With the release of new Senate polling over the weekend, the contours of the race for the Senate majority are getting clearer. With time between now and the election limited, there is a narrow path for the GOP to keep the majority, but a specific game plan needs to be followed to pull it off. New polling from CNN and NBC/Marist show the problems the GOP face, and can provide a path forward.
First, let’s just start with the broader issue of poll reliability – NBC/Marist polling has faced some criticism in recent days, and rightly so, over their refusal to weigh by education. Their polls need to be viewed in this context and using the absolute values of an NBC/Marist poll to make an argument is unsound, given their methodology problems. What we can take of value from their polling is the relative performance of two races in the same poll, as the sample’s biases are consistent between, say, Senate and Presidential polling. In their North Carolina poll, Joe Biden was up 7%, and Senate Democrat Cal Cunningham was up 9%, reflecting that Thom Tillis is currently under performing the President. That same phenomenon is true in the CNN poll of Michigan, where the President is down 12% and Jon James is down 16%. Arizona polls from both CNN and NBC/Marist show Mark Kelly outrunning Joe Biden, either by 3% (CNN) or 7% (NBC/Marist).
At this point, the Senate map can be condensed into three categories – Democratic, Republican, Competitive. You can say Democrats are on 48 seats, as they trade an Alabama loss for gains in Arizona and Colorado. The Competitive seats are North Carolina, Maine, Iowa, Montana, Georgia regular, and Kansas (although, a couple of good polls for Roger Marshall if he wins the GOP Primary there next week and that can go to Republican), and the GOP have the rest as of now. Texas, Alaska, and Georgia Special should all be treated as Republican until more evidence shifts them legitimately to a competitive position.
The GOP needs to hold the Democrats to either one of those Competitive seats if Joe Biden is President or two of them if Trump wins again to hold the Senate, and as of now, the Democrats would win at least three – North Carolina, Maine, and Iowa. What the GOP needs to do in Iowa is probably the simplest of tasks – get people who are going to vote for the President to vote for Joni Ernst. In June’s Selzer polling, Ernst was losing by 3% as the President was up 1%. That shows there is a fairly obvious path forward to clawing back Iowa, as long as the President can win the state which he won by 9% last time. Maine is also fairly simple – have Susan Collins run as far away from the President as possible to allow herself to get 15%+ of Biden voters to vote Collins at the same time, and to allow herself to get second preferences from minor party voters in Maine’s Ranked Choice Voting election system. The path in North Carolina seems to just be boosting the President, given he does better than Tillis, and that also has the advantage of helping at both levels.
In terms of Montana, Georgia, and Kansas, beyond hoping Kris Kobach loses next week, there’s not a lot of things the GOP can do beyond just closing the national gap – a rising tide will lift all boats in this case, and there’s no real way to attack either Steve Bullock or Jon Ossoff that’s better than just attacking Joe Biden and getting the knock-on effect of a better Senate ballot test. All that said, these are all states that Trump either is currently the favorite to win, or should be, if he can close the gap by a few percentage points, and getting those back at a Senate level is well within reach.
The path is narrow, as the President’s deficit is large and stable, but it is there. It will involve hard decisions, like triaging Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan from the map, and is reliant on the President’s willingness to stay on message, but it is there, waiting for the GOP to execute. Lock down the Senate seats in red states by tying popular (or, at least, not unpopular) Senate candidates to Biden, close the gap nationally a few points, and hope a couple close contests tip your way. It isn’t a particularly likely outcome, but if we are going to see the GOP keep the Senate, their path to doing it will look something very close to this.
Evan Scrimshaw (@EScrimshaw) is Managing Editor and Head Of Content at LeanTossup.ca and a contributor to Decision Desk HQ.