Temperature Check: Senate

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With just under five months to go until the November elections and primary season approximately halfway over, matchups for the Senate elections appear to be solidifying, and control of the chamber looks set to go down to the wire, with both parties having a credible case for optimism regarding the November outcome for the chamber.

The Tossups

In PENNSYLVANIA, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is squaring off against teledoctor Mehmet Öz, with both candidates having defeated establishment favorites to secure their general election nominations. On the Democratic side, Fetterman knocked back a challenge from Rep. Conor Lamb, while in the GOP primary, Öz squeaked out a razor-thin victory over Bridgewater CEO David McCormick after a contentious and drawn-out primary that went to a recount.

Initial polling for this race has shown Fetterman with a commanding lead, with a Suffolk poll finding Fetterman up by 9 over Öz. This margin, however, is a bit misleading; the topline is 46-37, with 17% of the electorate undecided, and one of Oz’s biggest weakness is with the Republican vote, with non-negligible swaths of the GOP electorate saying that they’re undecided on the race. This, however, is something we expect to change as the primary fight fades into the rearview mirror, as partisans typically coalesce around their party’s nominee as the election nears. While Oz is certainly more unpopular with the GOP base than a generic Republican would be, partisan ties in federal races are growing stronger and stronger, and Oz getting 10% less of the GOP vote than Fetterman gets of the Democratic vote would be somewhat unprecedented.

The long-term concern for Öz, however, is that his numbers with independents are at a stunning -40 (17 favorable/57 unfavorable). It is worth noting that polls in Pennsylvania over the last three cycles have underestimated Republicans, and the GOP will hope that this is once again the case, because these are not numbers that one can win a Senate race with. The contrast is especially stark when comparing Öz’s numbers to Fetterman’s +14 (41 favorable/27 unfavorable). While Republicans should still feel good about their chances in keeping retiring incumbent Pat Toomey’s seat red, especially in a Republican-leaning year, Öz’s numbers indicate that they have a lot of work to do to begin with. The polling favors Democrats, but the fundamentals favor Republicans, and so with five months left to go, the race remains at a TOSSUP.

In ARIZONA, author and businessman Blake Masters has received the Trump endorsement, putting him in pole position to win the primary and take on incumbent Democratic senator Mark Kelly. While there is not much head-to-head polling between Kelly and Masters, both candidates will undoubtedly be extremely well-funded in what is likely to be one of the tightest races in the nation. Senior Republican figures have privately fretted about the scorched-earth nature of the primary; given the August primary date and its proximity to November, the fear is that the nominee will have turned off significant chunks of independents in the process and will not have enough time to recover from a bruising primary election and pivot to the general.

Neither Kelly nor Masters will not be short for money, and while Kelly is an exceptionally strong candidate who has a big fundraising lead, Arizona is still more Republican than the nation as a whole. In a year like this, that gives Masters a very decent shot, and the race stays at a TOSSUP, and we do not anticipate shifting it in either direction until much closer to election day.

In NEVADA, incumbent Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto is set to face the Republican ex-Attorney General Adam Laxalt. With its low education rate and significant Hispanic population, Nevada has seen a significant shift towards Republicans in the Trump era. Due to the state’s highly transient population, incumbency is a significantly weaker factor in this race than one might think, as approximately half of the voters on Nevada’s rolls actually registered after Cortez Masto’s 2016 victory over Joe Heck, meaning that the majority of 2022 voters did not vote for her in the first place.

Polling in this race has been all over the place, but most polls of registered voters show Cortez Masto with a healthy lead, while polls of likely voters show Laxalt with a slim advantage. This is because Nevada has one of the least favorable midterm electorates for Democrats, as the party’s highly irregular voting base in the state typically sees a sharp decline in turnout. This will once again be the key factor that determines the outcome in this election, and while Cortez Masto might significantly outrun Sisloak with the Latino vote, it remains to be seen as to whether she gets both the necessary Latino turnout and the requisite numbers with whites. Prior evidence suggests she is a roughly average candidate, having gotten similar numbers to Hillary Clinton in 2016, but she might need to be a bit better than that (or need Laxalt to be worse) if she is to win.

Laxalt is a somewhat controversial candidate, however, having enthusiastically backed Donald Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud in a Biden-won state. Moreover, his pro-life stance could be a serious obstacle in any scenario where abortion becomes a campaign flashpoint, given Nevada’s strong support for pro-choice stances. This race remains at a TOSSUP, with the upcoming Dobbs v. Jackson decision regarding abortion rights sure to be a flashpoint. Democrats will be hoping it helps them overcome unfavorable fundamentals in a Republican-leaning year, though, because Republicans currently have a lot of reasons to like their chances of flipping this seat.

In GEORGIA, incumbent Democratic senator Raphael Warnock is running against former football superstar Herschel Walker. Warnock is a strong candidate who can both drive up Black turnout and get excellent numbers among white suburbanites, if his 2021 special election where he outran both Ossoff and Biden in most of the state is any indication. Moreover, he remains a tremendously strong fundraiser, which will be important in a race that may see record investment from both sides.

Recent polls show Warnock vastly outrunning Joe Biden’s approvals in the state, matching the trend of Democrats across the nation outperforming the presidential approval numbers. In a state where the two main Democratic components to victory are good numbers with suburban whites and strong Black turnout, Warnock appears to be uniquely positioned to get both, and he outruns Stacey Abrams significantly in most statewide Georgia polls.

Perhaps the strongest argument for Democrats, however, is that Walker has been hit with a host of scandals, ranging from relatively minor ones like falsifying his academic credentials to seriously problematic ones, such as the revelation that he has three “secret” children or the AP investigation showing that he threatened his ex-wife’s life on multiple occasions. Candidate quality may matter less than it used to, but it still does make a difference, and it was arguably the deciding factor in a couple of races in 2020. Georgia is still more Republican than the nation, and fundamentals give Walker a good shot of winning it in a (likely) red year such as 2022. However, the possible delta in candidate quality between the two nominees may yet be enough to keep it in the Democratic column. For this reason, we hold the race at a TOSSUP, though if we had to pick right now, we would say Warnock holds on.

The Other Competitive Races

In NORTH CAROLINA, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley faces off against Congressman and archconservative Ted Budd, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. Although Beasley has outraised and outspent Budd by a fair amount, polling in this race still favors Budd, with the congressman ahead by about 3 points in the aggregate, having led six of the last eight polls of the race.

In a red year like 2022, the candidate quality delta between Beasley and Budd would likely need to be at least seven percentage points in margin in order to see the seat flip, even after controlling for fundraising. Beasley would need very strong Black turnout in a state where it has historically lagged in midterms, would have to slightly outperform Joe Biden in Charlotte and Raleigh suburbs that are more Republican downballot, and would have to avoid slipping with working-class whites in the west of the state. This is a very tough lift, and when combined with North Carolina’s federal Republican tilt, with the GOP having won every federal statewide race in this state since Obama’s 2008 win, it is enough for us to say that Republicans are favored to retain this seat. LEAN REPUBLICAN.

WISCONSIN has perhaps the most vulnerable Republican incumbent up for re-election this year, with Ron Johnson likely to face one of Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, or Milwaukee Bucks VP Alex Lasry. Johnson’s favorables are significantly worse than they were in 2016 — back then, they had already begun to recover, whereas they show no sign of doing so now, with five months to go until the election. This has opened up a lane for Democrats, because when an incumbent senator’s approvals are underwater to this degree, the benefits of incumbency begin to fade a fair amount (or possibly even reverse).

With that said, polling in Wisconsin has tended to underestimate Republicans, as it has in much of the Midwest, and for this reason, we still think Republicans are more likely than not to hold on, even if the race ends up being closer than one may expect based purely on presidential lean. This race will attract significant attention and investment from both sides, but we think, at the moment, that Johnson faces off against Mandela Barnes and beats him in November. LEAN REPUBLICAN.

NEW HAMPSHIRE is a race that, on paper, should be extremely competitive this year; the state was Biden +7, and in an R+4 environment, it should theoretically be a dead heat. Unfortunately for Republicans, however, incumbent governor Chris Sununu passed on the race, and they have been consequently been unable to recruit a solid challenger to incumbent Democratic senator Maggie Hassan. The two frontrunners in this race are brigadier general Don Bolduc and former state Senate president Chuck Morse. Bolduc is the current frontrunner, but this could pose a big problem for Republicans, as he is significantly to the right of the state GOP and has endorsed baseless and debunked conspiracy theories, such as vaccine microchipping and Trump’s 2020 election fraud claims.

Fundraising is another problem for Republicans in this incumbent-friendly state. While Hassan has raised $21M and has $7M in cash on hand, Bolduc and Morse have barely raised over $1M between them and have approximately $400K cash on hand across the two campaigns, as of the last reporting period. At this point, given New Hampshire’s presidential lean, Hassan’s incumbency, and her exceptional 2016 performance against Ayotte, we feel comfortable saying Democrats are favored in this race. We hold the race at LEAN DEMOCRATIC, but at the moment, it is closer to Likely than it is to tossup.

In COLORADO, businessman Joe O’Dea and state representative Ron Hanks are vying to take on incumbent Democratic senator Michael Bennett. At this moment, O’Dea is the favorite, though Democrats have made a strong effort to get Ron Hanks the nomination due to his significantly less electable profile, with Hanks having participated in the 2021 storming of the Capitol in support of Donald Trump’s debunked election fraud claims. With that said, O’Dea still remains the frontrunner in this race, but in a Biden +13.5 state that is heavily white and college-educated, it is difficult to envision the GOP unseating Bennett, who is a strong incumbent in his own right and has a large cash advantage to begin with. The race is at LIKELY DEMOCRATIC, but is closer to “safe” than it is to a “lean” rating.

Finally, in OHIO, author J.D. Vance won the GOP nomination on the back of Trump’s endorsement and will now face Democratic congressman Tim Ryan for the race to replace retiring Republican incumbent Rob Portman. Two Democratic polls have come out showing Ryan with a lead, and virtually all polls agree that there are huge swaths of undecided voters in this race. The problem for Democrats is simply that Ohio is a Trump +8 state, and in an environment that will likely be several points more Republican than it was in 2020, this makes Ryan’s task an enormously challenging one, as late deciders are very likely to break towards the Republicans. The candidate quality differential between Ryan and Vance would need to be around 12 points in order to see a Democratic win here, and by our measurement, no non-incumbent Democrat has come close to this since Jason Kander in 2016. Polling suggests that Ryan still has a clear lane here, thanks to his higher-than-usual support levels among working-class whites, but it is important to again note that polling in Ohio has tended to overestimate Democrats of late. Ryan’s task is enormously difficult, and while a path exists, defeating a well-funded Republican in Vance will be quite difficult. We rate the race as LIKELY REPUBLICAN.

The Safe States

In FLORIDA, incumbent Republican Marco Rubio will be challenged by Representative Val Demings, and this is a race we simply do not foresee as being competitive. Florida was only a Trump +3.5 state, but Rubio is a tremendously strong incumbent and is likely to get significant amounts of crossover vote with Hispanic voters in areas where Democratic candidates need to rack up votes, such as Miami-Dade. Every recent poll of the race shows the incumbent leading by healthy margins, and Florida is a fair bit more Republican than the nation as a whole. We do not see this race being competitive as of right now and rate it as SAFE REPUBLICAN.

In MISSOURI, disgraced ex-governor Eric Greitens is in pole position in the primary and is the favorite to be the November nominee, ahead of Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler. On the Democratic side, Lucas Kunce, Spencer Toder and Trudy Busch Valentine are vying for the nomination, with polling and endorsements generally indicating that Kunce and Valentine are the two favorites. This race has received some attention due to the gruesome sexual assault and revenge porn scandals that forced Greitens from the governor’s mansion, and polling does indicate that there are significant swaths of undecided voters in this race. If this was a Democratic midterm year, it is very likely that Democrats would be on the offense in this race and might even have been favored. However, as it stands, Greitens is extremely likely to be the next senator, simply due to Missouri’s overwhelmingly red lean as a Trump +15. Moreover, the lack of opposition pedigree (none of the Democratic contenders hold any elected office anywhere) further compounds Democratic problems, and at the moment, none of these candidates seem to have a lane to to defeat Greitens. Until one opens up, we hold the race at SAFE REPUBLICAN.

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.