What Is Republicans' Path To Winning The Senate?
Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Something we’ve written about pretty extensively at FiveThirtyEight is the fact that Democrats are on the upswing. Whether it’s special elections or the generic ballot, which asks voters which party they’d support in an election, Democrats’ standing has steadily improved since the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson, in June.
This is especially true in the Senate, where Democrats currently have a 70 percent chance of winning in the 2022 FiveThirtyEight midterm election forecast.1
Are Republicans in trouble in the Senate?
It certainly seems Minority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks that’s the case. In August, he said at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Kentucky that “I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate. Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”
So let’s talk Senate races and the GOP’s best pickup chances, along with the races where they might be surprisingly weak (and yes, those often might be the same races). Let’s start with the four most competitive Senate seats that are the GOP’s best pickup opportunities this year — Georgia, Nevada, Arizona and New Hampshire — as well as two other Senate seats they need to hold onto — Pennsylvania, which is an open seat, and Wisconsin, where Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is seeking reelection, although that seat is currently rated as a toss-up in our forecast.
First up, what’s going on with Wisconsin? Could Republicans lose it?
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): Yes, Republicans could absolutely lose Wisconsin. According to the Deluxe version of the FiveThirtyEight forecast, the race is a toss-up: Johnson has a 51-in-100 chance of winning, and Democrat Mandela Barnes has a 49-in-100 chance of winning.
And if you use the Lite version of our forecast — which mostly uses just polls, no “fundamentals” or expert race ratings — Barnes is leading, with a 72-in-100 chance of winning.
The big question is whether those polls, which have generally shown Barnes ahead, get better for Republicans. We’ve seen only a few polls out of Wisconsin so far this year, so the picture there is fuzzier than in other states.
sarah: So few polls that we don’t even have a polling average yet! (For curious readers, our criteria is: at least five polls from three different pollsters conducted this year.)
In other words … #trustthepolls but with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to Wisconsin?
nrakich: Yes, polls in Wisconsin were notoriously bad in 2020. Our final polling average had Biden leading by 8.4 percentage points in Wisconsin, and he ended up winning by less than 1 point.
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): From what polling I’ve seen, Johnson’s approval numbers leave a lot to be desired. A June Marquette University Law School had his favorability at just 37 percent among registered voters, with 46 percent saying they viewed the two-term senator unfavorably. That same poll also showed a tight race between Johnson and Barnes, with the latter narrowly ahead, 46 percent to 44 percent.
But I definitely don’t think we should count Johnson out. The national climate is still probably on his side, for one, and he’s defeated formidable opponents before. (Back in 2016, he narrowly bested three-term Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold.)
nrakich: I don’t know, Alex. I think Johnson is a pretty weak candidate. He has made some conspiratorial comments about vaccines, and he was allegedly involved in the effort to throw the 2020 election to Trump. He did win in 2016, but I think he just got lucky — Wisconsin banked hard to the right that year, as Hillary Clinton can attest.
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, senior elections analyst): Well, I’m not so sure, Nathaniel. Johnson is a Republican incumbent in a state that has a small lean toward the GOP, in a midterm in which Democrats hold the White House. Those sorts of conditions don’t usually work out for the challenging party. In fact, earlier this year, for CNN, former FiveThirtyEighter Harry Enten looked at midterms dating back to 1982 and found that incumbent senators in circumstances like Johnson’s have won 86 of 87 times since then.
alex: What could also work in Johnson’s favor is that Republicans are looking to paint Barnes as too liberal and out of touch with the state’s politics. In August, I wrote about why Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar is a sort of bogey(wo)man for Republicans, so if the GOP can successfully tie her brand of firebrand progressivism to Barnes, then he could be in real trouble considering what Nathaniel said earlier about Wisconsin only narrowly going for Biden in 2020.
sarah: Indeed, Alex! In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s video team did a whole video on Barnes and how he’s trying to cast himself as more of a moderate to voters.
But let’s talk over the other seat that Republicans technically control — Pennsylvania — although it’s an open-seat race, with Sen. Pat Toomey retiring. How do things look for Republicans there?
geoffrey.skelley: Pennsylvania is problematic for the GOP, as our forecast currently gives Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman about a 4-in-5 shot of winning over Republican Mehmet Oz.
Toomey’s retirement produced a highly competitive Republican primary, which Oz barely won, and Fetterman now holds an 8-point lead in the polls. But like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania has a slight Republican lean, so this really should be ground the GOP is better positioned to hold.
sarah: Pennsylvania is another state, though, where the polls weren’t exactly on target in 2020. Although as we’ve written extensively at FiveThirtyEight, just because the polls miss in one election, doesn’t mean they’ll miss in the following election — or even in the same direction!
nrakich: This race has been a big surprise for me. I’d have thought that Oz’s more liberal past positions on issues like abortion and gun control would be helping him in a general election. Instead, he’s had trouble improving his image after a really nasty Republican primary.
alex: Oz also isn’t very well-liked in the state. A poll by AARP/Fabrizio Ward/Impact Research in June, for instance, found that his favorability rating among likely voters in Pennsylvania was 33 points underwater — 30 percent favorable to 63 percent unfavorable.
Fetterman, on the other hand, had a net-positive favorability rating of 10 points: 46 percent to 36 percent. And the survey was taken prior to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, so I’m wondering if some Republicans — and women, who were also not particularly keen on Oz, per the survey — have since soured on Oz even more.
sarah: I am curious, though, how big of a problem Fetterman’s health is going to be for him in the general election. (He suffered a stroke in May.) The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s editorial board wrote on Monday that if Fetterman isn’t able to debate Oz, it should raise serious questions about whether he’s up for the task of being a U.S. senator.
It’s a challenging situation to discuss sensitively, and Oz’s campaign definitely hasn’t always done that, but Fetterman’s health could be a real liability for him this fall. Fetterman, for the record, told Politico on Wednesday that he plans to debate Oz.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, no one should be writing off Oz. Besides the fact that Pennsylvania has a slight Republican lean, it’s possible Oz could better consolidate support among Republicans and move into a more competitive position in the coming weeks.
Two recent polls from Emerson College and Susquehanna Polling and Research found that Republican voters were likelier to be undecided than Democrats, so if those voters come home to Oz, the race could get a lot tighter. Both of those polls also found a closer race than our polling average, instead finding Fetterman with a 4- to 5-point edge.
sarah: But OK. The two Senate races we’ve talked about so far are in states where Republicans currently have control. Let’s talk about some of their best pickup opportunities, starting with Georgia.
alex: I know some recent polls have given Republican Herschel Walker a slight edge over Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, but I think it’ll be hard to take down the incumbent. For one, Walker has been dogged with not-so-great headlines that suggest he did not disclose all of his children, despite previously chastising absent Black fathers. He also has exaggerated his business and academic record. Moreover, Warnock has continued to be a fundraising behemoth, raising more than $17 million in the second-quarter of the year, compared with Walker’s $6.2 million.
This race is tricky, though, because the national environment will probably be better for the GOP and Walker is relatively well liked in the state.
nrakich: If Republicans want to win the Senate, they basically have to defeat Warnock. Case in point: According to the build-your-own version of the FiveThirtyEight forecast, if Democrats win Georgia, they have a 91 percent chance of holding the Senate:
Put another way, according to the Deluxe version of our forecast, Georgia also has a 15 percent chance of being the tipping-point state in the Senate, or the state that decides control of the chamber — which is more than the tipping-point odds of any other state in our forecast.
geoffrey.skelley: There’s a real push and pull here with Georgia, though. The state obviously is more politically competitive now than it’s been in a long time, which is helpful to Warnock. He is also a decently popular senator who could benefit at least a little bit from incumbency.
However, Georgia is also a state with a racially polarized electorate that is, as we say, “highly inelastic” because it just doesn’t have a lot of swing voters. Historically, when major races like Senate and governor are on the ballot at the same time in Georgia, they usually wind up with pretty similar results. So with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp ahead by about 5 points in the polls and Warnock leading by roughly 2 points, that 7-point gap would be an especially large gap between the two contests if it holds.
And that’s a big “if.” I’m inclined to think the races will converge as we get closer to November. And whether Kemp or Warnock loses ground is very important to keep an eye on. As things currently stand, Warnock needs some Kemp voters in order to win reelection, and given how polarized Georgia’s electorate is, I’m not sure there will be a ton of those.
sarah: The one thing I think that’s a little challenging with Georgia is how much it’s shifted toward Democrats. In other words, a lot could come down to turnout, and it looks as if enthusiasm (on both sides of the aisle) might be high again this year.
alex: If Kemp has a strong performance against his Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, could he help pull Walker across the finish line, Geoffrey?
geoffrey.skelley: Alex, that’s a difficult question to answer. Kemp is pretty popular, so he can definitely help buoy the GOP ticket. Ultimately, I don’t think the Senate and gubernatorial races are going to completely converge, but if it’s a difference of 2 to 3 points by Election Day, that’s probably good news for Walker, whereas if it’s like 5 points or more, that’s good news for Warnock.
alex: It’s also possible that we get another runoff! Another candidate on the ballot — Libertarian Chase Oliver — could siphon off votes from both candidates, and if neither clears 50 percent of the vote in November, the top two vote-getters will go head-to-head on Dec. 6.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, the Senate race looks to have about a 1-in-5 shot of going to a runoff. The forecast gives a slight edge to Walker in a runoff, but we obviously saw Democrats win both Senate runoffs in January 2021 by running ahead of where they were in the November vote, which was at odds with most of Georgia’s recent electoral history, so it would be far from a sure thing for the GOP.
sarah: Let’s talk about Nevada, the other Senate race Republicans are heavily targeting as a pickup opportunity. Is Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, like Warnock, perhaps in trouble?
alex: There are plenty of reasons to believe this race might not be as safe for Democrats as some polls suggest. For one, as we’ve reported before, Nevada is a pretty transient state, and according to The New York Times, the state’s share of registered Democrats has dropped. Moreover, Biden won Nevada by only a little over 2 points in 2020, so it’s very possible that Republicans do better here in a favorable midterm year. The COVID-19 pandemic — and the business shutdowns that came with it — were also particularly devastating to Nevada’s tourism industry. That, plus low approval ratings for Biden, have definitely put Cortez Masto on the defensive.
nrakich: Yeah, she is actually the second-most vulnerable Democrat after Warnock, per our forecast. She has just a 63-in-100 chance of winning.
sarah: And, as Alex said, Nevada is maybe more challenging for Democrats than they realize, since it has been shifting away from Democrats in recent presidential elections.
geoffrey.skelley: Nevada definitely has a couple trends potentially working in the GOP’s favor. For instance, Latino voters shifted to the right in 2020, although it varied from place to place. But still, Nevada has a sizable Latino population, and moreover, only a small share of Nevada’s white population has a four-year college degree, which is significant considering that we know education is a big dividing line among white voters, with non-college-educated whites moving toward Republicans.
alex: I’ll be curious to see which way Latino voters in the state swing, though, Geoffrey. What’s working in the GOP’s favor is that Trump gained support among Latino voters, as you said; plus, like the rest of the country, inflation and concerns about the economy continue to be a top concern among Latino voters. If Republican Adam Laxalt can tap into that disillusionment and discontent, he’ll definitely make the race more competitive. But Cortez Masto, the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate, so far has a slight edge with Latino voters in the state, according to one poll.
sarah: What do we know about Laxalt as a candidate? We talked about this a little with Georgia and Pennsylvania, but part of the problem for Republicans in the Senate this cycle seems to be an issue of candidate quality. Does Laxalt fit into this mold?
nrakich: Not really, Sarah. He has some extreme views, like believing the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. But unlike Walker and Oz, he has experience as an elected official — he won the Nevada attorney general’s office in 2014.
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, Laxalt is probably one of the least problematic candidates the GOP has nominated. He has an electoral track record, as Nathaniel mentioned, for one thing.
alex: I’m curious how much the Dobbs decision will play a role in whether Cortez Masto ultimately prevails. She’s reportedly telling voters that a GOP-led Senate could lead to a national law banning abortions, and polls suggest that Nevadans also favor abortion rights at higher rates than the national average.
Per a July survey from The Nevada Independent/OH Predictive Insights, roughly 90 percent of the state’s registered voters believe abortions should be legal at least some cases. It also found that abortion rights were the most motivating issue to 17 percent of the state’s voters — second only to the economy, at 40 percent.
sarah: There are two more Senate races we should talk about: Arizona and New Hampshire. They’re also pick-up opportunities for the GOP, although perhaps a little bit more of a stretch for Republicans, at least according to the forecast. Republicans have about a 1-in-4 shot of winning Arizona and a 1-in-5 shot of winning New Hampshire.
So … uh, what do we make of the Senate race in Arizona?
geoffrey.skelley: Blake Masters won the GOP primary with Trump’s backing and millions of dollars in support from billionaire tech megadonor Peter Thiel. But Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has regularly led in the polls, where he currently has an 8-point lead.
Kelly has a combination of things working for him at the moment. First, he’s raised a prodigious amount of money that Masters simply cannot match on his own. In fact, this has created conflicts within the GOP, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants Thiel to keep spending money on Masters’s behalf, but so far, Thiel appears unwilling. Second, Kelly seems to be winning at least a small portion of Republican voters in Arizona, and he leads among independents as well. A Fox News/Beacon Research/Shaw & Co. Research poll from last month found Kelly attracting about 10 percent of GOP voters, which would make him tough to beat if that comes to pass.
alex: What’s interesting to me about this race is that, on paper, it should be an easy get for Republicans. Kelly won the special election that got him into Congress in 2020 by 2 points, and Biden barely eked out a win that same year. But I think candidate quality will definitely play a role in this race, and Masters is carrying a lot of baggage. Just to name a few things: He once said that “Black people, frankly” are to blame for gun violence in the U.S., has promoted the debunked “great replacement” theory and once argued that Iraq and al-Qaida did not “constitute substantial threats to Americans.”
geoffrey.skelley: Some of this is stuff Masters said when he was younger, but I suspect part of the issue is that he’s only 36 years old, so these controversial comments are not really that far in the past!
nrakich: Yeah, I feel more confident in the forecast’s prediction of a Kelly win in Arizona than, say, Fetterman in Pennsylvania. Kelly has a king’s ransom in campaign cash (he’s raised more than $54 million), and the polls in Arizona in 2020 were pretty accurate.
sarah: OK, that leaves us with one last state to discuss: New Hampshire. The primary there hasn’t yet happened yet, but how are things looking for Republicans?
nrakich: New Hampshire is the least competitive of the races we’ve discussed here, and honestly, it’s hard to see it flipping unless Republicans have already flipped places like Georgia and Nevada. Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan has an 80-in-100 chance of winning.
One complication here is that New Hampshire hasn’t held its primary yet, as you noted, Sarah, and it looks like far-right candidate Don Bolduc could defeat more establishment-flavored state Senate President Chuck Morse.
Consider that the latest poll from the University of New Hampshire, conducted in late August, gave Bolduc 43 percent and Morse 22 percent. Since then, the establishment Republicans have spent heavily on Morse’s behalf, so the final result could be tighter. But if Republican primary voters elect Bolduc, Republican party leaders could write off New Hampshire completely.
alex: Republicans seem to have struggled to find a likable, well-known candidate who everyone could coalesce around — especially after Gov. Chris Sununu decided against running for U.S. Senate and instead decided to seek reelection.
An August survey by Saint Anselm College Survey Center found that 39 percent of Republican voters were still undecided ahead of next week’s primary. But, similar to Arizona, I think this could be an easier pickup opportunity for Republicans: Per the poll, Hassan has an underwater approval rating in the state — 44 percent who approve versus 51 percent who disapprove, with only 39 percent saying she deserved to be reelected.
geoffrey.skelley: We do have some recent evidence, though, that Democrats can win a Senate race in New Hampshire even in a bad midterm. Take Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. She held onto her seat in 2014 despite a red wave.
sarah: OK, phew — we’ve run down six of the big Senate races this year. What are folks’ concluding thoughts on the GOP’s path to winning back the Senate or Democrats’ chances to holding on?
alex: This should be an easy year for Republicans, but problematic candidates with little to no political experience may well cost the party their chances of winning the chamber back.
nrakich: Completely agreed about the weaker candidates, but I’m also struck by the tough path Republicans have to picking up even one seat. They need to defeat at least one of what looks like a formidable quartet in Warnock, Kelly, Cortez Masto and Hassan, while also not losing any of their own seats.
That’s hard to do, so I think the FiveThirtyEight forecast’s current estimation of a 70 percent chance of a Democratic hold sounds right to me.
geoffrey.skelley: Republicans may have an uphill battle to a Senate majority, considering the political environment isn’t proving to be as advantageous for the GOP as we might have expected (at least so far). They’ve also nominated some weaker candidates, as Alex mentioned.
Still, I think there’s reason to believe some of these races, like Arizona and Pennsylvania, are going to be closer than they currently appear to be. Our forecast definitely keeps that in mind, too. It’s why I’d love to see more polls, especially in Wisconsin.
“More polls, please” — the constant FiveThirtyEight refrain.