Ed Note: This will be part of a two-part article series breaking down the state of play in the race for control of the Senate. Part One today focuses on the four core battlegrounds that we believe will be the most tightly contested ones and will decide control of the chamber: Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Arizona — of these, Democrats must win 3 to keep their majority. The next part later this week will focus on the five competitive ones in which an upset is less likely, but still very plausible: North Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Wisconsin.
Perhaps no election was more tightly contested than Georgia in this entire cycle; heading into August, virtually every forecaster agreed that a runoff looked a near-certainty for deciding the winner in the Peach State’s upcoming Senate election. However, since then, the race has been rocked by one of the most extraordinary political scandals in recent memory, with Republican nominee and avowed abortion opponent Herschel Walker revealed to have requested and paid for a former mistress’ abortion.
Before the scandal, incumbent Raphael Warnock was polling just two points ahead of Walker, as per FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. Since then, however, his lead has widened to four points, and the scandal does look to have had a meaningful effect, as polls show the average Democratic lead widening to a four-point margin, with Warnock at 48% and just two points shy of the majority threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
The complications here for Walker are twofold. Firstly, Georgia has some of the highest rates of Republican support among college-educated whites, and these are exactly the type of high-information voters that have swung against Republicans in the age of Trump and may continue swinging left in this cycle, especially against a scandal-plagued candidate like Walker. Secondly, even if the race goes to a runoff, the educational realignment means that such elections now often favor Democrats, as their turnout coalition is significantly less reliant on low-propensity rural whites and is thus slightly more robust to the dropoff observed between general and off-cycle elections.
Moreover, between Walker and incumbent Republican governor Brian Kemp, it is widely accepted that Kemp has the stronger turnout and campaign infrastructure. With Kemp clearing 50% in several recent polls, it does leave the door open to the governor carrying Walker across the finish line on election day. This is part of the reason that we are unsure about saying that Walker is finished just yet, and the main reason we keep the race as a tossup. However, a double-barrel runoff looks less and less likely by the day, and if Walker does not win outright on election day, we have a harder time seeing him get 50% in a runoff, as he will likely be unable to rely on the governor’s coattails. Scandal-plagued candidates often bleed votes in both turnout and vote-switching, and we do not think Walker would be an exception here in either, especially if Kemp is not on the ballot.
If we were forced to pick, we would probably still say that the race goes to a runoff, with Warnock having an edge. For now, we hold the race at a TOSSUP; however, between the two, we believe Warnock has the slightly easier path to an outright victory in November.
After a deluge of polls in August and September from the Keystone State showing John Fetterman comfortably up, the picture has become extremely quiet in the Pennsylvania Senate race, with only one public poll conducted and published in October: a Trafalgar Group poll showing a 47-45 Fetterman lead, which was very similar to the 48-46 Fetterman advantage from their September survey.
While Fetterman remains ahead by a moderately large margin in public polling aggregates, our understanding is that private polling shows a tighter race and a slimmer Democratic lead. Although Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro has widened his lead in the gubernatorial race, with Republican challenger Doug Mastriano slipping further into irrelevance, these polling shifts do not seem to have carried over to the Senate race, with the delta between Shapiro and Fetterman increasing significantly of late.
Do Shapiro’s coattails help Fetterman? Possibly. To our understanding, Fetterman’s strength relative to other Democrats is in crossover appeal in the rural areas, where he is expected to run ahead of a generic Democratic candidate by a few points. However, his campaign’s major weakness is in Philadelphia, where his events have struggled to draw the crowds they do elsewhere, and it could be argued that Shapiro’s turnout operations may help Fetterman a bit, as the Attorney General appears to have the stronger campaign between the two Democrats.
However, if there is to be any “coattail” effect, we actually believe it would be rather slim and would come not from either Fetterman or Shapiro, but rather from Oz and Mastriano bleeding support and dampening turnout enthusiasm among the GOP base. Neither of these two candidates are especially popular with their supporters; in a recent Fox News poll, 34% of Oz’s voters and 27% of Mastriano’s expressed reservations about their candidate, compared to rates of 20% and 19% for Fetterman and Shapiro, respectively. Moreover, while Fetterman’s favorables continue to be above water (if barely), and while Shapiro pulls the highest favorables of any statewide candidate this cycle, both Oz and Mastriano find themselves more than 15 points underwater in net favorability.
There are upsides for Republicans, however. Over the past few months, Oz has begun to hammer Fetterman on crime, and this has damaged the Lieutenant Governor’s favorables significantly, as his net favorability has shrunk from double digits to barely above water. This is the single biggest issue that Republicans have chosen to hammer Fetterman on, and it has come at a time when Oz is consolidating Republican support rapidly, with recent polls showing that he now pulls as high of a share among Republicans as Fetterman does with Democrats. Unsurprisingly, Fetterman’s lead has been sliced in half to 5.7 points in the FiveThirtyEight averages, and even that may significantly be overstating his lead, if private polling is any indication. The Republicans are now within striking distance, and it would not be a surprise to see them pull into the lead if the crime angle continues to catch on with voters.
The main sticking point for Oz, however, is centered around his aforementioned unfavorables. The former Columbia surgeon and teledoctor continues to have some of the worst favorability ratings of any statewide candidate across the nation, and a recent story regarding animal abuse from a 2004 project that Oz was the Principal Investigator on is now the subject of a major buy hitting Pennsylvania media markets, which may further hurt his negative image with independent voters. While increasing amounts of voters are expressing concerns about Fetterman’s health following his May stroke, this has not resulted in Oz clawing back too many independents just yet, and the Republican nominee remains stuck in the low 40s in most polls. This could change, especially if Fetterman has a subpar performance in their October 25th debate, but for now, there are enough signs to have us keep the race at a narrow Democratic lean.
This election will be extremely tight, and both parties have gone toe-to-toe on the airwaves and saturated every medium of communication with countless advertisements. Oz has an extremely good chance of pulling the upset, as this race is truly not far away from a tossup, and it would not actually surprise us if we had to pick him as our forecasted winner come election day. But for now, we hold it at LEANS DEMOCRATIC, if narrowly.
No election will be giving Democrats as much heartburn as the one in the Silver State, and Catherine Cortez Masto is likely the single most vulnerable incumbent up for re-election this cycle. Polling points to a consistent and small Laxalt lead, and although Nevada is a very urbanized and heavily pro-choice state, it is also one with extremely low educational attainment, which is a danger flag for Democrats, as it indicates that they may have significant room to fall if educational polarization continues.
If polling is to be believed, the question is why Dobbs hasn’t moved the needle in Nevada in comparison to its impact in other states. To this, the answer may be that abortion access is actually enshrined in the state’s constitution, meaning that voters may not be voting on this as strongly as they would be in other states. Another explanation is that voters may be voting on the economy in Nevada more, especially given the hits that it had taken during COVID. Anger at Republicans for the 2008 economic crisis meant Obama carried Nevada by 12% and saw the state skyrocket left; it could be the case that the reverse effect is being seen here, with independents blaming the Democratic Party for inflation and COVID economic after-effects.
There is not much use to be gleaned from Nevada polls, however; given that they have not tended to have a systematic bias towards Republicans and have actually underestimated Democrats in many previous cycles, an aggregate lead of less than a point for Republicans simply means that the race is the truest definition of a tossup. In a state where the mail and early vote splits are highly instructive, this race will not be shifted in favor of either party before election day. While we think Laxalt is slightly likelier to win right now, this race is a jump ball, and we rate this as a TOSSUP.
Mark Kelly remains the heavy favorite here, with a fairly strong lead in public polling and a massive fundraising advantage playing to the incumbent Democratic senator’s advantage. Masters’ fundraising has been anemic this cycle, and outside groups have had to step into try and play on his behalf as a result. However, the worry for Republicans is that it may be too little, too late for them, with Kelly having defined both himself and Masters effectively already, thanks to a combination of an early and sustained Democratic onslaught on the airwaves and a very late primary that left Masters little time to pivot away from some extremely controversial stances.
Working in Masters’ favor is that the President continues to have bad approval ratings in Arizona. A recent CBS News/YouGov poll found that Biden’s approval in the state was at an atrocious 39%, and if undecideds break heavily against the president’s party as a result, Masters could well find himself in the Senate come January. The flip side of this argument, however, is that the generic ballot looks increasingly divorced from the presidential approvals thanks to a confluence of circumstances created after Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, and the same CBS poll had Kelly up 51-48 and has some bad news for Masters with respect to his own race’s favorability dynamics.
In the aforementioned poll, Kelly was the most popular statewide candidate on the ticket, with 57% having a favorable image of him and 43% an unfavorable one. This was in contrast to Masters’ abysmal 37-63 numbers, and if these splits held, it would make consolidating independents rather difficult, even if they disapproved of Biden. Unseating a popular incumbent is never easy, especially for an unpopular challenger, and whether Masters can buck the polls and beat Kelly depends largely on how much candidate quality matters.
Incumbency was worth roughly four points in 2018, as per Split Ticket estimates, and Arizona was about four points to the right of the nation. A crude fundamentals-adjusted approach would find that if a generic Republican had similar favorables to Kelly and had matched him dollar-for-dollar on the airwaves, the race would be a dead heat. Neither of those two things are true for Masters, and the polling suggests that he is underperforming a generic Republican substantially as a result, perhaps by as much as 5 points. There is still time for this to reverse, and the increase in polarization and a decline in the importance of candidate quality could see Masters squeak out a victory. However, there is enough evidence to put him as the underdog in this race at the moment, and so we rate it as LEAN DEMOCRATIC.