Way back before Labor Day, I took an in-depth examination of the 2022 Senate landscape and the eight races poised to decide which party will hold the majority. Over the past month and half, of course, there’s been quite a bit of movement across the political landscape.
So with just three weeks to go, I thought the best method to judge where we are now is to probe how all these races have shifted. Of the eight contests I identified back in September, the Democratic nominee has improved their position in three while the Republican has grown stronger in the other five.
Now let’s take a look at what prompted these developments, as well as the polling averages from our very own Decision Desk HQ forecast.
States Where Democrats Improved
Arizona: D+4.3 to D+ 5.7
Our first race just so happens to also feature the largest lead on this list, as incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly picked up another point and a half over Republican challenger Blake Masters. All the while, the long-running feud between Mitch McConnell and Peter Thiel over who should be bankrolling Masters continues to drag on.
Additionally, Masters appears to be hampered by a haphazard move to the center. For instance, despite some efforts to scrub his website on issues like abortion and the 2020 election, it didn’t take long for Masters to revert back to his original positions.
If this current margin holds, Senator Kelly should be able to win re-election even if there is another massive polling error in favor of Republicans.
Georgia: D+1.9 to D+2.5
Ask a panel of political experts and, odds are, most of them will select Herschel Walker as 2022’s worst nominee. After all, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock should be especially vulnerable, yet the dominant theme of this campaign has been all of Walker’s personal baggage.
Only the latest example came when one of Walker’s ex-girlfriends provided evidence that he paid for her abortion in 2009. The story, which his campaign was apparently aware of but hoped wouldn’t emerge, has already commanded several news cycles.
Then there was Walker’s performance in his first (and possibly) only debate with Warnock. Early on, the candidate was garnering some praise for exceeding expectations, until he earned mockery for pulling out his honorary police badge and insisting it made him an officer.
Nevertheless, Walker remains within striking distance, and it’s likely neither candidate will hit 50% and avoid a December 6th runoff.
New Hampshire: D+1.1 to D+5.4
Of this trio of races, it’s the contest in New Hampshire that has shifted the most towards the Democrats. In fact, this New Hampshire race shares several similarities with the one in Arizona.
First, Mark Kelly and Maggie Hassan are low-key, somewhat boring, moderate Democratic incumbents. Second, Republican nominees Blake Masters and Don Bolduc are both taking heat for their false belief that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
The third comparison is that both Republican nominees are experiencing money struggles. While Masters’ financial issues have gotten more headlines, both the NRCC and McConnell’s Super PAC have quietly pulled their TV ad reservations in New Hampshire. Finally, both races were at one time considered to be competitive, yet now seem to be on the verge of slipping safely into the Democratic camp.
States Where Republicans Improved
Nevada: R+0.9 to R+1.2
In both 2010 and 2016, the Democrats rallied late in the game to hold onto this seat. Nonetheless, Republicans are hopeful that the third time will be the charm. After all, Nevada’s Senate races tend to be rock fights where winners rarely receive a majority of the vote (‘none of these candidates’ is an actual option on their ballots), making this the ultimate toss-up.
In fact, if I could magically know the result of just one race ahead of time, I’d choose this one. As I’ve written before, this is bound to be the contest we’re all watching late on Election Night to see which way the Senate will go.
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto actually posted a small lead in last week’s Suffolk University/USA Today survey, although Republican Adam Laxalt still holds the slim advantage in the overall polling averages. So yeah, it looks like it will be especially close once again.
North Carolina: R+1.3 to R+3.4
Of all the races on this list, I consider The Tarheel State to be the quintessential wild card. For as close as this contest is, much of the media hasn’t really given it enough attention. Indeed, a solid argument could be made that North Carolina is a far more attractive target for Democrats than Ohio or even Wisconsin at this point.
Cheri Beasley is just the kind of candidate the Democratic Party wants in a race like this. Since she’s a former Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court, it won’t be so easy for Republicans to tag her as soft on crime (you’ll see that concern pop up again later on this list). Meanwhile, Rep. Ted Budd is exactly what the GOP is looking for, a Trump-endorsed candidate who can turn out the conservative base.
This contest has been close since the summer, with Budd usually leading while Beasley occasionally gets the upper hand in the polling averages. Keep an eye on how this race moves over the final few weeks, I believe it could tell us more about the national environment than any other contest on this list.
Ohio: R+1.9 to R+2.3
For weeks, this race seemed to defy political gravity. Despite the reality that the Buckeye State is getting redder and redder, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan continued to hold his own with Republican J.D. Vance.
Ryan, who has long relished his role as self-appointed spokesman for working-class Democrats, is relentlessly attacking Vance as an elitist unable to help Ohio regain the jobs lost from bad trade deals with China. Meanwhile, Vance presents himself as the outsider promising change and hitting Ryan over his 20 year tenure in D.C.
There’s actually a bit of disagreement on just where this race stands. Our Decision Desk HQ polling average puts Vance ahead by 2.4 points, while RealClearPolitics has Vance up by just 0.7%. Furthermore, FiveThirtyEight instead has Ryan with a slim 0.3% advantage.
In the end, of course, the margins won’t matter. If Ryan runs ahead of Biden and still loses, for example, it will be cold comfort for Democrats. Make sure to watch this race early on Election Night; if Vance is running away with it, then the GOP will likely have a good night. Conversely, the closer it is, the better for the Dems.
Pennsylvania: D+4.9 to D+3.7
For most of 2022, Pennsylvania was the bright spot (or blue spot, if you will) for anxious Democrats warily eyeing the upcoming midterms. Not only was Josh Shapiro favored over Doug Mastriano in the Gubernatorial race, but John Fetterman was posting double-digits leads over Mehmet Oz.
Then, all of sudden, that margin began to shrink and Democrats began to panic. After such a strong summer, momentum started to turn against Fetterman as Republicans (led by McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund) launched a full-court press to paint the Democratic nominee as soft on crime.
As the polls began to settle, however, it became clear that while Oz was gaining support, Fetterman was mostly holding steady. This would suggest that late-moving Republicans, rather than Independents or weak Democrats, were responsible for Oz’s surge. All the while, there’s yet to be a single survey to show Oz ahead and the Keystone State remains the Democrats best chance to gain a seat.
Wisconsin: D+3.4 to R+1.6
Now this race, on the other hand, should definitely scare Democrats. The Senate contest in Wisconsin not only saw the most significant shift of any race on this list, it was also the sole state where we saw a lead change.
Much like Republicans in Pennsylvania, GOP Senator Ron Johnson is hammering his Democratic opponent Mandela Barnes on crime. Barnes, however, is losing much more support than Fetterman has. Barnes being Black, in a state that’s over 80% White, is probably a major factor in that disconnect.
Despite two promising debate performances against Johnson, there’s been no sign as of yet that Barnes’ numbers are improving. His campaign is reaching out to possible party surrogates, including Barack Obama, who can help him try to turn the tide. For now, though, it appears that Sen. Johnson will pull off yet another late upset.
As you’ve likely noticed, if all these races follow their polling averages, then our 50-50 Senate will become…another 50-50 Senate. The Democrats will flip Pennsylvania, the Republicans will flip Nevada, and Vice President Harris will still be necessary to break the ties.
For Democrats, the best realistic scenario would be to find a way to hold onto Nevada and flip at least one of the North Carolina/Ohio/Wisconsin trifecta. Such a result will give them a much-appreciated Manchin/Sinema-proof majority, and keep their hopes alive as they face an imposing 2024 Senate map.
As for the GOP, they aim to complete the takeover in Nevada and maybe even add Georgia along with it in December. Nor have they given up on keeping their open seat in Pennsylvania either. Even a one-seat majority, after all, will allow them to block the Biden Administration from appointing any more judges over the next two years.
Which of these scenarios will ultimately come to pass? Well, that’s what makes Election Night so exciting!