Notes on the State of the Senate
A Commentary By Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman
The overall picture for November, and the looming primaries in May.
The small stuff versus the big stuff
There is a push and pull in the race for control of the U.S. Senate between the big picture electoral environment, which clearly benefits Republicans, and the day-to-day developments on the campaign trail, which do not always clearly benefit Republicans.
Examples of the latter include, but are not limited to, the following over the past few months:
— National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott’s (R-FL) rollout of his own political agenda, which includes some items (like suggesting that poorer Americans who don’t currently pay income tax pay it) that other national party leaders don’t want to deal with in the midterm.
— Fundraising dominance displayed by the 3 most vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents: Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV).
— Donald Trump wading into primaries and endorsing candidates who may not be the party’s best choice for the general election, such as television doctor Mehmet Oz (R) in Pennsylvania.
It’s easy to get caught up in these various developments — after all, these are some of the most newsworthy things that have happened in the race for the Senate recently. And there certainly is a world in which Republicans are foiled in their bid to flip the Senate by some confluence of these developments. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) acknowledged the possibility of being undermined by campaign developments and poor GOP candidates recently: “From an atmospheric point of view, it’s a perfect storm of problems for the Democrats,” he said recently. “How could you screw this up? It’s actually possible. And we’ve had some experience with that in the past.”
McConnell went on to note that bad nominees cost the Republicans seats a decade ago. Indeed, weak nominees likely cost the Republicans 5 seats in 2010 and 2012 in Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Missouri, and Nevada, although it’s fair to note that Republicans fixed their mistakes and flipped those seats in Indiana and Missouri in 2018. More recently, Roy Moore (R) blew what should have been an unlosable race in Alabama in a 2017 special election, although Republicans reclaimed that lost seat in 2020. With the exception of Moore, though, a lot of the handwringing about Republican fortunes in Senate races has been overblown in recent years, particularly in red or reddish states where high-profile, well-funded Democratic candidates failed to break through.
This is all a long way of saying that Republicans absolutely should sweat the small things, but having one big thing on their side — the political environment — can help cover up for the small things that don’t go their way.
As we assess the Senate map right now, we do currently see the Republicans as favorites to take the majority. This is because, of the most competitive seats — the ones we call Toss-ups — Republicans are defending just 1 (Pennsylvania) and Democrats are defending 3 (Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada). And while we’re holding at a Toss-up rating in all of these races, there are some indications that the Republicans are better-positioned in several if not all of them.
In Georgia, former NFL star Herschel Walker (R) — who may or may not ultimately turn out to be a weak candidate given his baggage — often leads the incumbent, Warnock, in polls.
Recent polls have differed on Cortez Masto’s standing against her likeliest challenger, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R), but whether she’s ahead or not, her polling is often in just the low-to-mid 40s, short of 50%, and Nevada’s diverse, working-class population could be poised to demonstrate problems in the Democratic coalition. Cortez Masto polling in the 40s may, in and of itself, not be too troubling — the state usually has a high third-party vote, as she won with 47% in 2016 — but as recent polling from OHPI showed, her 43% share against Laxalt matched Biden’s approval share, which suggests the challenger may have more room to grow.
Arizona and Pennsylvania are murkier, although Kelly, like Cortez Masto, also is not hitting 50% in polls — and as discussed below, perhaps next month’s primary in Pennsylvania will bring some clarity to that race.
While Democrats aren’t defending incumbents in deep red states, as they were when they lost the Senate in 2014, Biden still did worse in all 3 of Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada than he did nationally in 2020 (despite carrying all of them). He also ran a few points behind his national margin in Pennsylvania, the top Democratic offensive target. In other words, if Biden’s standing is already weak nationally (which seems apparent), it is likely at least as weak or perhaps a little weaker in these states.
Map 1 shows our current ratings. If the leaning states go the way they are currently rated — and perhaps they won’t — Republicans would need just 2 of these 4 Toss-ups to get to 51 seats. That seems like the safer bet, despite some of the GOP’s troubles.
Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate race ratings
The “May Madness” of Senate primaries
While 2022’s Senate map will certainly feature no shortage of marquee races this fall, the candidates must first secure their party’s nomination. Texas, which voted in early March, provided political enthusiasts with something of an appetizer for primary season. But after a lull in April — there are no primaries this month — voters in roughly a dozen states will go to the polls next month to choose their general election nominees.
With that, we thought we’d look ahead on the calendar at which states will see major Senate primaries next month.
Two adjacent Midwestern states, Indiana and Ohio, will kick off the “May Madness” season. The situation in Indiana is more straightforward: Sen. Todd Young (R-IN) is set to face Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott (D) in the fall. The Crystal Ball rates the general election as Safe Republican.
In Ohio, Sen. Rob Portman’s (R-OH) somewhat unexpected retirement announcement paved the way for what can be described as a chaotic primary. While Portman has endorsed former state party Chairwoman Jane Timken, the primary field features 4 other major candidates. For a time, it seemed that former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, the party’s nominee against Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) in 2012, was a tenuous frontrunner. Despite supporting Marco Rubio in 2016, Mandel has campaigned as a strident Trump Republican — incendiary tweets have become a trademark of his campaign. Last week, though, the former president endorsed J.D. Vance, the author of the book Hillbilly Elegy — interestingly, like Mandel, Vance was originally suspicious of Trump. Businessman Mike Gibbons has sometimes led recent polls, and free-spending state Sen. Matt Dolan — the least Trumpy of the top candidates — is yet another notable contender. It may be that Trump’s endorsement has dramatically altered this race in Vance’s favor, but it’s too soon to tell whether that has actually happened.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13), who represents the Youngstown area and is a friend of organized labor, is the frontrunner. Since Portman’s retirement, we have had the race as Likely Republican.
As with Ohio on May 3, May 17 will feature 2 big state contests where Trump’s senatorial endorsements in open seat primaries will be put to the test: North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
In the Tar Heel State, 3-term GOP Sen. Richard Burr is retiring. Though the Republican ballot will feature 14 candidates, the contest seems to be a race between former Gov. Pat McCrory and Rep. Ted Budd (R, NC-13), with former Rep. Mark Walker (R, NC-6) acting as something of a third wheel. For 14 years, McCrory was mayor of Charlotte, the state’s largest city, and had a reputation as a mavericky “Eisenhower Republican.” But once in the executive mansion, he was pulled rightward by a conservative legislature, which may have contributed to his 2016 reelection loss — as his opponents are quick to point out, no other statewide Republican incumbent has been defeated over the last decade. Last summer, Trump endorsed Budd. At the time, McCrory, with statewide name recognition, seemed to be the favorite. But the polling trajectory suggests that some of McCrory’s early support was soft — an early April poll from SurveyUSA gave Budd a 33%-23% lead. In North Carolina, a runoff is triggered if no candidate clears 30% in the primary.
Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is the likely Democratic nominee. Though she was narrowly ousted in 2020, she received more raw votes than Biden. Still, there are several other minor candidates, and it will be interesting to see how much of a protest vote there is against the consensus choice — in recent cycles, this has been most common in the eastern part of the state. That same SurveyUSA poll put Beasley at 37% in her primary, while about half the Democratic electorate was undecided.
The Crystal Ball rates North Carolina as Leans Republican for the general election. The Tar Heel State, which has been a frustrating place for Democrats in recent presidential and Senate contests, seems like it is clearly third on the list of Democratic offensive targets. Democrats appear to be focusing more on trying to oust Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and flipping the open seat in Pennsylvania. Senate Majority PAC, a major Democratic outside spending group, left North Carolina off its initial list of reservations, although SMP’s Republican equivalent, the Senate Leadership Fund, plans to spend there. These early reservations can always change, and some early bookings could be driven by focusing on states with a lot of statewide races and thus more competition for expensive airtime — North Carolina has no governor’s race this year, unlike the other marquee Senate states.
In Pennsylvania, 2-term Republican Pat Toomey’s retirement has prompted a 7-way GOP primary to replace him. Although Toomey made his plans known very early on (in fact, he announced his retirement a month before the 2020 election) the 2 most recent entrants into the field seem to be duking it out for first place.
In November, the aforementioned Mehmet Oz — a television personality — got into the race, despite shaky connections to the state. In his messaging to GOP voters, Oz drew parallels between his career and Trump’s — that may have struck a chord with the former president, who endorsed him earlier this month. Oz’s main opposition in the polls has been from former Bush administration official and hedge fund CEO David McCormick. Like Oz, McCormick has been criticized for spending time outside of the state (he lived in Connecticut until recently) — in his ads, he has tried to counter this. Still, geography may play in McCormick’s favor: He is the only candidate from the western half of the state, and Pennsylvania primary ballots list a candidate’s home county, which can intensify regional patterns of support. Carla Sands, who was Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, and Jeff Bartos, the party’s nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, usually poll in third or fourth place.
Though the Democratic primary initially looked more crowded, it is now essentially a 3-man contest. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who ran in the 2016 Democratic primary when this seat was last up, is the frontrunner. Unlike his last bid for the Senate, when he was the mayor of Braddock, a small city on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Fetterman seems to be benefitting from the visibility that has come with his role as a statewide official. Rep. Conor Lamb (D, PA-17) typically polls in second place. In a 2018 special election, Lamb won a deep red southwestern district, and was reelected twice in a friendlier seat. Despite some high-profile endorsements from Philadelphia-area officials, Lamb has struggled to close the gap with Fetterman, and seems to be running out of time. Finally, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who has deep roots in the Philadelphia area, argues that he is the most electable candidate. At this point, it would be a considerable surprise if Fetterman was not the Democratic nominee.
Of the 4 Senate races that the Crystal Ball places in the Toss-up category, Pennsylvania is the only one that doesn’t feature a Democratic incumbent.
Finally, we’ll be watching a couple of Deep South states on May 24: Alabama and Georgia.
Alabama is a Safe Republican state, so its GOP primary will be more about the style and tone of the party than anything else. Rep. Mo Brooks (R, AL-5) — who was also a candidate against Roy Moore in the 2017 special primary — was the early favorite. Brooks came to the House in 2010 in the Tea Party wave, and earned the Trump endorsement. But his campaign has floundered, and the former president, in a rare move, rescinded his endorsement. The primary now seems to be a race between Katie Britt, who worked for outgoing Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) and is running with his support, and veteran Michael Durant, who is positioning himself as a more populist-y alternative to Britt. A June 21 runoff will be in order if no candidate clears 50%.
Finally, Georgia, which will be one of the key races on the ballot this fall, will have its primary on May 24. As a sitting senator, Warnock only has minor competition in the Democratic primary. Meanwhile, Herschel Walker has been endorsed by several sitting GOP senators (and Trump) but faces several opponents, including state Commissioner of Agriculture Gary Black. Latham Saddler, a former Navy SEAL, has raised close to $4 million, the highest total among the non-Walker Republicans. While Walker would likely claim the nomination outright if the election were held today, we’re watching for how much of a dent the other candidates make in his share and whether they can push him below 50%, which would force a runoff.
So after next month, it seems likely the primaries will be settled in several key Senate races: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Georgia. All 3 seem slated to see expensive general elections. And as Ohio’s volatile contest comes to a close, the good news for Ohio Republicans is that the state has reddened enough over the last decade that their candidate would still enter the general election as a favorite, although depending on who they nominate, the state may be more competitive than it should be.
Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.
J. Miles Coleman is an elections analyst for Decision Desk HQ and a political cartographer. Follow him on Twitter @jmilescoleman.
See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.
See Other Political Commentary by J. Miles Coleman.
See Other Political Commentary.
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