The 2022 election is less than two weeks away, with the exceedingly tight race for the 50-50 Senate emerging as the main event. (Republicans are now significant favorites to take the House.)
It can be difficult to follow a bunch of different races, and looking at polling and the generic ballot can only tell you so much; those surveys also say little about how these races might shift down the stretch. Around a half-dozen races are expected to decide who controls the chamber, but they could break in any number of different ways.
Which is where we come in. Below we run through several different scenarios about how the most competitive races could break — and what factors might prove decisive in the larger battle for the majority.
There’s real evidence that conservative-leaning voters have rallied to some of the GOP’s less-heralded and more divisive candidates. Polls suggest that has happened with Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, J.D. Vance in Ohio, Sen. Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and perhaps with Blake Masters in Arizona. Right-leaning voters who didn’t like them increasingly do — or at least have decided that the GOP gaining Senate votes is important enough that they can hold their noses.
This was somewhat to be expected — and had been predicted — but the scale of this effect matters.
If conservative voters do come home in large measure, it would likely mean the GOP holds red-leaning Ohio and swingy Wisconsin (given Johnson is an incumbent). But that may not be enough in the purer swing states where GOP nominees have lagged, such as Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. In each of those three states, the Democrat holds a low-single-digit lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling average.
Were Republicans to win both Ohio and Wisconsin, they would likely need just two of the remaining competitive races in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Nevada. (That last race, between Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Republican Adam Laxalt, is tight — and candidate problems haven’t loomed as large.)
History suggests that the party that doesn’t hold the White House will often win that kind of state in a midterm election year. Basically: If Republicans can just match the national environment in these races, they should be able to take the Senate.
If they can’t, though …
It’s an all-too-familiar circumstance for the liking of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The fact is that Republicans have squandered Senate races before thanks to bad candidates (see: Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle, Ken Buck and Christine O’Donnell). And McConnell has clearly worried about history repeating itself in 2022 — this time in a potentially decisive manner.
Our polarized politics suggest candidates increasingly matter less than party affiliation. And none of the GOP candidates this year are likely to underperform like those past ones did; Akin, for example, lost by double digits even as the GOP carried the state in the 2012 presidential race, which is pretty unfathomable these days.
But these candidates also didn’t cost the GOP the Senate majority back then. In 2022, even smaller under-performances could make the difference, given how close things are.
The states where it would seem to matter most?
Arizona, where a recent poll showed a whopping 63 percent of voters dislike Masters personally.Pennsylvania, where Oz’s image still significantly lags that of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), despite Republicans warming to Oz. A CNN poll showed Oz’s favorable/unfavorable split was 38/55, while an AARP poll pegged it at 38/50.And Georgia, where Herschel Walker wasn’t as unpopular as some of the above candidates but could be running into something of a ceiling for his support. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed his split at 39/55.
If those candidates are double-digits underwater or thereabouts on Election Day, it’s much more difficult to see the party closing the gap.
It seems possible that Republicans leave these swing seats on the table — a scenario that could trace back not just to bad candidates, but to Donald Trump’s elevation of them in the primaries.
Gas prices have reared their ugly head again in recent weeks. Few things are as frequent a reminder of inflation and economic pain. And there appears to be a significant correlation between them and the Democrats’ current political fortunes.
But it’s also possible the issue won’t play the same everywhere, because gas prices have varied greatly by state.
In Nevada, for instance, gas is over $5 per gallon, up more than a dollar since last year. It’s also risen in recent weeks in Arizona ($4.33), where it is up nearly a dollar over the past 12 months.
By contrast, gas prices are near $4 in Pennsylvania, but the increase over the past year has been significantly less. And in Georgia and North Carolina, they’re relatively low and have been flatter over the past year. They’ve dropped somewhat in recent weeks in Wisconsin (but are still up from last year).
Costlier gas appears most troublesome for Democrats out west, but it could also have a disproportionate impact on the Great Lakes region. If Republicans do better than expected in some regions but not others — or if economic concerns vary from contest to contest — we could be talking a lot about gas prices come Nov. 9.
Some evidence shows that abortion rights might be waning somewhat as an election issue — but like gas prices, it too could vary in its impact. That’s because the paper trail isn’t the same in every race.
If abortion proves a major issue, it could register the most in Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania — arguably the states where Democrats have the most to work with.
Masters once compared abortion to genocide and supported fetal personhood legislation, before backing off those positions. Walker has supported banning abortion with no exceptions. And while Oz has tried to be more careful, during the primary he likened abortion to “murder” and at one point made no mention of rape and incest while supporting a life-of-the-mother exception — before later saying he did support those exceptions. (At Tuesday night’s debate, he also awkwardly suggested abortion was something to be decided by “women, doctors [and] local political leaders” — something Fetterman’s campaign quickly said it was putting in an ad.)
Vance has also indicated he doesn’t support rape and incest exceptions — and he hasn’t walked that back like some others, including as recently as Wednesday — but Ohio is redder than these states, and he appears to have asserted a lead.
In Nevada and Wisconsin, Democrats have mostly pointed to Laxalt and Johnson supporting overturning Roe v. Wade. But that probably doesn’t land as much as with some of these others.
There is (perhaps not coincidentally!) some overlap here with the races featuring flawed candidates. And much could also depend upon just how strongly each of these states feel about abortion rights.
One interesting late development in some of these states is the emergence of significant gaps between how the governor’s race is polling and how the Senate race is polling. If that holds, we could be talking about a resurgence in so-called “ticket-splitting.”
Or, quite possibly, that could turn out to be overblown. And if it is, the top of the ticket just might pull certain candidates across the line.
In a few states, this could help the GOP’s Senate candidate:
In Georgia, Walker trails by more than two points in the FiveThirtyEight average, but Gov. Brian Kemp (R) leads by more than six.In Arizona, Masters trails by more than three points, but GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake leads by a similar margin.In New Hampshire, Republican Don Bolduc trails Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) by an average of more than five points, but popular Gov. Chris Sununu (R) is winning by more than 15.In Ohio, the Senate race is competitive (with a slight edge to Vance), but popular Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is winning by a large margin — nearly 20 points, in fact.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) recently wagered: “I just can’t imagine that there’ll be Kemp-Warnock supporters. I think if you’re going to vote for Kemp, you’re voting for Walker.”
We shall see.
The one state where this could seemingly accrue to Democrats’ benefit is Pennsylvania, where the GOP establishment has largely disowned Doug Mastriano’s floundering campaign. There, Oz has narrowed the gap, but Mastriano has not, still trailing popular state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) by more than eight points. One wonders how Oz might be doing if Republicans had fielded a stronger gubernatorial nominee more appealing to the political middle.
(Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis is also popular and is sailing to reelection, which could diminish the GOP’s hopes — such as they exist — for its Senate candidate, Joe O’Dea.)