Politics

Reassessing the Race for the Senate – Sabato’s Crystal Ball


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The Editors

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— In an election where Republicans are banking on the environment while Democrats are banking on differences in candidate quality, Republicans are relying on a very inexperienced group of candidates.

— Compared to 2014, the last time Republicans flipped the Senate, the party’s non-incumbent candidates are incredibly green.

— Democrats, meanwhile, are running a number of incumbents and current officeholders in competitive races, although holding office, in many instances, comes with a voting record that opponents can exploit.

— The quality of candidates on the Republican side is such an issue that we think the race for the Senate majority is basically a Toss-up.

The race for the Senate

Donald Trump’s dominant position within the GOP may or may not be waning, but beyond Republican candidates still fighting for Trump’s favor, the party’s 2022 candidates reflect their former president in a striking way: Republican Senate candidates in many key races generally lack any officeholding experience, just like Trump before he was elected president in 2016. This is an important factor, particularly given that the key question about 2022’s Senate elections is whether unproven Republican candidates can fully capitalize on what still appears to be a promising electoral environment for their party.

The value of experience is ultimately in the eye of the voter. Some may prefer a fresh face who has more of a potential to upset the status quo; others may prefer a steadier, veteran hand. From a political perspective, candidates with no elected experience may not be prepared for the meatgrinder of a major campaign, and they may not withstand the scrutiny of vetting. On the other hand, those who do have elected experience tend to be better vetted, but they can carry electoral baggage of their own, like a voting record.

On balance, Democrats seem likelier to prefer experienced candidates these days than Republicans. Both parties’ most recent respective presidential nominee exemplifies these preferences: Joe Biden had served in high federal office for nearly all of the past half-century prior to being nominated as the Democrats’ presidential standard-bearer in 2020, making him arguably the most “experienced” first-time president ever. Donald Trump, meanwhile, was the first president who possessed neither previous elected experience nor service in the military. Political scientists Raymond La Raja and Jonathan Rauch noted a couple of years ago that Republicans are “nominating and electing more and more congressional candidates who have not served in government” in House races compared to Democrats.

The preponderance of Republican Senate candidates without formal elected experience in 2022 is striking compared to the slate of candidates the party nominated in 2014, the last time Republicans flipped the Senate from blue to red.

Back in 2014, which also was the last national contest before Trump ascended to the leadership of the Republican Party, the GOP netted 9 Senate seats. In the 9 seats the Republican flipped, their nominees’ backgrounds were as follows: a former state governor (Mike Rounds of South Dakota), 5 U.S. House members (Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Steve Daines of Montana, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia), 2 state legislators (Joni Ernst of Iowa and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, the latter of whom was the speaker of the state House), and a former appointed state-level official (Dan Sullivan of Alaska). In 2 other races where Republican challengers came close to winning, the nominees were a former national Republican Party chairman (Ed Gillespie of Virginia) and a former U.S. senator who had been elected from another state (Scott Brown of New Hampshire, who had previously served a partial Senate term from Massachusetts). The one true political novice among the non-incumbent Republicans running in competitive races in 2014 was then-businessman David Perdue, who was defending an open seat in Georgia (Perdue won in 2014 but lost a 2021 runoff for a second term). And even Perdue had some family connection to high elected office, as his cousin, Sonny, was a former Georgia governor.

While these candidates did not all have at least some top-level elected experience to statewide office or to the U.S. House, the vast majority did, and even those who didn’t were not total outsiders.

Let’s compare that to the group of candidates who the Republicans are running in their pickup opportunities this year.

This year, we currently rate 6 Democratic-held Senate seats as something other than Safe Democratic. The Republican candidates in 4 of those races — Arizona’s Blake Masters, Colorado’s Joe O’Dea, Georgia’s Herschel Walker, and Washington state’s Tiffany Smiley — have no elected experience at all. The eventual nominee in New Hampshire who emerges from September’s primary may or may not have past elected experience; the most credentialed candidate, at least by officeholding experience, is state Senate President Chuck Morse. Only in Nevada is it assured that the GOP nominee will have at least some elected officeholding experience: Adam Laxalt served a term as the elected state attorney general before losing a competitive race for governor in 2018.

We can also see this trend in the competitive open seats that Republicans are defending. Yes, Rep. Ted Budd (R, NC-13) has traditional officeholding experience in his bid to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), but television doctor Mehmet Oz and author J.D. Vance, the GOP nominees in Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively, do not.

That this slate of Republican candidates is so light on past officeholding experience is at least, to some extent, a question of voter choice. But it is also about candidate choices — namely, the decision whether to run in the first place. Potentially strong GOP challengers such as Govs. Doug Ducey (R-AZ), Larry Hogan (R-MD), and Chris Sununu (R-NH) all opted against running; so too did several Republican House members and/or statewide elected Republicans in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. And it is about Trump’s choices, too: Had he not pushed for Walker to run in Georgia, it seems like that primary would have been more crowded and would have included some more traditional candidates. Trump also torpedoed the candidacy of state Attorney General Mark Brnovich in Arizona, who finished third in Tuesday’s primary behind candidates without past officeholding experience.

Would some of those governors or others have taken the plunge if this campaign was happening under the auspices of the pre-Trump GOP of 2014? Possibly. And would our view of the Senate picture be different and more favorable to Republicans if the party had a more experienced slate of candidates? Yes. As we’ll note in our state-by-state assessment of the competitive battleground below, there are some red flags, to put it mildly, with a number of these candidates.

But as Republicans are perhaps bedeviled by a lack of elected experience among their candidates, perhaps their most potent line of attack against their Democratic opponents involves one of the downsides of elected experience: a voting record.

One of the messages we will hear over and over again from Republicans this cycle is a nationalizing one made possible by experience in federal office, which goes something like this: “[Democrat X] votes [some very high percentage] of the time with Joe Biden.” Obviously, all of the Democratic senators in competitively-rated races have a voting record, as they are all current Senate incumbents (Mark Kelly of Arizona, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Patty Murray of Washington). So too do a couple of other Democrats running in races we rate as being at least somewhat competitive: U.S. Reps. Val Demings of Florida and Tim Ryan of Ohio. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s tally of how often members of Congress vote with or against President Biden — a source that Republicans have cited and will cite in their ads — here are how the 6 Democratic incumbents and 2 challengers from the House score: 94% (Arizona’s Kelly), 98% (Colorado’s Bennet), 100% (Florida’s Demings), 96% (Georgia’s Warnock), 92% (Nevada’s Cortez Masto), 96% (New Hampshire’s Hassan), 100% (Ohio’s Ryan), and 96% (Washington’s Murray). This will be an impediment to these candidates’ ability to create distance between themselves and the president; we know from polling that there is a bloc of voters who disapprove of Biden but will vote Democratic, but the danger for Democrats is that Biden’s numbers are so weak that these Democratic candidates will eventually be capped out somewhere south of 50% as they try to run ahead of Biden’s approval but cannot cobble together enough Biden disapprovers to get across the finish line. As we go through the litany of GOP candidate problems below, just remember this liability exists for most of the top Democratic candidates.

Of the 3 other Democrats in competitively-rated races, 2 are lieutenant governors (John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin, the latter of whom has become effectively the presumptive nominee in Wisconsin following the pre-primary exits of his top rivals) and another is a former state Supreme Court chief justice (Cheri Beasley of North Carolina). These candidates do not have federal voting records, but the GOP will find other ways to tie them to Biden.

What follows is a brief survey of the Senate landscape, split into 3 sections: The Toss-ups, the Leaners, and the Likelies, which correspond to our ratings, shown in Map 1.

Map 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings

The Toss-ups (AZ, GA, NV, PA)

Reasonable people can take different positions on whether Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), Raphael Warnock (D-GA), or Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is the most vulnerable Senate Democrat. Reasonable people can also say that they are all rightly rated as Toss-ups and that trying to find any distinction is basically just splitting hairs.

Our general feeling is that Cortez Masto is the most vulnerable, marginally more so than the others. The reason is that Nevada is a bit more of a working-class state than Arizona or Georgia, lacking the volume of growing, highly-educated suburbs that have been trending Democratic over time. Democrats are very reliant on Latino voters in Nevada, too, and there are some indications that Democrats are losing ground with that group — although, it must always be stressed, Latino voters are not monolithic. Cortez Masto is very well-funded, but she is not printing money the same way that Kelly and Warnock are. While Adam Laxalt, the GOP nominee, is not a superstar Republican recruit, he does at least stand out for being a prior officeholder and someone who has been through tough races in the past. Democrats are hoping to use Laxalt’s anti-abortion rights stance as a weapon against him in a fairly pro-abortion rights state (abortion rights are protected in Nevada by a law approved by voters in 1990).

The best argument as to why Cortez Masto might be in slightly better shape than Kelly or Warnock (and a counter to our opinion) is that Arizona and Georgia are still at least a little more Republican than Nevada, which was the case in 2020 and may very well still be true.

Arizona Republicans picked Blake Masters, a hard-edged venture capitalist who is close to billionaire Peter Thiel, as their nominee on Tuesday night. Just putting it bluntly, we don’t think they made the strongest choice. Masters may only be in the midst of being truly vetted, as he has a series of writings from his past that, taken together, could be used to turn off a wide variety of people. Masters is also deeply socially conservative, going beyond a strongly anti-abortion stance to argue that Griswold vs. Connecticut, the Supreme Court decision that protects contraception access, should be overturned. Masters says that he does not actually oppose contraception access, only the court decision that protects it, a legalistic distinction that a more polished candidate might’ve found a way to keep to himself. Like some of his fellow Republicans who won statewide nominations in Arizona on Tuesday, Masters denies the 2020 election results.

In Georgia, probably the highest-profile race of the cycle, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) probably has a small but far from safe lead over former football star Herschel Walker (R), who has, to put it as gently as possible, major holes in his self-described biography and business record, although he also at least has some built-up good will from his time as a football player. Walker’s abortion position — no exceptions, and apparent support for a national ban — is exactly the kind of position Democrats want to run against.

In Arizona and Georgia, Republicans are almost totally reliant on the national political environment and state-level GOP leanings delivering them victory. The Democratic incumbents, particularly Kelly, possess both a candidate quality and money edge over their rivals. Those factors may or may not be enough for them.

In Pennsylvania, the most vulnerable of the Republican-held seats, Republicans are pretty clearly spooked over the lackluster standing of Mehmet Oz (R), the Trump-backed TV doctor. Oz’s favorability numbers remain very weak, and it seems clear that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) leads this race currently, as public polls suggest. Oz’s position is so bad that some Republicans are apparently reassuring donors (as described in the Politico article linked above) that they don’t need to win Pennsylvania to win the Senate majority, which is certainly true — holding everything else and flipping 2 of the 3 Democratic-seats described above would do it — but perhaps easier said than done, given the Republican challenges elsewhere. Fetterman, meanwhile, is only now re-emerging after suffering a stroke right before the mid-May primary, which he dominated. Fetterman’s health is another wild card in this cycle: He may very well recover completely from the stroke, as many do, but there also could be lingering challenges that could impact him on the campaign trail. For now, the focus is on Oz and on whether he can improve his standing; Republicans hope they can eventually turn the spotlight back to Fetterman and what they believe are some potent issues they can exploit, like Fetterman’s past positions on fracking. While Fetterman has an edge currently, it’s not enough of one to make him a clear favorite in our ratings.

Leans D (NH) and Leans R (NC, WI)

With a late Republican primary among several mid-to-bottom tier candidates, New Hampshire is a bit difficult to assess. One could use polls to justify making Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D) reelection bid a Toss-up; we’re not quite there yet, but we would understand the impulse. We’re in wait and see mode on this one.

In Wisconsin, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D) has consolidated the Democratic field and forced out all of his leading rivals, making next week’s primary effectively a coronation. He will face 2-term Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Johnson was left for dead in 2016 but ended up winning a rematch with Russ Feingold, the Democratic senator who Johnson also defeated in 2010. Johnson’s favorables are not good but he does benefit from a resource advantage — though Barnes may very well catch up as he wins the nomination — and Republicans are confident that they can paint Barnes as too left-wing (as Annie Linskey recently detailed in the Washington Post).

We see the situation somewhat similarly in North Carolina, an open seat where former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) faces Rep. Ted Budd (R, NC-13). There, Beasley has a resource edge, and Republicans wish Budd had more money to spend. For us, we’ve just seen the Democrats come up short too many times in North Carolina in recent Senate or presidential races to view this as a true Toss-up.

Likely R (FL, OH, UT) and Likely D (CO, WA)

In speaking with people on both sides of the Senate fight, we have heard competing arguments as to whether the Senate map is expanding in favor of Republicans or Democrats. Honestly, we see merit in both arguments.

Buoyed by a massive ad spending edge over the past few months, it appears that the open seat race in Ohio between Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) and author J.D. Vance (R) is indeed very close; Ryan may in fact have a tiny edge, as he has argued through his own campaign’s polling. Fortunately for Vance, whether Ryan is leading right now is immaterial, and Republicans are confident that once Vance gets up on the airwaves, he’ll gain the advantage. They are probably correct, which is why we have not moved off of Likely Republican here. That said, we were wondering whether outside Republican groups would have to bail out Vance given Ryan’s much better fundraising, and there are signs that is occurring. The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher reported that one of the tentacles of the outside spending operation connected to Senate Republican leadership is going to start running close to $4 million worth of advertising in the race imminently. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is also launching a coordinated ad with Vance (that is different than the traditional outside spending one sees in hotly-contested Senate races). We’ll see if these groups end up doing more. Vance hasn’t done himself any favors by seeming to take the race for granted and for espousing sociocultural views better suited for 1922 as opposed to 2022. But in a state that has clearly shifted right in the Trump era, GOP messaging tying Ryan to Biden should be effective here.

The NRSC has also launched some coordinated spending with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is being outraised by Rep. Val Demings (D, FL-10). We do not get the sense that the Florida race is as concerning to Republicans as Ohio in this group of races. We have previously written about the unusual race between Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and independent Evan McMullin, although Lee should ultimately be fine.

While there’s some outside Republican activity to boost Vance in Ohio — which one could argue indicates the map is expanding in Democrats’ favor — an outside Democratic group connected to Senate Democratic leadership already spent about $4 million in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent construction company owner Joe O’Dea (R) from winning the right to face Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO). That was arguably the Democrats trying and failing to prevent the map from expanding to Colorado, which remains a sleeper Republican target. So too is Washington, where Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) faces nurse and veterans advocate Tiffany Smiley (R). The as-yet-unfinished Washington state vote count will give us some clues about what to expect there; Democrats typically do a little better in the fall than in the initial all-party primary. Because the vote count there is still ongoing, we’re going to hold off on any takeaways. The NRSC just launched small ad buys in Colorado and Washington, hoping that both races turn real; Murray has been using her warchest to attack and define Smiley early on.

It may be that Vance’s precarious position in Ohio suggests that the Democrats are bringing a new target online; it may also be that the Democrats’ position in Colorado and Washington is not quite as secure as it should be in double-digit Biden states, which indicates an expansion in Republicans’ favor. This is why we see both sides of the argument on whether the map is expanding in favor of one side or the other. Regardless, we see clear edges for the incumbent party in all of the races discussed in this section.

A couple of quick asides: We moved Missouri’s open seat from Likely Republican to Safe Republican in the aftermath of Tuesday’s primary, moving it off the competitive board. We have also been a little bit intrigued by a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll from the respected Selzer & Co. firm showing Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) only leading Navy veteran Mike Franken (D) 47%-39%. We suspect Grassley is paying some penalty for his age (he’ll be 89 next month), which might impact his (typically huge) margin of victory. But we continue to view his race as Safe Republican.

If there’s any other Democratic-held seat that could come onto the competitive list, it’d probably be Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s (D-CT) seat, but we’re holding his race as safe as well even though he’s probably in line for a race where the margin is more like his initial, 12-point victory over the free-spending Linda McMahon (R) than his sleepy 29-point 2016 blowout.

Conclusion

The bottom line here is this: We rate 7 Senate seats as either Toss-ups or Leaning one way or the other. For the moment, let’s set aside New Hampshire, which voted for Joe Biden by about 7 points. The other 6 states — Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada, currently held by Democrats, and North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, currently held by Republicans — just so happen to also have been the 6 closest states in the 2020 presidential election. Biden carried all of them except for North Carolina, but he ran under his national margin in all of these states. In other words, these states all were at least slightly more Republican in 2020 than the nation. In a midterm year with an unpopular president in the White House, and with traditional campaign factors like the power of money and incumbency generally not as important in politics as they used to be, the Republicans clearly should be able to win at least 4 of these 6 races, which is all they need for a majority assuming no other changes elsewhere.

The smart bet in recent cycles has been on the power of political gravity, which continues to point to the Republicans at the end of the day.

At the same time, we were more confident about the Republicans flipping the Senate earlier this summer than we are now (even as we had our reservations back then, too). The environment may not be quite as poor for Democrats as it was previously, and the GOP’s candidate problems are not really getting any better. The abortion issue continues to be a significant wild card, and conservatives were dealt a stinging blow in Republican-leaning Kansas on Tuesday night when voters solidly picked the pro-abortion rights side in a statewide ballot issue.

We typically do not think candidate debates make that much of a difference, but the combination of the low experience level of the GOP candidates and the unpopularity of their stridently anti-abortion positioning could lead to some legitimately important moments on the road to November. Back in 2012, Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock arguably destroyed his chances when, during a debate with Democrat Joe Donnelly, Mourdock said when a woman is impregnated during a rape, “it’s something God intended.” Republicans who have already made it clear they support hardly any exceptions to banning abortion are probably going to say similar things, if they haven’t already.

We also seriously doubt Biden’s numbers are really going to improve. For too many Americans, he just does not seem up to the economic challenges that worry them (namely, inflation).

So then it’s just a question as to whether the Republicans can capitalize — and that is a big question. So much so that we think the battle for the Senate is now basically a Toss-up.

The old sports cliché about a matchup between great teams is that there is an unstoppable force versus an immovable object. Conversely, the way to poke fun at a couple of bad teams playing each other is by saying that there is a stoppable force versus a movable object.

Ultimately we think the latter description applies to the battle for the Senate right now — and it’s why the GOP’s move toward less experienced candidates makes this a harder race to handicap than it otherwise might be.





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