With the 2022 midterm elections under a year away, Split Ticket is pleased to introduce its Senate ratings for next November. In this preview, we’ll be covering all seats rated as potentially competitive by at least one forecaster between the Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
1. Pennsylvania (OPEN – R)
Won by a slim margin in 2020, the Keystone State is poised to become the focal point of the nation in 2022. In a state that was won by just over 1% in 2020, the margins are extremely fine, and it is impossible to gain a clear portrait of where the race to replace the retiring Pat Toomey stands right now; candidate effects, spending, and partisan lean will all play an extremely significant role in deciding the eventual winner, and with neither side having coalesced around a nominee, the picture remains murkier than ever.
An argument often put forth about Democrats in Pennsylvania is that it’s just one of several midwestern states trending strongly against them. The data on this matter is actually rather unclear; Pennsylvania is actually significantly more educated and far more urban, both of which play well for Democrats from a long-term point of view. This is one of the reasons we’ve elected to keep Pennsylvania at tossup, which is one spot to the left of our Wisconsin rating — while the two states have a similar presidential lean, there is far more room for growth for Democrats in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs and far less reliance on the support of rural, non-college whites, a demographic that has been trending hard against them. A Democratic victory here will rely on two of the following three events occurring: the nominee would need to match Biden margins with suburban whites in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) and the Philadelphia collar, keep Black turnout in Philadelphia high, or garner higher rates of support with rural whites than Biden did.
The two likeliest candidates to emerge from the Democratic side are Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and Representative Conor Lamb. A Fetterman primary victory would likely result in a heavy reliance on the rural white reversion angle, and while there is some precedent for this group being significantly friendlier down-ballot towards Democrats in Pennsylvania, as shown by Josh Shapiro’s 2020 victory in which he outran Biden by 3.5% statewide, it is a fundamentally riskier strategy to rely on a demographic trending against them like this. In Pennsylvania, rural reversion towards Democrats generally happens as a result of backlash against the Republicans, as in the 2014 gubernatorial election when then-Democratic challenger Tom Wolf ousted Tom Corbett, the deeply unpopular GOP incumbent. The conditions for something similar may not exist this cycle — that 2014 contest was also a state contest rather than a federal one, and absent the anti-Corbett backlash in 2018, much of rural Pennsylvania swung against Democratic governor Tom Wolf.
A Lamb victory would rely more on the former two conditions of strong suburban white margins and good Black turnout, and there is strong electoral evidence for Lamb being able to achieve the former. As Drew Savicki notes, his 2018 special election victory in a Trump +20 district was nothing short of extraordinary and came on the back of incredibly strong suburban margins. Furthermore, as J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball notes, Lamb’s performance in the 2018 general election was also nothing short of stellar, and between him, Bob Casey, and Tom Wolf, he was actually the best Democratic candidate in the whiter Pittsburgh areas, even while running against a credible and well-funded challenger (unlike the candidates opposing Casey and Wolf). Lastly, in 2020, Lamb outran Biden by 0.4% in vote share in a swing suburban district, which is a point or two better than one might have expected based on other congressional results – many suburban Democrats in competitive races across the country ran behind the top of the ticket.
For the reasons mentioned above, it is our view that Lamb would likely be the strongest Democratic candidate in a general election, a view shared by several Republican and Democratic operatives that Split Ticket has spoken to. However, Fetterman is currently up in the primary by a decent margin, as per the internals we’ve seen. While it’s not a done deal, the Lieutenant Governor would currently be favored if the race was held today, and Conor Lamb will have a good bit of ground to close if he is to emerge as the nominee.
From the Republican side, frontrunner Sean Parnell was recently forced to suspend his campaign after serious allegations of domestic abuse became public. In the wake of this, the field is wide open, and television personality and surgeon Mehmet Oz looks to be the favorite over 2018 Lieutenant Governor nominee Jeff Bartos and former congressional nominee Kathy Barnette. However, as no candidate cleared 11% in a recent Echelon Insights poll, the race could be fluid. This dynamic is further complicated by Bridgewater Associates CEO David McCormick’s likely entry into the race next week, and the primary field here will take some time to settle — Republicans we have spoken to see this primary as eventually becoming a shootout between Oz and McCormick, but the outcome is extremely unclear and could significantly shape how the general election plays out.
Should the generic ballot become significantly more Republican than the R+1 currently shown on 538, Republicans will likely see their chances here spike, especially in a state that is already more Republican than the nation as a whole at the presidential level — presidential lean is the strongest predictor of Senate results, and a red wave would make this seat a very tough flip for Democrats. For now, though, with such a close 2020 margin, so little knowledge of the eventual matchup or national environment, and so much time to go until November, we’ll hold the race at a TOSSUP.
No state was more closely decided in 2020, and perhaps no battleground state has a stronger incumbent running than Mark Kelly. A prodigious fundraiser with strong name ID in the state, Kelly is extremely popular with his base and is at no risk of a primary. However, in a state as close as Arizona, the general election will be a nail-biter, especially if the national shift right from 2020 persists. Incumbency should help Kelly, as should his exceptional fundraising and candidacy strength (Split Ticket found his electoral performance in 2020 to be about 3.5 points above expectations); however, this might not be enough, especially if the environment remains as unfavorable for Democrats as the one that saw them lose Virginia in November. In a Biden midterm, Kelly holding on to this seat would be an extremely tough lift against a generic Republican candidate.
There is one wildcard factor here, however, and it is the Arizona Republican primary, where a more extreme candidate may easily emerge from the field. Attorney General Mark Brnovich is the leading candidate for Republicans, with recent polls placing him at 27%, which is well ahead of the high single-digits/low double-digits commanded by businessman and pro-Trump activist Blake Masters. However, Brnovich has refused to so far fully embrace Trump’s lies regarding the 2020 election, and this has led to some friction between the two of late; should Trump jump in and endorse Masters, it is not inconceivable to see the far-right candidate become the instant favorite, which would more seriously jeopardize Republican chances of holding the seat. But for now, with the picture this uncertain, we rate this seat as a TOSSUP.
3. Nevada (Catherine Cortez-Masto – D)
A state with trends that might well be the inverse of Georgia, Nevada is possibly one of the most perilous long-term Biden-won states for Democrats due to its low rates of degree attainment, high Hispanic population (a demographic that has swung sharply right over the last four years), and its current rightward lean as compared to the nation as a whole.
In 2016, Cortez-Masto edged out Joe Heck in a nail-biter of a race, winning by 2.4% and running even with Hillary Clinton in margin. Currently, she leads Adam Laxalt by 4% in a recent poll from the Mellman Group; however, if the national environment remains as rightward-leaning as the one that saw New Jersey nearly turn red in November 2021, pulling off a victory here will require a serious lift centered around Hispanic voters, both in stemming a continued swing rightwards from 2016 and in boosting their turnout, which tends to lag historically in midterm elections.
Underestimating incumbent Democrats in Nevada has often been a fool’s errand, and Cortez-Masto begins with a considerable fundraising and polling advantage. However, there are far too many red flags nationally and at a demographic level (based on both race and education) for Democrats to feel comfortable. For now, the picture remains at a TOSSUP — and we suspect it’ll likely stay that way for a while in a state that will almost certainly remain close regardless of the outcome.
4. Georgia (Raphael Warnock – D)
Perhaps no state is becoming more rapidly Democratic than Georgia, and its 5-point sprint left from 2016 saw it narrowly flip blue presidentially and elect two Democratic Senators in the runoff. While 2022 is forecast to be a much redder year than 2020 was thanks to a combination of factors, it is not inconceivable that Democrats could actually improve on Biden’s performance in Georgia, especially as the state continues to get more demographically favorable to Democrats thanks to the rapid influx of white-collar liberals in the Atlanta metro areas — the area is projected to gain 200,000 new residents between 2020 and 2022, and it is likely that the new voters in this demographic will be strongly favorable to Democrats. Moreover, the Warnock-Abrams ticket is more likely to drive up Black turnout and keep margins with them high, both of which are essential for Georgia Democratic election victories.
On the nomination side, the Senate nominee looks more and more likely to be Herschel Walker, who has no prior political experience, resided in Texas before this year, and has been accused of some rather serious crimes concerning fraud and domestic violence. Warnock has led Walker by 6 points in initial polling from Redfield & Wilton and begins with a massive fundraising advantage as well, with $17M in his campaign war chest as compared to Herschel Walker’s $3M. Moreover, Republicans will be simultaneously dealing with a grueling gubernatorial primary that will put Kemp’s refusal to subvert the 2020 election results into the spotlight again, a factor that Republican House Speaker David Ralston has stated could cost them both the senate and gubernatorial races.
For now, we begin with the rating of LEAN DEMOCRATIC, as the combination of Warnock’s incumbency and candidate strength in both persuasion and turnout, some serious candidate quality questions on the GOP side, and Georgia’s rapidly shifting demographics and leftwards trend all boost the Democratic chance of success here. Lean is not safe, however, and should the national environment (currently at R+1, per 538) get bad enough, Republicans would see their chances here spike. That said, midterm elections are not presidential ones, and while presidential lean is highly instructive (explaining ~75% of Senate election results on average), there are still enough outside components that could make this more reminiscent of Delaware 2010 for Republicans, in which state and nominee-specific factors tilt it towards Democrats regardless.
5. Wisconsin (OPEN – R)
Although Biden carried Wisconsin by just over half a percentage point, the 2022 picture doesn’t appear too favorable in this state for Democrats, even with Ron Johnson’s possible retirement provoking a vicious GOP primary battle. Democrats rely on extremely high rates of non-college white support in this state, and the acceleration of educational polarization mixed with a Republican national lean in 2022 makes Wisconsin a candidate for a pronounced swing right relative to the nation.
On the Republican side, Ron Johnson has yet to announce news of his future plans — however, given his past statements about only serving two terms and his current , we’ve gone ahead and marked the seat as open, with the caveat that this is subject to change. Should Johnson run for re-election, he would almost certainly win the nomination, though it is unclear as to whether he would perform better against Democrats than another generic Republican would, especially given his polarizing status — a recent Marquette poll saw Johnson 6 points underwater in favorability even as Biden’s approval rating remained negative in Wisconsin, with only 38% expressing a desire to see him run again and 52% saying they would vote to elect someone else. Should Johnson hold to his past statements and pass on the race, the nomination field could turn out to be a vicious battle between former candidate Kevin Nicholson, congressman Mike Gallagher, and former congressman Sean Duffy, with Gallagher likely being the current favorite.
On the Democratic side, with Representatives Ron Kind and Mark Pocan electing to pass on the Senate race, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes appears to be the Democratic frontrunner at the moment, pulling 39% in a recent Data For Progress primary poll. However, lanes exist for both state treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, with the latter’s heavy spending driving his support rates up to 16% in the aforementioned poll. Should Barnes be the nominee, Black turnout in Milwaukee will be a key variable that he will hope to drive up in his favor, although a significant amount of focus has been put on Green Bay and northern Wisconsin from him as well, possibly to counter the potential of area native Mike Gallagher becoming the Republican nominee.
At the end of the day, however, the continuation of educational polarization makes Wisconsin a perilous long-term hold for Democrats, and they currently vastly overperform the support levels one would expect that they get, especially given national (or even regional) support levels by demographic applied to the state’s electorate. It’s not the closest Biden state with a Senate election, but it is the closest open one, and in 2022, we think there are enough signs that mark the Republicans as initial favorites in what should be one of the most fiercely-contested races of the midterm elections, and we begin at LEAN REPUBLICAN.
6. North Carolina (OPEN – R)
North Carolina has stayed narrowly Republican at almost every level from 2014 onwards, and if that streak is to break, it will require a serious overperformance on the Democratic side. Although the rural areas have become redder and the urban centers bluer over the last decade, the state has somewhat resisted national trends at the suburban level, as the partisan lean of these areas appears to have stalled out (at least for now) relative to the nation. Meanwhile, the Black Belt continues to bleed population and lag in votes cast, and for Democrats to successfully win this race, they’ll need to finally shift the suburbs leftwards *while* significantly driving up Black turnout, especially in the rural areas of the state.
Their chances of doing this may be heavily candidate-specific, as former NC Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley goes up against state representative Jeff Jackson, with Beasley leading in every publicly released primary poll by a statistically-significant margin. Beasley outran Biden by over a point and lost her 2020 election by a mere 401 votes, putting up the second-best showing of any statewide Democrat (trailing only incumbent governor Roy Cooper). Jackson, meanwhile, underran Biden by 3 points in his State House victory. Given this, it is a tad unclear that a Jackson victory would be the better path for Democrats in aiming to flip the seat, especially given the focus Democrats would need to place on Black turnout in order to win this election — there is simply no evidence suggesting Jackson would be able to manage this or even outrun state fundamentals in general.
On the Republican side, the primary is coming down to a showdown between former governor Pat McCrory and Representative Ted Budd, especially with Mark Walker dropping out to run in the new 6th Congressional District. The dynamics of McCrory’s 2016 loss to Cooper (fueled in part by his support for the HB-2, also known as the “bathroom bill”) may render him the weaker candidate for Republicans in a general election, and Budd, who has the endorsement of Trump, Pence, and retiring incumbent Richard Burr, has seen a significant surge of support in recent weeks to bring the race to a near-tie before Walker dropped out. Given this, it is not unreasonable to think Budd is the favorite among the Republican field.
Regardless of the nominee, North Carolina is, ultimately, still roughly six points to the right of the nation, and in a general election, this gives Republicans a strong advantage to begin with, even without the benefit of incumbency. This race will likely be extremely competitive, but it begins at LEAN REPUBLICAN.
7. New Hampshire (Maggie Hassan – D)
When Republican governor Chris Sununu elected to pass on this race in favor of running for re-election, Democrats breathed a huge sigh of relief, as the single most popular Republican in the state took himself out of contention and left the GOP with a host of less-popular choices. The Republicans are likely to be choosing between 2020 nominee Corky Messner and his past primary challenger Don Bolduc, who has openly embraced Donald Trump’s debunked fraud claims in a state that voted for Biden by 7 points. However, Senate president Chuck Morse has received significant attention and pressure to run in GOP circles, and many Republicans view him as a consensus candidate that could serve as a non-problematic nominee and put up a strong challenge against Hassan in a red year. However, without Sununu running, Democrats have a heavy candidacy, incumbency, and fundraising advantage in the Granite State, and Hassan carries years of credit in the state from both her current tenure as a Senator and her former time as governor.
Incumbency tends to matter more in small states and advertising dollars go a long way, and both of these factors work to the advantage of Hassan, who has not yet trailed in any public poll against any candidate not named Sununu. New Hampshire was comfortably won by Biden and was significantly left of the nation in 2020, sprinting left from 2016 by 7 points thanks to its high rate of educational attainment. A Republican victory would require significant swings right in the national environment that could offset the baseline presidential lean as well as the significant incumbency and fundraising advantages Hassan enjoys. While this election will certainly be hotly contested, she enters 2022 as the clear favorite, and so our rating here is LEAN DEMOCRATIC.
8. Ohio (OPEN – R)
With Rob Portman retiring, this race may be among the last chances for Democrats to win a seat in a state rapidly moving away from them. On the Democratic side, Representative Tim Ryan, is the heavy favorite (and, likely, the presumptive nominee), and his 4-point overperformance against Joe Biden’s margins gives Democrats a small ray of hope in his ability to flip back white working-class voters like the ones that reside in his district, which make up a heavy portion of Ohio’s base and recently began to flip Republican.
However, Ohio is now staunchly Republican at all levels, with Democrats losing presidentially by 8 points, making it 12.5 points right of the nation, and holding exactly one statewide office. In a year in which Republicans are widely expected to win the popular vote, this would make Tim Ryan’s task herculean in nature — a Split Ticket analysis found that only two candidates managed to exceed fundamentals by this magnitude in 2020, and both were incumbents (Susan Collins of Maine and Jack Reed of Rhode Island). While Ryan is widely considered an excellent candidate, Republicans must be considered heavy favorites in this race, regardless of the nominee they put up, and the biggest question is mainly who will be opposing Tim Ryan.
On this front, former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel is the favorite at this stage, having led in every publicly available poll since February. He leads former Ohio GOP chair Jane Timken and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, both of whom are shooting for the nomination. Mandel has a history of making racist and problematic statements, and his staff has seen an exodus attributed to a toxic work environment, and so it is not out of the realm of possibility that Timken or Vance see a surge as undecideds coalesce, especially if one drops out. Regardless of who wins the nomination, Republicans will remain heavy favorites, although the slim chances of a Democratic win are probably highest with a Mandel nomination. Our rating for this race is LIKELY REPUBLICAN.
9. Colorado (Michael Bennett – D)
Colorado saw among the largest swings left in the nation between 2016 and 2020, as educated white suburbanites swung sharply to the left to deliver Joe Biden a 13.5 point win while John Hickenlooper defeated incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner by 9. Bennett enjoys the twin advantages of incumbency and fundraising, and when faced with an underwhelming GOP field in which one of the two main candidates participated in the January 6th riots against election certification, it is hard to currently see Bennett losing unless the national mood turns sufficiently sour.
The potential for a red GOP wave is the only thing that keeps this race on the board for us; with Biden’s approvals underwater by mid-to-high single-digits nationally, there is a plausible scenario in which this race could become competitive if a strong red wave materializes, and so this is the only reason the race is rated LIKELY DEMOCRATIC instead of safe — as with Ohio, we do not currently see this race as competitive, but recognize that it could become such under a plausible set of circumstances materializing.
Rubio comfortably won his election in 2016 against Patrick Murphy even as Trump eked out a 1% win in the state, and he continues to poll significantly ahead of Democratic frontrunner Val Demings in 2020. The Latino lurch rightwards helped doom Joe Biden in 2020, as he lost the state by 3.5 despite winning the national popular vote by 4.5, and it also takes out a massive part of the Democratic base needed to defeat Rubio. In fact, per data viewed by Split Ticket, it currently appears far more likely that he wins the county of Miami-Dade (which was Clinton +33 but only Biden +7) than it is that he loses his election, especially given his fundraising prowess, incumbency, and strength with swing voters, having outran Trump by 7 in 2016. Florida’s influx of retirees further complicates the picture for Democrats, as this group tends to lean far more Republican and has given the GOP an influx of new voters that help them pad and protect their margins in the state.
This race is currently not competitive, and given all the factors working in the GOP direction, from demographics to Florida’s partisan lean to Rubio’s incumbency and fundraising advantage, we do not expect this to become competitive either, and our rating is SAFE REPUBLICAN.
11. Missouri (OPEN – R)
The Republican primary field here is split between ex-governor Eric Greitens, attorney Mark McCloskey, representatives Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler, and Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Greitens has a lead in polls at the moment, with Schmitt just a bit behind. However, senior Republican figures have privately expressed angst over Greitens, fearing that the sexual assault scandal that led him to resign the governorship could jeopardize their hold on this seat. However, Missouri is about 20 points more Republican than the national average, and that should be enough to mark this race as SAFE REPUBLICAN — with Jason Kander having ruled out a run for this seat, we do not see any Democrat realistically even approaching victory in this environment.
I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.
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