Friday, March 25, 2022

BTRTN: The Midterms, Part II...Can The Dems Hold the Senate?

Tom is back with Part II of BTRTN’s first in-depth look at the midterms, this time focusing on the Senate.  He’ll be back soon with similar analytic looks at the House and the governor races. 

In Part I of this initial series on the 2022 midterms, we looked at the overall election environment, and concluded that things were not quite as bad for the Democrats as most seem to think.  We noted that neither the redistricting process nor state voting rights legislation are the clear GOP wins they are widely thought to be – in fact, if anything, they both are a wash.  We laid out a “Biden Comeback” path for 2022 that was plausible – not easy, but not out of the question, either.  Other factors also favor the Dems, including underlying demographic shifts and the continuing GOP problem with one Donald J. Trump.  In short, the Democrats certainly do have a chance of keeping both the Senate and the House.  We suggested that the Democrats should stop moping and whining and instead focus on working and winning.  If you want to read the full argument in Part I, here it is:

Of course, it is also true that the Democrats might indeed get crushed in the midterms and lose both houses of Congress and some state houses as well.  If Biden does not turn it around, he will suffer the fate that so many of his predecessors – including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump – received, a first-term midterm spanking, particularly in the House.

In Part II today, we take a look at the Senate midterms, race by race.


Before we review the Senate, you might be interested in our credentials as election forecasters.  Below is our track record in Senate races over the last dozen years.

Over this period we have only missed 15 senate races out of almost 250 predictions, and our "batting average" on close races is also well above 50%.  To give an indication, in November, 2020, we predicted that both Georgia Senate races would go to runoff, and in January, 2021, we predicted that Democrats would win both of those runoff elections.  Not many of our fellow forecasters went four-for-four on Georgia in those momentous elections.



Here are the main takeaways of this 2022 Senate analysis, then we’ll get into the detail: 

·        It’s early.  We are still six weeks away from the first primaries (May 3) that will set the field.  There has been little cross-party polling among perceived likely contenders, and what polls that do exist are not likely to be terribly indicative of race outcomes in November.  But while early, we can still provide insight on the nature of these races, in particular, which will be the deciding ones and where do they stand at this point.

·       The Democrats have a far better chance of holding onto the Senate than the House.  Senate races are less driven than the House by national politics or presidential performance, though those factors still have some impact. 

·       The Democrats simply need to protect their 14 seats up for reelection to hold the Senate, and only four of those 14 races will be competitive.

·        The GOP not only has to flip a seat, they have to hold all of their 50 seats.  Six GOP seats will potentially be competitive races, and in three of them, the GOP incumbent is retiring, making the seat more vulnerable. 

·        The GOP has had trouble recruiting “A List” candidates to challenge the Democrats in battleground states, and to replace the retiring GOP Senators.  On the other hand, the Democrats are generally putting up strong candidates in those same battleground states. 

·        At this juncture, the odds marginally favor the Democrats, and the defining and deciding race may very well be in the state that has been and continues to be the crucible of voting rights controversy, Georgia.  The outcome in that race could take days, weeks or even months to sort out, and will almost certainly be yet another test of our democracy.   Here is how we peg the outcomes at this very early juncture:



As everyone reading this surely knows, the current Senate is split 50/50 between the Democratic and Republican caucuses.  There are only 48 Democrats, but two Independents, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, caucus with, and typically vote, with the Democrats.  The Democrats control the Senate by virtue of the tie-breaking vote capability held by Vice President Kamala Harris.  As the chart shows, there are 34 seats up for election this November, 14 of them Democrats, and 20 of them Republicans.  

But most of those 34 races will not be terribly close.  Based on our initial BTRTN ratings of those races (which are more or less in line with all the other rating services), at most 10 races will be truly competitive.  Those 10 races will decide which party will control the Senate in 2023.


Let’s take a line-by-line look at each race, then we will drill down to the 10 that really matter.  Keep in mind, race dynamics could change as we move into the primary cycle and ultimately down the stretch drive.  The battleground races may change.  But, frankly, in this polarized environment, they are not likely to change too much.  Swing states are swing states, and it is the rare deep red or deep blue state that will hold a competitive race.  (A recent example was in Alabama, when Democrat Doug Jones won a Senate seat by defeating a terrible GOP candidate, Roy Moore, who had been accused of dating minors.) 



It is somewhat convenient to group these races into “like” categories.  This group features two first-term Democratic incumbents who won very close races in 2016, in states that Biden won by a larger margin in 2020. 

New Hampshire.  Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan dodged a major bullet when popular GOP Governor Chris Sununu decided to pass on a Senate bid.  His announcement was a bombshell, and immediately materially improved the Democrats’ odds of holding the Senate.  The GOP is now scrambling to find a candidate who can flip this seat that Hassan claimed by a mere tenth of a point in 2016.  It should be noted that Biden won the state by a good margin, +7, in 2020.  So far, three GOP contenders (former Army Special Forces outsider Don Bolduc, State Senator Chuck Morse, and long ago state representative Kevin Smith) are all trailing Hassan in the polls by 7 to 18 points (Bolduc is doing the best).  The primary is not until September 13.  BTRTN Rating: Lean D. 

Nevada.  Like Hassan, Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto won a close race (+2) to claim her first-term seat in 2016.   Biden also won in Nevada, though by a smaller margin (+3).  Adam Laxalt, the likely GOP challenger (the primary is June 14), is the former State Attorney General and the grandson of former Governor (and Reagan pal) Paul Laxalt.  He is also the son of former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici.  Despite those mainstream roots, he is a full Trumper, having led Trump’s challenges in Nevada to the 2020 outcome.  Polling thus far has been thin, but the most recent one had Cortex Masto up by +9.   BTRTN Rating: Lean D. 

These next two states feature Democratic incumbents who each won a recent special elections, flipping a red seat to blue, in very high visibility races.  Both are now seeking re-election to full Senate terms. 

Arizona.  Former astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat, won a close special election for the seat once held by John McCain in November, 2020, defeating then-incumbent GOP Senator Martha McSally by +2 points.  Now he is running again for a full six-year term in a state that Biden won by only three-tenths of a point.  Kelly is a mega-fundraiser, for sure, and has been a far more reliable Democratic vote than his Arizona colleague Kyrsten Sinema.  His likely opponent (the primary is not until August 2) will be Marc Brnovich, the GOP State Attorney General.  There has been no polling in 2022, though there were a few in 2021 that had Kelly ahead of Brnovich by +4 and +10.  But this one, we expect will end up closer than that.  BTRTN Rating: Toss Up D. 

Georgia.  Georgia, is, of course, ground zero in the Trump-fraud era, the state where Trump was recorded trying to bully GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,180 votes” to overturn the state presidential election.  On January 5, 2022, the Democrats pulled off an unlikely Senate doubleheader, with challengers Jon Ossoff and Ralph Warnock defeating two GOP incumbents, thereby giving Democrats control of the Senate and thus radically altering the course of Joe Biden’s presidency.  Now Warnock is running for a full six-year term.  He will almost certainly face former Georgia Bulldog football star Herschel Walker, who is drubbing the competition in GOP primary polls.  Walker is a Trump acolyte, and Trump loves him from back in the days the Trump owned the United States Football League franchise that featured Walker.  Walker led Warnock in two recent polls by an average of +2 points, but, truth be told, he is a terrible candidate, one who Mitch McConnell deeply opposed before his nomination became nearly inevitable.  Walker has a history of mental illness, claiming multiple personalities, one of whom happened to abuse his wife.  Warnock, for his part, will be helped by his own mega-fundraising prowess, and also by the power of Stacey Abrams’s voting machine that was so instrumental in the Biden, Warnock and Ossoff wins.  Abrams will also be on the ticket in 2022, as the Democratic candidate for Governor.  This race will surely be close, and subject to post-election challenges, some that could be fundamental to testing the strength of our democracy.  BTRTN Rating: Toss-Up D. 

The next three seats – all in purple states -- are held by GOP incumbents and are the best possibilities for the Democrats to flip.  Two of the incumbents are retiring and the third is the weakest incumbent of them all. 

Pennsylvania.  Republican Senator Pat Toomey has opted not to seek reelection, throwing a purple state Senate seat up for grabs.  The race to replace him on the GOP ticket has already been reasonably epic.  Trump endorsed former Army Ranger Sean Parnell at first, but Parnell was forced to drop out after credible charges of domestic violence emerged.  Then TV personality Dr. Oz announced his candidacy and a few early 2022 polls had him leading a large field.  But he has since been eclipsed by hedge fund CEO David McCormick, who is ahead by 2 to 9 points in three separate polls in late February and early March.  The Democrats also have a large field, led by lieutenant governor John Fetterman and U.S Representative (and former marine) Conor Lamb .  The latter made a national name for himself in March, 2018 by flipping a red district in a special election, and then overcoming redistricting by winning a different district in November, 2018.  There has been no polling among the Democrats, nor any head-to-head cross-party polls. Pending further race dynamics, we give the GOP the nod as current seat holders.  BTRTN Rating: Toss-Up R. 

North Carolina.  Richard Burr is yet another purple state GOP Senator who is retiring.  Burr won the state by 6 points in 2016, but Biden took the state by a point in 2020.  The lead GOP candidate is former Governor Pat McGrory, who lost his race for reelection in 2016 to current Democratic Governor Roy Cooper in a squeaker.  McGrory leads a large field in early polling, but not by much. His leading challenger is U.S. Representative Ted Budd, who has Trump’s endorsement.  The Democrat have no A-List challenger.  The top contenders are former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley and Beaufort Mayor Everette Newton.   BTRTN Rating: Toss-Up R. 

Wisconsin.  GOP Senator Ron Johnson is not retiring – he was the last Senator to declare his 2022 intentions, choosing to run for a third term just two months ago.  While this was a disappointment to Democrats – it’s always easier to beat a newcomer than an incumbent – Johnson nevertheless is a particularly weak GOP incumbent, also in a purple state.  Johnson is a known Trumpster, a trafficker in conspiracy theories, a vaccine skeptic and is notoriously dismissive of January 6 critiques (“largely a peaceful protest”).  He also has an approval rating that is deeply underwater, at 36% approval and 51% disapproval as of December, 2021.  A number of Democrats are vying for the chance to unseat him, including, among others, lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes, state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry.  BTRTN Rating: Toss-Up R. 

The last three states are longshots for the Democrats to flip, but may come into play given the presence of a strong Democratic candidate or the potential for a very weak Republican one. 

Florida.  Presumptive Democratic challenger Val Demings is as strong a candidate as they come.  She is the former police chief of Orlando, who made a national name for herself as an impeachment manager in the first Senate trial of Donald Trump, and then was widely touted as a Joe Biden VP contender.  But Florida has been a disappointment for the Dems in many a high profile race in recent years, and GOP incumbent Marco Rubio has led Demings by a good margin in all three 2022 polls, including by 12 points in the most recent one in February.  BTRTN Rating: Likely R. 

Ohio.  Yet another GOP Senator, Rob Portman, is retiring in Ohio, giving the Democrats a small opening in a formerly purple state that has been increasingly red (Trump won it by 8 points in 2020).  This is another wide open race on the GOP side, somewhat similar to Pennsylvania, featuring its own  second-rate and controversial celebrity, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, a damaged outsider, Mike Gibbons, a businessman who has made racist comments about Asians, and a ho-hum establishment figure, former Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel, among others, vying for the nomination.  Early polling favors Gibbons slightly over Mandel.  The Democrats have another strong candidate, U.S. Representative and former presidential candidate Tim Ryan, who leads the field.  Absent any head-to-head polling, we have it in the GOP column for now.  BTRTN Rating: Likely R. 

Missouri.  There is only one reason that Missouri, a red state that Trump won by 15 points, holds any hope for the Democrat:  Eric Greitens.  Greitens, you may recall, was the ambitious Governor who was forced to resign in 2018 due to a lurid sex scandal – he not only had an affair, but was accused of blackmailing his paramour by threatening to expose compromising pictures of her.  Greitens’ wife was also levied domestic violence charges against him.  And yet, he’s back, and contending for the Senate nomination, much to Mitch McConnell’s chagrin.  Greitens has led the field in 2022 polling by single digit margins, trailed by Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. representative Vicky Hartzler.  Former Marine Lucas Kunce and former state senator and rep Scott Sifton are among those in the Democratic field.  A recent poll confirmed GOP fears about a Greitens nomination:  Schmitt and Hartzler both led Kunce by double digit margins, while Greitens only topped him by a single point.  On balance, it is hard to envision a Democratic Senator in the Show Me state, so for now we have this in the GOP column.  BTRTN Rating: Likely R. 

We’ll be back with our early thoughts on the House soon.






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