As Labor Day nears, the battle for the Senate comes into focus.
I see control of the evenly split upper chamber being decided by eight races, four in Democratic-held seats and four in Republican-held ones.
Sure, there are other contests that I theoretically could’ve included here. It would’ve been easy, for instance, to expand this list out to ten by including Colorado and Florida.
In my opinion, though, those races just miss the cut. While each party likes their challenger in these contests, I believe Colorado has gotten too blue, and Florida too red, for an incumbent Senator to lose there.
Of course, now that I’ve put myself on the record, this call may well come back to bite me. Nevertheless, I’m going to press on and break down the eight races that I think will determine control of the Senate.
Arizona: Sen. Mark Kelly vs Blake Masters
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: D+4.3
In 2018, the Democrats finally established a foothold in Arizona with Rep. Kyrtsen Sinema’s razor-thin victory over Rep. Martha McSally. Then in 2020, the Democrats secured the other Senate seat when astronaut Mark Kelly also defeated McSally (she won an appointment in between losses). Coupled with Joe Biden’s narrow win in the presidential race, Arizona suddenly had a pale blue hue.
Now, Kelly is seeking to win a whole new term against Republican nominee Blake Masters. Masters is a venture capitalist and protégé to billionaire Peter Thiel, who’s donated millions to support him and another nominee on this list. The GOP candidate is running an immigration-centered campaign and proudly touted the support of former President Trump in the primary.
Kelly, meanwhile, is running defensively as a down-the-middle Democrat. It remains to be seen whether Kelly will run the playbook the Obama campaign used against another venture capitalist back in 2012, or will instead seek to paint Masters as an extreme Trumpist.
So far, Kelly has led every poll, even holding a four-point advantage in a recent survey from GOP pollster Trafalgar. Therefore, at this point, this race is one of the Democrats’ strongest match-ups on this list.
Georgia: Sen. Raphael Warnock vs Herschel Walker
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: D+1.9
The Peach State was arguably the biggest surprise of 2020…and 2021. For years Georgia was one of those states, like Texas, that Democrats were always keeping an eye on for the NEXT cycle. Then in 2020, the future was suddenly now.
The surprise was only compounded on January 5, 2021 when Democrats swept both Senate run-offs and secured a bare majority. Now one of those Dem freshmen, Raphael Warnock, is seeking a full term and running against former football star Herschel Walker.
Walker was encouraged to jump into this race by his long-time friend Donald Trump, a relationship that goes back to 1984 when Trump bought Walker’s USFL team. Walker’s volatile past, and his stumbles on the stump, are already providing fodder for Democratic attack ads.
Meanwhile there are signs that Walker is running behind Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who’s leading his race with Democratic nominee Stacy Abrams, even as Walker trails Sen. Warnock. If the GOP fails to take advantage both here and in Arizona, it will put their hopes for the majority in real peril.
Nevada: Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto vs Adam Laxalt
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: R+0.9
Whereas Georgia is a state where Democrats are growing stronger, Nevada is just the opposite. Biden won the Silver State by a slightly slimmer margin than Hillary did in 2016, and they both underperformed compared to Barack Obama. On top of that, the Democratic party’s recent issues with Hispanic voters make them especially vulnerable here.
That all puts a ton of pressure on incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, who won her 2016 race by just under two and a half points. Her opponent is former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who narrowly lost his own contest for Governor back in 2018.
Cortez-Masto kicked-off her general election campaign with a Succession-themed TV ad lambasting Laxalt’s privileged background. Laxalt, in turn, released his own spot contending that he actually did face hardship as a child. In addition to defining Laxalt, the Cortez-Masto campaign’s hopes will depend on making abortion a top issue in this contest and taking advantage of the post-Dobbs bump Democratic candidates experienced nationwide.
After trailing most early polls, Sen. Cortez-Masto established a lead over the summer. Laxalt still holds the advantage in the DDHQ polling average, however, and he may well recover during the fall. Republicans must hope he does, as this is another must-win if the GOP is to take back the Senate on November 8th.
New Hampshire: Sen. Maggie Hassan vs Don Bolduc*
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: D+1.1
Democrats may barely remember it, but in those desperate early-morning hours after Trump’s shocking victory in 2016 they did get some good news. Up in New Hampshire, the party flipped a Senate seat by a slim 1,017 vote margin when then-Governor Maggie Hassan prevailed over Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte.
Now Senator Hassan is running for re-election, and caught her first breaks when Ayotte and popular GOP Governor Chris Sununu both passed on the race. Now, since New Hampshire’s Sept. 13th primary is one of the latest in the country, we don’t know for sure who her opponent will be. The clear front-runner in the polling, though, is retired Green Beret Don Bolduc.
Bolduc is much more conservative than Ayotte and Sununu, which may make him a poor fit in this New England state. Conversely, Sen. Hassan is running as a bipartisan fiscal conservative in her TV ads. Much like Sen. Cortez-Masto, Hassan is also highlighting abortion and portraying the Dobbs decision as a violation of women’s personal freedom.
So far, Hassan has led every polling match-up against Bolduc done in 2022. On the other hand, it’s been nearly two months since a poll was in the field and Bolduc has yet to even win the Republican nomination yet. As a result, both parties will likely keep a stash of cash in reverse so they can make some late spending decisions in this race.
North Carolina: Cheri Beasley vs Ted Budd
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: R+1.3
You know, I didn’t intend to structure this list by running through the Democratically-held seats and then moving onto the GOP-held ones. Yet, by going alphabetically, it just turned out that way. Regardless, let’s turn now to the Tarheel State, which broke Democratic hearts in 2012, 2014, as well as twice each in 2016 and 2020.
Despite that track record, or perhaps because of it, Democrats are still intensely vying for North Carolina’s open Senate seat. In this contest, Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley, an ex-State Supreme Court Chief Justice, will face-off against Republican Rep. Ted Budd. Beasley’s candidacy is an implicit test of the theory that Democrats would have more success in Southern statewide races if they ran more black candidates
Meanwhile, Beasley’s campaign is running more against Washington itself than Congressman Budd specifically. Budd, on the other hand, is positioning himself as a proud Trump Republican who will fight President Biden and out-of-control liberal Democrats.
The good news for the GOP is that Budd has led most polling throughout the year. The bad news is that the lead is a bit meager and could be in trouble given how well August went for Biden and the Democrats. When push comes to shove, this is a race Republicans should win and a loss here would be a terrible blow for the party.
Ohio: Tim Ryan vs J.D. Vance
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: R+1.9
There’s no way this contest should be on this list. Remember in 2020 when Democrats had enough faint hope of winning back the Buckeye State that Biden made a last-minute election-eve stop in Cleveland? Well, Biden still lost Ohio by nearly the exact same eight-point margin that Hillary did four years earlier.
Perhaps because Sherrod Brown won re-election back in 2018, though, Democrats still dream of flipping Ohio’s other Senate seat; a fantasy that suddenly seems realistic. Congressman Tim Ryan, like Sen. Brown, fashions himself as a blue-collar, anti-trade Democrat who can still compete in the Appalachian regions of the state. To that point, he’s hammering his Republican opponent J.D. Vance as an out-of-touch elitist.
Vance, who made his name as an author and pundit theorizing about the decline of the Rust Belt, is paying electorally for years of contentious comments. There’s a considerable difference, however, between Vance running behind the trendlines and him under-performing so badly that he actually loses the race. Plus, there’s always the possibility that Peter Theil decides to make another large investment in Vance (he’s the other Thiel protégé running for a Senate seat this year).
Finally, there’s the polling issue. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen several polls that put Ryan ahead. Yet after all the difficulty surveying the 2016 and 2020 elections, especially in the Midwest, many observers simply don’t believe these polls. It really wouldn’t be a total shock if, come November 8th, Vance easily defeats Ryan and makes us all look like fools for paying so much attention to this race.
Pennsylvania: John Fetterman vs Mehmet Oz
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: D+4.9
Now we come to the most crucial commonwealth of all: Pennsylvania. It’s no coincidence that President Biden is visiting PA three times in six days, the Keystone State is the key to Pennsylvania Avenue after all. So an open Senate seat was always going to be a highly-watched race, but it’s a pair of one-of-a-kind nominees that puts this election over the top.
Lt. Governor John Fetterman and Dr. Mehmet Oz are different in just about every way except for one; they’ve both managed to build their own brand. Fetterman carved out his niche as a straight-talking regular-guy pol, while Oz made millions from a daily syndicated TV show. One of these brands has proven helpful so far in this campaign, the other has not.
For months now, the Fetterman team has effectively ridiculed Oz as a New Jersey transplant. Oz meanwhile has tried to paint Fetterman as a radical leftist who is too soft on crime. With that strategy failing to gain traction, Oz is now pivoting to Fetterman’s health and insinuating that the Democrat is afraid to debate. This actually parallels the Democratic primary, when Fetterman’s opponents spent most of their time daring him to debate. Even when the Lt Gov did appear for a few poor debate showings, however, they did nothing to move the needle. The danger for Oz is that recent history repeats itself.
In spite of Pennsylvania’s toss-up status, Fetterman has led Oz in every survey, sometimes by double digit margins. Accordingly, we may well see many Republicans come home to Oz in the weeks ahead, although it will be a heavy lift for Oz to ever take the lead. A Democratic pick-up here would give the party some welcome breathing room as they struggle to hold on in tougher races elsewhere.
Wisconsin: Mandela Barnes vs Sen. Ron Johnson
Decision Desk HQ Polling Average: D+3.4
Republican Senator Ron Johnson has pulled one over on Democrats before. In 2016, nearly every poll suggested that former Senator Russ Feingold would win his rematch with Sen. Johnson. Then Johnson prevailed by three points, a shocking result overshadowed by an even more shocking result in the presidential race.
So even while Johnson trails in the polls, Democrats aren’t getting their hopes up. Sure, the Senator might be too conservative for his purple state, but he’s proven tough to depose. That puts the pressure on the Democrat tasked with defeating Sen. Johnson, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes.
On paper, the 35 year-old is just the short of fresh talent the party is looking for. Barnes’ TV ads are even reminiscent of the ones Raphael Warnock ran in 2020 (and is running again this year too). Sen. Johnson meanwhile is focusing on crime and defining Barnes as too extreme, sometimes even conflating the two.
So far every survey has shown Barnes ahead, but of course, pundits are wary of accepting them at face value. Perhaps we’ll know more as Election Day nears and more polls are conducted. Regardless, a Democratic pick-up here would be devastating for Republican hopes to flip the Senate. Therefore, the GOP will be counting on another Johnson upset.