Ranking the 11 Competitive Senate Races

As we head into the homestretch of the 2022 midterms, let’s see whether the press will pick up on an issue that they’ve been studiously ignoring: the effect of COVID policies. This will be the first time voters will have a chance to register their opinions in a federal election about COVID-related mask mandates, vaccine mandates, lockdowns, and out-of-control spending since the debate heated up in 2021. Those issues—and the attendant issue of parents discovering what the public schools are actually teaching their children—were massive factors in Glenn Youngkin’s victory in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial election. Just one year earlier, remember, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in Virginia by 10 percentage points. 

It’s obvious that inflation (higher of late than at any time since Biden was half his current age) is a product of COVID lockdowns that disrupted supply chains and employment, COVID-related blowout deficit spending (financed in part by the Federal Reserve’s purchase of government bonds, a process through which—in the words of the former ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, Jeff Sessions—the Fed “effectively prints money”), and the Left’s unprovoked war on fossil fuels. If inflation—along with a nearly 30 percent increase in violent crime in urban areas—is indeed the biggest issue in this election, then COVID policies are implicitly on the ballot as a root cause of that inflation. 

With fewer than three weeks to go, 11 Senate races look to be genuinely competitive. Unless another race beyond these 11 produces a shocking result, whichever party wins a majority (six) of these races will win control of the Senate: 

11) Washington (Advantage: Democrats) Longtime Democratic incumbent Patty Murray is up by 9 points in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polling (as of October 19), but Tiffany Smiley is mounting a spirited campaign and is down by just 2 points (49 to 47 percent) in Trafalgar’s polling. What’s more, Murray has struggled to clear 50 percent (she’s at 50.5 percent in the RCP average), which makes her somewhat vulnerable if late-deciders disproportionately go against an incumbent of the same party as an unpopular president—as history suggests they likely will.

10) Wisconsin (Advantage: Republicans) RCP shows Republican incumbent Ron Johnson up 3 percentage points in recent polling and perhaps starting to pull away after having been behind in polling only a month ago. Recent years’ polls have notably underestimated Republicans’ success in the Badger State—they underestimated Johnson’s performance in 2016 by 6.1 points (polling said he’d lose by 2.7 points; he won by 3.4).

9) North Carolina (Advantage: Republicans) In 2020, the Tar Heel State was almost 6 points to the right of the nation as a whole (going for President Trump by 1.3 points while he lost by 4.5 points nationally). Since then, Joe Biden has become much less popular (with an approval rating of 43 percent as of October 19). In this race for an open seat, Republican Ted Budd has only a 2.5-point lead in the RCP average, but the relatively high 11 percent of voters who are still undecided will likely break to his advantage. Given the state’s leanings and the president’s popularity, it would be surprising if a majority of undecided voters were to break late toward the president’s party.

8) Iowa (Advantage: Republicans) This race didn’t look at all competitive until a poll released on October 15 by Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register showed Democrat Michael Franken, a retired Navy admiral, within 3 points (46 to 43 percent) of Republican Chuck Grassley, who has held the seat since Ronald Reagan entered the White House. 

In concurrent polling, Selzer showed Iowa’s Republican Governor Kim Reynolds up by 17 points in her race. Selzer’s polling also indicates that Franken has gained ground, as he was down 8 points in her July polling. Selzer’s polling has been uncannily accurate over the years—in 2020, while most Iowa pollsters showed a dead-heat between Trump and Biden essentially, she showed Trump up 7 points. He won by eight. 

Interestingly, Reynolds has been aggressively pursuing and defending pro-life policies, pushing to reinstate a ban on abortion in Iowa after six weeks. Meanwhile, the 89-year-old Grassley has largely shied away from the issue and said during his recent debate with Franken that he would vote against a 15-week federal abortion ban.

7) Ohio (Advantage: Republicans) The Buckeye State, which not long ago was the quintessential swing state, became Trump Country in 2016 and 2020—going his way by 8 points each time. J. D. Vance, who was backed by Trump, should have a clear advantage in this race for an open seat, but he has yet to pull away—leading by just 2.5 points in the RCP average and just 3 points in Trafalgar’s polling. 

Pollsters, however, have wildly underestimated the GOP’s strength in Ohio of late. In 2020, polls favored Trump by 1 point (Trafalgar by five) and he won by eight. If that’s again the case, Vance will win easily. If not, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, a much more experienced politician, could pull off the upset.

6) Colorado (Advantage: Democrats) Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet has an 8-point lead in the RCP average but remains below 50 percent (he’s at 48.5 percent). Colorado, which has a lot of independents, is a Democratic-leaning swing state but can be somewhat volatile, depending upon the election and the candidates involved. It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump’s attacks on moderate Republican Joe O’Dea will help or hurt the challenger in a state where Trump lost by 13.5 points in 2020.

5) Nevada (Advantage: Republicans) Nevada has voted Democratic in each of the past four presidential elections, but each time it has moved further to the right in relation to the nation as a whole. It was 2.1 points to the right of the nation in 2020 (Trump lost by 2.4 points in Nevada versus 4.5 nationally). Democratic incumbent Cathy Cortez Masto is currently trailing Republican challenger Adam Laxalt, the state’s former attorney general, by 2 percentage points. 

Laxalt has perhaps performed the best of any Republican Senate challenger so far in this cycle, and Cortez’s 44.5-percent share of polling in the RCP average is the lowest of any incumbent on this list. Nevada polling in recent elections has slightly underestimated Democratic support, however, so Laxalt is hardly out of the woods. But Republicans have to be happy with where he is at this point.

4) New Hampshire (Advantage: Democrats) Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan is leading Don Bolduc, a retired Army general, by 6 points in the RCP average of recent polling, but she has yet to clear 50 percent. Trafalgar’s polling says this is a 3-point race (48 to 45 percent). 

Hassan recently pulled out of a debate against Bolduc, which could hurt her in a state that particularly values the democratic process—retail campaigning, public debating, and voting—and the state’s historically prominent role in that process. She then agreed to participate in a bizarre, little-publicized, backroom debate with no audience present and pictures of NFL helmets and a birdhouse in the background—in what looked like a dress rehearsal for a junior high school debate and featured the lowest production values you’ll ever see for a Senate debate.

3) Georgia (slight Democratic advantage) Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock has slightly extended his lead in recent weeks and is now ahead of former college and pro football great Herschel Walker by 2 points in the RCP average. Georgia’s peculiar insistence that a candidate cannot win by beating his or her opponent with a plurality of the vote means that this race could well be headed to a December runoff. 

2) Pennsylvania (toss-up) In perhaps the most hotly contested Senate race of the year, Democrat John Fetterman leads Republican Mehmet Oz by 3 percentage points in the RCP average, with a relatively large percentage of the electorate (11 percent) still undecided. The percentage of undecided voters has roughly doubled over the past month, with most of them moving out of Fetterman’s column. 

Oz hasn’t led in a single poll in this race, and early voting is well underway. But because of the combination of Oz’s having cut the gap in half since August, polls having underestimated GOP support in this state in recent years, late-deciding voters being likely to swing disproportionately against the party of an unpopular president, and a looming debate likely to put Fetterman’s health concerns on display in such a way as to cause voters to question his fitness for high public office, this now looks like anyone’s race. 

With Oz gaining ground and Fetterman seemingly trying to run out the clock, this somewhat bizarre contest between two unconventional candidates could still have surprises left in store.

1) Arizona (toss-up) Despite Republicans’ curious deemphasizing of this race, the Grand Canyon State was 4.2 points to the nation’s right as a whole in the last presidential election, making Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly quite vulnerable. Kelly leads Republican challenger Blake Masters by just 2.5 points in the RCP average (down from 6 points 40 days ago) and has only 46.5-percent support (the second-lowest tally of any Democratic incumbent), which leaves a lot of undecided voters up for grabs in a GOP-leaning swing state. Masters was on the offensive about the border in their recent debate while contrasting Kelly’s lockstep support for the Biden Administration’s agenda with fellow Arizona Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema’s independent spirit. Expect this race to close further and get very interesting on election night.

Possible shockers could come in Utah and Connecticut. In limited polling, Republican incumbent Mike Lee has yet to pull away from Evan McMullin, who won just 0.5 percent of the 2016 presidential vote (one-sixth as much as Libertarian Gary Johnson) but got a third of his total nationwide votes in Utah. Forty-eight of Lee’s Republican Senate colleagues have either endorsed or expressed support for him, with the sole exception being Mitt Romney, who represents the Boston area of Utah. In the Connecticut Senate race, Democratic incumbent Richard Blumenthal has barely cleared 50 percent in polling (he’s at 51 percent in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls as of October 19) versus Cuban-born Republican challenger Leora Levy.

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