Tuesday, July 26, 2022

BTRTN, the Midterms: Democrats' Chances of Holding the Senate Improve

Tom is back with an updated race-by-race look at the Senate midterm elections.   

We are most of the way through the primary season, and a good time, we thought, to take another in-depth look at the Senate races, our first since March.  At that time we posited the then novel idea that the Democrats just might hold on to the Senate, given, essentially, the strength of their candidates in the swing elections and the weakness of the likely GOP nominees, several of whom would be replacing retiring GOP incumbents.

Since then, the Democrats’ electoral prospects for holding the Senate have become even more promising.  That’s because that very dynamic is playing out in real time: the swing state GOP candidates are, on cue, committing various gaffes and are being out-fundraised by their Democratic opponents.  The Democrats, for their part, are running smart campaigns that are distancing themselves from the misery being experienced by the Biden Administration.

The macro-environment, of course, heavily favors the GOP.  Biden’s approval ratings are basically handcuffed to the inflation rate, and the more the latter goes up, the former goes down.  But that adverse environment is far more important for House elections, which, at this juncture, are pointing to a near-certain GOP takeover.  The Senate races are not independent of national electoral dynamics, but are far more dependent on the candidates themselves.

By our reckoning (based on our race-by-race models), the Democrats have improved their chances of holding the Senate from 51% in March to 58% today.  (Our forecast for the Dems holding the House remains a mere 1%.)  Remember, this is not a prediction, but rather a snapshot – if the elections were held today, the Democrats would likely keep the Senate.  But things can and will change in the ensuing months, and we will continue to monitor each race.

Today we’ll drill down on each Senate battleground race and explain why the Dems fortunes are promising and on the upswing.


Before we review the Senate, you might be interested in our credentials as election forecasters.  Here is our track record in Senate races since 2008 when we began.

Over this period we have only missed 15 Senate races out of nearly 250 predictions, and our "batting average" on close races – those decided by five or fewer percentage points -- is 73%.  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 that were all decided by two points or less.


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

·        The Democrats’ task is relatively simple – they just have to defend all 14 of the seats that they currently hold that are up for reelection to hold on to the Senate.  Only one Democratic incumbent, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, is retiring, whereas four GOP Senators are retiring out of the 20 seats they must defend.

·       Of these 34 Senate elections, only 10 are going to be truly competitive.  Only four of the Democrats 14 seats are in that group:  Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada.  As of now, in varying degrees, the Democrats have the upper hand in each, leading in both the polls (albeit by small margins in some), in fundraising (typically by larger margins), and, frankly, in the quality of the candidates themselves.

·        Furthermore, the Democrats are mounting stiff challenges to the GOP in the six competitive races for Senate seats held by Republicans, especially in Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina, providing the Democrats with an opportunity to flip several seats, an outcome that would render the votes of Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema far less crucial to Democratic legislation than they are now.  This may not matter much, however, if the Democrats lose the House, though it might make the passage of more progressive judges (which require only a majority in the Senate, with no House role) somewhat easier.  Pennsylvania is a particularly promising "flip" opportunity at this point, and the only race we are rating a flip at this juncture.

·      Here is how we peg the outcomes – this snapshot -- at this still relatively 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 the Democrats.  The Democrats control the Senate by virtue of the tie-breaking vote capability held by Vice President Kamala Harris.  There are 34 seats up for election this November, 14 of them currently held by Democrats, and 20 of them by Republicans.  

But most of those 34 races will not be terribly close.  Based on our 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.

The chart summarizes our rates of each of the 34 races.  We see the advantage to the Democrats in five races -- defending the four they hold (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire) plus, at this stage, a flip of Pennsylvania.  Two of those races, Georgia and Nevada are so close that they are "toss ups," while the other three are in the "lean" category.  As of the, the GOP has three toss ups of their all, all in seats they are defending (North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin) while we consider two others, Florida and Missouri, as "likely" to remain in the GOP camp.  All of this is, of course, subject to change as we move ever closer to the elections.


Let’s take a line-by-line look at each race, then we will drill down on the 10 that really matter.  Keep in mind, race dynamics could change as we complete the primary cycle and head down the stretch drive.  It is possible some of these races will drop from “battleground” status, and others may tighten up enough to become a battleground.  


Let’s review the battleground states, and we’ve sorted them, based on our current BTRTN assessment, based on the likelihood that the Democrats will win.  Keep in mind the Democrats have to win four of these ten races to maintain control of the Senate.

New Hampshire.  The New Hampshire primary is the last in the nation, not until September 13, and that will not give the GOP much time to consolidate around their nominee to challenge Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan.  This is a state that Biden won by +7 in 2020, though Hassan won her seat a mere tenth of a point in 2016.  There has been some polling from March to June that pits Hassan against the three main GOP contenders (former Army Special Forces outsider Don Bolduc, State Senator Chuck Morse, and former state representative Kevin Smith), and on average Hassan is ahead of them by about five points on average, although there is some evidence the race is tightening.  But Hassan maintains a gigantic funding advantage, having raised $21 million, with over $7 million still on hand, dwarfing the figures of her competitors combined.  For now, we maintain our BTRTN Rating at Lean Democratic.

Arizona.  Former astronaut Mark Kelly, a Democrat, won a close special election in November, 2020, for the seat once held by John McCain, 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’s likely opponent (the primary is on August 2) will be tech entrepreneur Blake Masters, who has won Trump’s support.  Kelly has been spanking him soundly in the limited polling to date, and also crushing him in fundraising.  Kelly has raised an astonishing $52 million thus far and has spent only roughly half of it.  For his part, Masters has performed par for the course for GOP candidates in this election cycle; when asked about gun violence, his tone-deaf assessment was as follows: “Its gangs.  Its people in Chicago, St. Louis, shooting each other very often, you know, Black people frankly,” he said.  Ahem.  We have changed our BTRTN Rating from Toss Up Democratic to Lean Democratic.

Pennsylvania.  There have already been many chapters written in this wild race thus far, with seemingly another written every day.  One candidate suffered a stroke, the other can’t spell the name of his alleged home town – and these are the candidates that won the primaries.  It all started when Republican Senator Pat Toomey opted not to seek reelection, throwing this purple state Senate seat up for grabs.  Then Trump-backed Army Ranger Sean Parnell was forced to drop out of the GOP race after credible charges of domestic violence emerged, and Trump then moved on to support TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, who squeaked out a primary win over hedge fund CEO David McCormick.  Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, who is a good fit with mainstream Pennsylvanians, won the Democratic nomination just days after his stroke.  Oz has neither run any TV ads since the primary nor failed to quash carpetbagger charges, indeed he exacerbated them with the notorious hometown misspelling.  Fetterman is well ahead in the polls and in fundraising, having raised $8 million in the last quarter versus $3 million for Oz.  We have changed our BTRTN Rating from Toss Up Republican to Lean Democratic, which would be a flip for the Democrats. 

Nevada.  Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto won a close race in 2016 (+2) to claim her first-term seat in a purple state that Biden won by +3 in 2020.  GOP challenger Adam Laxalt has deep mainstream GOP political roots, as the former State Attorney General is the grandson of former Governor (and Reagan pal) Paul Laxalt, and the son of former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici.  But this Laxalt is a full-on Trumpster, having led, in Nevada, Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election outcome.  Candidate Laxalt recently made his own contribution to the GOP candidate gaffe-a-thon, proclaiming Roe v Wade a “joke” in a state in which 57% of the voters believe abortion should be legal.  (It is also worth noting that 62% believe Biden’s election was legitimate.)  She also is well ahead of Laxalt on the fundraising front.  Despite all this, the most recent polls have Masto up by only +3 points each, and thus we have changed our BTRTN Rating from Lean Democratic to Toss Up Democratic.

Georgia.  Reverend Raphael Warnock won a special election on January 5, 2021, one of two stunning Georgia Senate wins that day over GOP incumbents (the other by Jon Ossoff) that gave Democrats control of the Senate and thus radically altered the course of Joe Biden’s presidency.  Now Warnock is running for a full six-year term.  He will be facing former Georgia Bulldog football star Herschel Walker, like Oz a Trump-backed celebrity with no political experience.  He also may very well be the worst candidate in the entire field (at least unitl the Missouri primary is settled, see below).  Walker has a history of mental illness, claiming multiple personalities, one of whom happened to abuse his wife.  More recently, he disclosed the existence of three children that he had fathered, an admission that shocked his own campaign staff.  (Walker has long railed against absentee fathers; apparently, he is one of them.)  Walker also recently made this profound statement on Climate change:  Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space.”  Hmm.  Warnock, for his part, is being helped by his own mega-fundraising prowess (he outraised Walker by a $17 million to $6 million margin in the second quarter), and will also be buoyed by Stacey Abrams’s powerhouse voting machine, so instrumental in electing Warnock, Ossoff and Biden in 2020/21.  (Abrams herself will, of course, also be on the ticket in 2022 as the Democratic candidate for Governor.)  The Senate race polling has been back and forth and tends to slightly favor Warnock at this point, and we have maintained our BTRTN Rating as Toss Up Democratic.

Wisconsin.  GOP Senator Ron Johnson is an outright Trumpster, a trafficker in conspiracy theories, a vaccine skeptic, is notoriously dismissive of January 6 critiques (“largely a peaceful protest”) and apparently offered an alternate slate of 2020 Wisconsin presidential electors to Mike Pence.  He also has an approval rating that is deeply underwater, at 36%, as of April.  June polling has Johnson running more or less even with the three major Democrats vying for the chance to unseat him (the primary is August 9):  lieutenant governor Mandela Barnes (who is the frontrunner), state treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry.  We are maintaining our BTRTN Rating as Toss Up Republican. 

North Carolina.  Richard Burr is another purple state GOP Senator who is retiring.  Burr won the state by +6 in 2016, and Trump took the state by a single point in 2020.  The GOP primary was won by U.S. Representative Ted Budd, with Trump’s endorsement, who beat former Governor Pat McGrory.  Former state Supreme Court justice Cheri Beasley is atop the Democratic ticket, and so far the polling has Budd ahead of Beasley, on average, by a low single digit margin.  As in many other races, the Democrat Beasley is out-fundraising Budd by a 3:1 margin.   But it will be a tough one for Beasley to win, and we are maintaining our BTRTN Rating as Toss Up Republican. 

Ohio.  Yet another GOP Senator, Rob Portman, is retiring in Ohio, giving the Democrats a small opening in a formerly purple state that has become increasingly red (Trump won it by 8 points in 2020).  The GOP primary was won by yet another Trump-backed celebrity non-politician, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance.  The Democrats have another strong candidate, U.S. Representative and former presidential candidate Tim Ryan.  Ryan is running an excellent race, his campaign focused squarely on mainstream (even conservative) issues, such as China-bashing and law-and-order messaging, steering clear of the Democratic Party’s progressive agenda and the Biden Administration.  He has also been drubbing Vance in fundraising.  It is working, as he is running even with Vance in the polls in a very tough state.  We have changed our BTRTN Rating from Likely Republican to Toss Up Republican.

Missouri.  The Democrats have no real business holding out any hope for Missouri, which Trump won in 2020 by +15 points, even though GOP Senator Roy Blunt is retiring.  But former Governor Eric Greitens, if he wins the August 2 primary, would be an even worse candidate than Georgia’s Walker.  Greitens, you may recall, was an ambitious Governor when he 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.  That was bad enough, but then Greitens’ ex-wife levied domestic violence charges against him.  And yet, he’s back, and running even in the polls with fellow Republicans Attorney General Eric Schmitt and U.S. representative Vicky Hartzler.  As for the Democrats, former Marine Lucas Kunce and former state senator and rep Scott Sifton are among those in the field.  Not surprisingly in this red state, all three GOP candidates lead the two Democrats in head-to-head polling (last conducted in May), though Greitens’ led was by the narrowest margin.  But the entire race was upended by the late June announcement by mainstream Republican John Wood that he was entering the race as an Independent.  Wood, an attorney who recently was a senior investigator for the January 6 Committee, wanted to offer Missouri voters an alternative to Greitens (though he also says he will continue to November even if Greitens loses the primary).  While he appears to be attempting to save Missouri from the humiliation of electing Greitens, his campaign clearly opens the door for the Democrats if Wood and the GOP nominee split the Republican vote.  Many twists lie ahead, including the primary, thus for now we maintain our BTRTN Rating of Likely Republican. 

Florida.  The Democrats are running a terrific candidate in U.S. Representative Val Demings, the one-time police chief of Orlando and more recently a House impeachment manager in the first Senate trial of Donald Trump (she is the presumptive candidate as the primary is not until August 23).  That high-profile gig earned her serious consideration in the Joe Biden veepstakes.  But despite the strength of her candidacy, Florida has been a disappointment for the Democrats in many a high profile race in recent years, and GOP incumbent Marco Rubio has led Demings by a good margin in most 2022 polls.  Those margin appear to be narrowing from double to single-digits.  Unlike in other battleground states, Rubio and Demings are about even in fundraising, each having in the $13-15 million range on hand.  We are maintaining our BTRTN Rating at Likely Republican.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, cogent analysis and a very welcome sliver of optimism. Let's hope your track record holds! Thanks, BTRTN


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