In this election cycle, the broad consensus after Democratic defeats in November 2021 was that the Republicans were poised to cruise to majorities in both the Senate and the House, with the acceleration of educational polarization combining with an unfavorable national environment to begin a possible multi-cycle Republican majority. However, ever since the extremely unpopular Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion, Democrats have seen a marked shift in their political fortunes, with the generic ballot surging to a tie and with Senate polling and special election outcomes indicating a significantly more Democratic environment than previously thought possible.
Consistent with this updated picture, Split Ticket is revising its November ratings to be more reflective of the current political climate, and it is our view that at the moment, Democrats may very well be favored to retain their majority in the chamber come January of 2023.
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In a year where the GOP has nominated several unpopular candidates across the country, teledoctor Mehmet Öz may be the most unpopular of the lot. While Öz has been able to raise a substantial amount of money, this is really where the decent news for his candidacy has stopped for the moment; as per a Fox News poll in late July, just 35% of voters had a favorable opinion of him, while 55% of them had an unfavorable one. This is a continuation of something we observed in the brutal Republican primary, where even Republican voters had an unfavorable view of Öz, and it is fair to wonder whether the scorched-earth nature of the May election has done some lasting damage to him among voters of all stripes.
This makes closing his 10-point-deficit against Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman all the more difficult. Fetterman has hit Öz with a series of attacks, ranging from the carpetbagging angle (which has historically tended to resonate among voters) to a portrayal as an out-of-touch elitist. At the same time, Fetterman has flooded the airwaves with more positive messaging, and it appears to have had an effect — in the aforementioned Fox poll, 49% of voters had a favorable view of Fetterman, while just 34% viewed him negatively. And while Fetterman was absent until recently from the campaign trail with a stroke, Öz did not appear to make any inroads of any kind with voters during that absence.
Fetterman has led in every single partisan and nonpartisan poll of the race taken recently by massive margins that well exceed both standard polling errors and the typical tightening that happens near the election, and while there is certainly time left, Öz has shown no signs of closing the gap. The GOP recently appeared to slash advertising time in Pennsylvania as well, and Split Ticket understands that top Republicans and Democrats both believe that this is a race in which one candidate holds a clear edge at the moment. We are not saying Öz cannot win, but in order to hold a race at a tossup, we would want to be able to make clear arguments for either side being favored. At the moment, this is not an argument we can make, despite the fact that Biden only won Pennsylvania by 1 point in 2020. The race shifts from TOSSUP to LEANS DEMOCRATIC.
In Arizona, Republican voters chose to nominate businessman and Thiel Foundation President Blake Masters. As we noted in our preview and recap of the Arizona primaries, Masters has taken a number of unpopular stances on birth control, gay marriage, abortion, social security, and the validity of the 2020 election, and none of these stances poll or play well in a state won by Joe Biden, especially against an incumbent as strong as Kelly, who actually outran Biden by two points in 2020.
Post-election polls have validated our skepticism of Masters up until this point. Kelly maintains a commanding lead in polling in both partisan and nonpartisan surveys of the race, with Republican internals finding the incumbent up by 5 points and near 50% of the vote. Moreover, Kelly has a colossal fundraising advantage, having raised $52M to Masters’ $5M, and has outspent Masters $29M to $3M.
While fundraising’s value has declined, it is not worth nothing, and Masters has not come close to hitting the ceiling at which spending begins to stop mattering yet. However, in a worrying sign for Republicans, the NRSC has slashed ad buys in Arizona, necessitating the Senate Leadership Fund’s interjection for now. This could help boost Masters, but for now, we believe Kelly has an edge, especially considering that he is above water in approvals even without considering Masters’ strengths or weaknesses as a candidate. This race shifts from tossup to LEANS DEMOCRATIC.
Incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson is no stranger to difficult electoral challenges — in 2016, he faced a jaw-dropping deficit to former Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold well into October, and the race looked so far gone at one point that the NRSC decided to pull funding and pivot to other races. But there are reasons to think this cycle may be different, and that Johnson may have a more difficult challenge ahead of him than in any previous cycle.
In polling conducted by Marquette University, Johnson finds himself down by 7 points, with Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes leading him 51-44 among registered voters. Importantly, this advantage holds with a likely voter screen as well, where Barnes leads 52-45. This is backed up by a Fox News poll that found Barnes up 50-46, suggesting that Barnes’ lead is both real and not, in fact, a mere artifact of many undecided voters (something we suspect might be happening in Ohio, where Tim Ryan still holds a narrow lead over JD Vance).
The causes for this are likely multifold. Firstly, the Wisconsin primary ended on a surprisingly conciliatory note among Democrats, with every major candidate other than Barnes dropping out and endorsing him instead. This has helped Barnes avoid the damaging attack ads that have hurt Republican nominees in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Secondly, the majority of the electorate does not have much of an opinion on Barnes yet, with a full 41% of the electorate not having a favorable or unfavorable view of him. But lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Ron Johnson’s unfavorable ratings (38 favorable, 47 unfavorable) are higher than they have ever been at any point in the past, and while he had already begun to rebound in 2016, they have shown no signs of recovering in this cycle.
Incumbency is generally a net positive, but it does not entirely insulate a candidate from unpopularity. Ron Johnson’s favorables have not gotten better, and he remains at a sizable polling deficit with just over 10 weeks to go until the election. Things can change, and if we had to pick a November winner today, we’d still probably go with him. But this race is not one where we can say that the Republicans hold a clear advantage any longer, especially in the current environment and so it moves from Leans Republican to TOSSUP.
We have not touched Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, New Hampshire, or Nevada in these updates. Any update on New Hampshire will be done after the primary on September 13th, but we believe it is good to explain to readers why we have not moved the other races.
In Ohio, while public and private polling continues to indicate that Tim Ryan has a very real shot at flipping the seat held by retiring Republican incumbent Rob Portman, especially against GOP nominee J.D. Vance, we believe that LIKELY REPUBLICAN is a slightly fairer reflection of the win probabilities here, and that while Ryan has a lane, it is a difficult one to thread given the hard swing right that Ohio has taken in recent years. Polling in Ohio often tends to overestimate Democrats as well, and so to warrant a race ratings change to Leans Republican, we would need to see sustained evidence of Ryan leading or keeping it close in high-quality public polling for at least another few weeks.
In North Carolina, we think that Leans Republican is a fair assessment of the race at the moment, because while Cheri Beasley is a strong candidate to flip this open seat, North Carolina is not as stridently against abortion restrictions as the midwestern states are, and congressman Ted Budd is not as problematic of a Republican nominee as Masters, Oz, or even Ron Johnson. While Beasley has a clear shot, and while internal and public surveys show her with a definite lane in this race, Democrats tend to struggle with Black turnout in North Carolina, and we have not yet seen post-Dobbs evidence to suggest that this problem is fixed yet. For now, unless polling continues to suggest a close race even after undecideds coalesce, we hold it at LEANS REPUBLICAN.
In Georgia, Republican challenger and former football star Herschel Walker faces incumbent Democratic senator Raphael Warnock. Walker has had a fair amount of scandals, including an extraordinary flap over how many undisclosed children he’s had and disturbing domestic violence accusations that have filtered into the public light. However, in Georgia, both Republicans and Democrats have a fairly high floor of support, and so any election will be close, and while Warnock has led in almost every public survey, the 50% threshold that candidates must hit to avoid runoffs complicates this significantly. We believe that if the race was held today, Warnock wins, but there is significantly more uncertainty around this race than around Arizona or Pennsylvania, in our opinion, and so we hold it at a TOSSUP.
Lastly, in Nevada, incumbent Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto goes up against former Attorney General Adam Laxalt. We believe that Nevada is the most endangered Democratic seat in this cycle, and while polls in this state have not historically underestimated Democrats by nearly the degree that they do in the Midwest, almost every survey shows a significant amount of undecideds, though Democrats will be heartened to see their incumbent leading in most of these polls. With a highly transient population, incumbency is also worth less, and name recognition of Cortez Masto was relatively low to begin with in the cycle as a result. Voter registration trends are also troubling for Democrats in this state, and Split Ticket understands that strategists on both sides view this state as among the tightest races of 2022 and the single best Republican flip opportunity. Thus, despite Nevada’s ostensibly more Democratic lean as compared to Arizona or Pennsylvania, we hold this seat as a TOSSUP for now.
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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