The race for the House is tilting strongly toward the GOP, but the struggle for Senate control is still very much a slog that could go either way, even as late-breaking national winds favor the party out of power.
Every race will matter on Election Day as Republicans look to win control of the evenly divided chamber and severely curtail the second half of President Joe Biden’s term.
Democrats have a shot in large part because the battleground states on the Senate map were mostly won by Biden in 2020, albeit narrowly. And even though Biden is deeply unpopular in many of those states two years later, Democratic incumbents and challengers amassed massive sums of money that allowed them to run on their own brands throughout the summer while their Republican opponents limped out of contentious primaries. This is where the nitty-gritty of campaign spending makes a difference: Candidates get more favorable advertising rates than the super PACs and outside groups that have had to come in and make up the difference for some Donald Trump-backed GOP nominees with lackluster fundraising.
Democrats’ challenge in the final days of the midterm elections is getting their base to turn out and persuading those remaining undecided voters – especially those who voted for Biden two years ago but are dissatisfied with him today – to stick with the president’s party. That’ll be easier said than done. Just 41% of US adults approved of Biden’s performance, according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS and released Wednesday. And Republican voters expressed greater engagement with this year’s midterms than Democrats across multiple questions gauging voters’ likelihood to vote.
That president’s party often loses seats in Congress during the first midterms of a new administration, and lower Democratic enthusiasm would suggest we’re on track for history to repeat itself. The enthusiasm gap (favoring Republicans by 14 points) is similar to the partisan gap in CNN’s polling from 2010, when Republicans gained seats in the first midterm of Barack Obama’s presidency.
This year’s key issues for voters would also seem to advantage Republicans. More than half of likely voters in CNN’s new poll identified the economy and inflation – a central component of GOP attack ads – as the most important factor in their vote for Congress. The Supreme Court’s late June ruling overturning Roe v. Wade injected uncertainty into the political landscape, with a majority of Americans disapproving of that decision. But only 15% of likely voters in CNN’s poll said abortion was the most important issue determining their vote. More broadly, nearly three-quarters of Americans think things in the country are going badly.
And yet, what’s keeping this cycle interesting is the unpredictability and relative messiness of the Senate map – with races sometimes moving in different directions. Despite Republicans picking up momentum across the country, for example, the seat most likely to flip is a GOP-held seat, not a Democratic-held one. Pennsylvania – where GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring – tops the list, as it has since CNN first started compiling these rankings at the start of the cycle in early 2021. Rankings are based on CNN’s reporting, fundraising and advertising data, and polling, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed. And two other GOP-held open seats – North Carolina and Ohio – have proved to be surprisingly competitive for Democrats this year, even if they’re much less likely to flip.
But the race that could matter more than any other is a seat Democrats flipped last year. If neither candidate receives a majority of the vote in Georgia on November 8, the race will advance to a December 6 runoff. And if Senate control hinges on the Peach State – as it did in 2020 – we’ll have to wait another month to learn which party holds the majority.
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
The Keystone State rounds out the cycle where it began – as the Senate seat most likely to flip. The race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey represents Democrats’ best pickup opportunity. Biden narrowly won the commonwealth in 2020, after Trump had carried it in 2016, making it a pivotal battleground for the midterms and the next presidential contest.
The Senate race has tightened as Republican Mehmet Oz consolidates support from Republicans after making it through a nasty primary with Trump’s endorsement. Democrat John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor, held a slim lead over the celebrity surgeon in a recent New York Times/Siena poll. But that was notably conducted in large part before their late October debate, when the visible effects of Fetterman’s May stroke raised some concern, even among his supporters, that he might not be able to win over undecided voters. Still, only 3% of voters in a new Monmouth University poll said the debate had caused them to reconsider their choice in the race. And 39% of registered voters in a Fox News survey taken after the debate said they were concerned Fetterman wasn’t healthy enough to do the job effectively – a 5-point increase since that question was asked in September – compared with 58% who weren’t concerned.
Democrats, meanwhile, have seized on Oz’s comments during the debate that the discussion over abortion should be left to “women, doctors, local political leaders,” with Senate Majority PAC using it to link him to GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, who’s trailing in his race. Fetterman stood at 50% to Oz’s 46% among likely voters in a CNN Poll of Polls, which averages four most recent surveys that meet CNN’s standards, including the Times/Siena poll and others conducted mostly before the debate.
The good news for Fetterman, even as his own negatives have gone up, is that Oz’s negatives remain relatively high – 17% of Republicans and more than half of independents had an unfavorable view of the celebrity surgeon in the Times survey – and the Democrat continues to outpace Oz on the question of which candidate understands the concerns of everyday Pennsylvanians, according to the Monmouth survey. Biden and former President Barack Obama are rallying with Fetterman in Philadelphia on the final weekend before Election Day – the rare competitive Senate battleground that’s playing host to the president.
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
The supremacy of voters’ economic concerns is bad news for Democrats in Nevada. The state has been hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and average gas prices remain near $5 a gallon. Furthermore, Nevada’s transient population makes it tough for first-term incumbents to establish a strong brand. That’s complicating Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s key task – winning over voters dissatisfied with Biden and the direction of the country. Her favorability rating stood at 39% among likely voters in the New York Times/Siena poll (the same as GOP challenger Adam Laxalt’s), which was about on par with the percentage of likely voters who approved of Biden’s job performance. However, her share of the vote in recent polling is above Biden’s approval rating, giving Democrats confidence that she has a path to overperform the president. Cortez Masto and Laxalt were tied at 47% in the Times poll – a similar finding to a recent CBS poll and CNN polling from early October, which showed no clear leader.
Republicans are blaming Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator, for a litany of concerns – from higher inflation to “chaos at the border” – all with the message that she’s a “rubber stamp” for Biden. Cortez Masto and Democrats have attacked Laxalt over abortion – although he says he does not support a national ban and has pointed out that the right to an abortion is settled law in Nevada. They’ve also tried tying Laxalt – a former state attorney general and the grandson of the former governor and senator with the same last name – to Trump and highlighted his efforts, as Trump’s Nevada campaign co-chair, in the filing of lawsuits related to the 2020 election. But perhaps in a recognition that economic concerns outweigh abortion or democracy as issues that are important to voters, Democrats – including Obama, who rallied the party faithful in Nevada on Tuesday – have tried to flip the script on higher gas prices, blaming them on corporations and tying Laxalt to “big oil.”
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
No race has seen more drama in the last month than Georgia, where Trump’s hand-picked candidate, Herschel Walker, is facing allegations from two women that he urged them to get abortions, which he has denied. But the accusations, which have played into the Democratic narrative about the retired football star being a hypocrite, don’t seem to have done much damage to his standing in the race against Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who’s seeking a full six-year term. After at first steering clear of the allegations, Warnock used them in a recent ad against his opponent. But the New York Times/Siena poll showed no clear leader, which was a tightening from a Quinnipiac University survey conducted after news of the first allegation that had given Warnock a 7-point lead.
Warnock continues to enjoy stronger favorability ratings than his GOP challenger, whose image is underwater. The Democrat’s favorability ratings are also higher than Biden’s approval – a potentially significant separation in a state the president flipped by less than half a point in 2020. But the gubernatorial race in Georgia could help carry Walker across the finish line with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp appearing to have the advantage over Democrat Stacey Abrams in a rematch of their 2018 contest. Where that finish line is, though, remains to be seen – if neither Senate nominee surpasses 50% of the vote on November 8, the top two finishers will advance to a December 6 runoff.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
As the only Republican senator running for reelection in a state Biden won in 2020, Sen. Ron Johnson is the chamber’s most vulnerable GOP incumbent. A Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday showed no clear leader in the race between Johnson and Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes – similar to a CNN survey from mid October – which is comparable to the close governor’s race.
The race seems to have moved in the GOP’s favor since the summer when Barnes emerged from the August primary relatively unscathed after his opponents had dropped out beforehand. Republicans sought to define Barnes after Labor Day with a blitz of advertising, particularly hitting him over crime and his past support for redirecting funding from police. (Barnes has called it a “lie” that he supports defunding the police.) Democrats have tried to turn the crime argument back on Johnson by pointing to some of the statements he has made downplaying the January 6 insurrection and trying to use Johnson’s past remarks on Social Security against him.
Biden only carried Wisconsin by less than half a point in 2020, so it’s still a tough state, with an even tougher national political environment for Barnes. Independents, for example, were breaking for Johnson in the Marquette survey (53% to 46% among likely voters), and 68% of registered voters said they were “very concerned” about an inflation – an issue that favors Republicans. Barnes was polling at 48% in the Marquette poll, slightly lower than Biden’s percentage of the Wisconsin vote in 2020. That’s one reason why Obama, who received a higher 53% in the state in 2012 while winning a second term, rallied with Barnes in the final weeks of the campaign.
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
The race between Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly and Republican Blake Masters has also narrowed – a Fox News poll released Tuesday shows no clear leader with Masters picking up support from Republicans. But Kelly, who won a 2020 special election and is running for a full six-year term, has proved a much more resilient Democrat to tarnish than some of the GOP’s other targets. That has kept this race – in a purple state Biden won by less than half a point – more competitive for Democrats than it probably should be given the national environment. (A CNN poll and the Times/Siena poll both gave him a 6-point lead over Masters.) A retired astronaut with impressive fundraising totals, Kelly has tried to distance himself from his party on immigration – as he did during their debate last month – and largely had the airwaves to himself to sell that message.
Masters is getting some late help from other Republican spenders – including Trump’s super PAC and the political arm of the Club for Growth – after the Senate Leadership Fund had to cut its spending here to divert resources to other states. A venture capitalist who has the backing of both Trump and Peter Thiel, Masters tried to dial back some of his more extreme rhetoric on abortion and election denialism after winning the GOP primary. But the former president recently urged him to go “stronger” on his unfounded election fraud claims.
Masters may have gotten an assist Tuesday, when the libertarian nominee, who was pulling at 1% in the Times survey, dropped out. But with voters already voting, it’s unclear how much of a difference the move will actually make. This is another state where the governor’s race could affect the Senate contest since Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake is considered a much stronger candidate than Masters. Given their struggles in this race so far, though, Republicans will interpret Masters doing well here on election night as a sign that the environment is even better for them than they had expected.
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
The race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr looks closer than many observers had expected at the beginning of the cycle. Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Rep. Ted Budd were tied among registered voters in a late October Marist poll. (Budd, a third-term congressman, had a small edge among definite voters.) North Carolina is accustomed to close elections – Trump only won it by about 1 point in 2020. But Democrats haven’t won a Senate race here since 2008, the last time the state went blue at the presidential level.
Budd, Trump’s first nonincumbent Senate endorsee of the cycle, has been outraised by Beasley. And even though he’s benefited from outside spending that attacks Beasley on crime, the Democrat’s campaign has been able to take advantage of the more favorable advertising rates that candidates get. A former state Supreme Court chief justice, who would be the state’s first Black senator, Beasley has been trying to run as the outsider. “Washington politicians like Ted Budd aren’t listening,” she says in a recent spot about high prices and stagnant wages. Her ads don’t mention that she’s a Democrat – or that her party holds power in Washington. Besides hitting Budd on abortion, Democrats are also trying to make an economic counterargumen. Budd “voted against lowering drug prices for people like us,” one senior says in a Beasley ad, referring to a provision in Democrats’ health care, climate and tax package that allows Medicare to negotiate certain prescription drug prices.
Democrats have long hoped that Beasley could help energize parts of their base that don’t usually turn out in midterms – like rural Black voters and young voters. But national Democrats haven’t been able to pour as much money into this race given the number of incumbents they’re defending. Still, the Senate Majority PAC did up its spending in the state this fall, suggesting Democrats think Beasley has a shot.
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
This race’s position on the rankings continues to be one of the biggest surprises of the 2022 cycle. Democrats and Republicans alike expected this contest to jump near the top of the list if and when GOP Gov. Chris Sununu got into the race. But he decided late last year not to run. Instead, retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who had raised virtually no money, is taking on first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan after making it through the September primary. That doesn’t mean this isn’t still a competitive race – especially given the national environment. But Bolduc cuts a very different profile than Sununu, a Trump critic who supports abortion rights, in a state that Biden carried by 7 points and that’s been trending blue in federal elections.
And yet, Sununu, who previously called Bolduc a “conspiracy theory type candidate,” is now supporting the GOP nominee, who’s repeatedly pushed election falsehoods. (Asked about that choice, the governor told CNN this week that no one should be a “one-issue voter.”) Bolduc also recently picked up an endorsement from Trump. Despite some Republicans coming to his side, both the Senate Leadership Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have cut funding here as they’ve diverted resources to higher-priority races. That’s accentuated the resource disparity between Bolduc, who had raised about $1 million at of the end of the Federal Election Commission’s pre-general reporting period on October 19, compared with Hassan’s $39 million.
Still, Hassan’s closing ad, in which she talks about “standing up to the president – whatever it takes,” speaks to her vulnerability this year given the national environment, which even her massive fundraising advantage may not be able to erase.
Incumbent: Republican Rob Portman (retiring)
The race for retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s seat wasn’t supposed to be competitive – Trump won the state by 8 points and, with the exception of Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s success, it’s been trending red over the past decade. Given those fundamentals and the national mood, Republicans still very much have the edge here, which is why it’s in the second half of this list.
But there’s no denying that Trump’s hand-picked Republican candidate, J.D. Vance, struggled to raise money and consolidate GOP support after a divisive primary. The diversion of Republican super PAC spending from more reliable battlegrounds to shore him up in Ohio speaks to his weaknesses as a candidate. After Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan had the airwaves mostly to himself over the summer, the Senate Leadership Fund has been trying to poke holes in his moderate image by tying him to Biden. Still, Ryan’s vast fundraising advantage has allowed him to run plenty of ads in which he says he has sided with Trump on trade and takes on his own party.
The candidates were essentially tied in a late October Marist survey, which likely speaks to this particular matchup given that the same survey showed the gubernatorial contest not even close. But Republicans are confident, given the makeup of the state, that the remaining undecided voters in the Senate race, who made up 8% of registered voters in that Marist survey, will break late for Vance. It’s probably no accident that Trump is holding a rally in Ohio the day before Election Day.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio
Florida voted for Trump by a smaller margin than Ohio, but for the second month in a row, the Sunshine State has ranked lower on the list of seats most likely to flip. That’s because Republican Sen. Marco Rubio – although he’s been outraised by a strong challenger in Democratic Rep. Val Demings – is a two-term incumbent who seems to be doing everything he needs to do to win in this environment.
Demings, a former Orlando police chief, has leaned heavily into her law enforcement experience. “The Senate could use a cop on the beat,” she says in one spot in which she explains her opposition to defunding the police. But that hasn’t been enough to blunt Republican attacks that she’s prioritized Washington over the police by siding with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Incumbent: Democrat Michael Bennet
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is used to close races – he won his last reelection in 2016 by just 6 points against a GOP challenger whom the national party had abandoned. He’s facing a much more formidable opponent this time in businessman Joe O’Dea, who has expressed support for abortion in the early stages of pregnancy and has criticized Trump. He told CNN’s Dana Bash last month that he would “actively” campaign against the former president, which inspired Trump to lash out at the GOP nominee.
That might actually help O’Dea in a state Biden carried by more than 13 points in 2020. And in a sign of the GOP’s brewing divisions ahead of 2024, the race has become a point of divergence between Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has backed O’Dea. The Senate Leadership Fund gave $1.25 million to a pro-O’Dea super PAC – the same amount it gave to a group supporting Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley in Washington state. But Biden’s smaller margin in Colorado (he won Washington by 19 points) makes it more likely to flip if the national environment gives Republicans a chance to pick up a seat in a state seen as safely blue.