether the idiosyncrasies of Senate races will outweigh voters’ dismal perceptions of the economy and their desire to check the party in power in the White House. In a recent CNN/SSRS poll, nearly three-quarters of voters said things in the country were headed in the wrong direction, and the same percentage thought the US was in recession.
Making matters worse for Democrats, Republicans have the advantage of enthusiasm, a reflection of the partisan divide before the 2010 midterms, when the GOP picked up seats. In late June, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. The decision to overturn Wade boosted grassroots enthusiasm among Democrats, but four months later, the economy is still motivating most voters, with abortion often lagging significantly in state polls.
Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is considered the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent as she runs for a second term in a state hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and high gas prices. Democrats are hopeful that voters here, who favored Biden by 2 points, will swing back for Cortez Masto in the final round, but given the relative transitoriness of the population, that’s no guarantee. This is also the first term without Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who was instrumental in getting the turnout of working-class and Latino voters.
In roughly two states with Biden in 2020, relatively new Democratic incumbents have been campaigning since winning special elections last cycle and have strong personal brands, and plenty of money to sell them. That initially gave Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the late Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, and Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut, an advantage over Trump-backed challengers.
Both Arizona and Georgia, however, are used to voting Republican and concerns about the economy are increasing the headwinds against the Democrats. GOP Senate hopefuls may be able to ride out stronger gubernatorial candidates in both states. In Georgia, Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker is known as a former football star, but voters may also benefit from Gov. Brian Kemp, who ran ahead of Democrat Stacey Abrams in a rematch four years ago.
The number of seats Republicans in the Senate have to pick up increases if they lose theirs. Chief among those at risk is Pennsylvania, which topped CNN’s ranking of the 10 seats most likely to flip this cycle. Biden’s presence in Pennsylvania Saturday, along with former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, underscored how important the commonwealth — which voted for all three presidents at different points — is a 2022 (and 2024) battleground.
Along with Pennsylvania, the other state won by Biden where the Republicans are on the defensive is Wisconsin. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, who broke his pledge to run for a third term, has long been the most vulnerable GOP incumbent up for re-election. It’s increasingly rare for states to back cross-party presidential and Senate candidates, but that race appears to have swung in Johnson’s favor since the summer, with outside groups attacking his Democratic challenger in the fall.
Republicans must also hold North Carolina and Ohio, two states that have been surprisingly competitive for Democrats in a national environment that favors the GOP. North Carolina is a purple state that Biden almost lost, so narrow margins are expected here. Democrat Cheri Beasley, who could become the state’s first black senator, has run as an outsider, casting Republican Rep. Ted Budd as a Washington creature.
Ohio is a different story. Despite having a Democratic senator, the state – which Trump carried twice by about 8 points – has gone increasingly red. Rep. JD Vance, who won a nasty primary with Trump’s backing, has struggled with fundraising — so much so that the Senate’s most powerful GOP super PAC has had to divert resources from battleground states to shore up the increasingly red state. Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan was able to dominate the airwaves early with his bipartisan bona fide spots. His closing ad, for example, highlights his 2016 vote against Nancy Pelosi as speaker.
Ryan’s fundraising advantage also underscored a hard truth for Republicans this cycle: Despite millions of super PAC dollars, candidates who can’t raise money are still a problem. That’s because candidates get more favorable advertising rates on television than outside groups.
Still, if the national environment is the most important factor on Tuesday night — and if well-funded Democratic incumbents in top seats are down — Republicans could also look to races like Colorado and Washington state, where Biden carried about 13. points and 19 points, respectively.