A Guide to Key Senate Races in the U.S. Midterms
Author’s Note: This article primarily uses FiveThirtyEight’s polling data for each race, which includes aggregate observations from various pollsters. This is not an endorsement of FiveThirtyEight or Nate Silver’s work or comments in its entirety. Readers are encouraged to remember these are discussions of probability, not a final declaration of results.
During his first two years, President Joe Biden has faced the lingering COVID-19 pandemic, inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and an uncertain post-Roe reproductive rights landscape. Abortion and inflation are two of the most potent issues in this election. In the 2022 midterms, Democrats hope public discontent with Roe and President Biden’s recent accomplishments can help them retain power. At the same time, Republicans aim to connect Biden and the Democrats with the current shaky economy and win control of both chambers of Congress.
Currently, the Republicans are forecasted to take over the House, while the Democrats retain the Senate with razor-thin control. But a divided Congress is not a given, with momentum favoring the Republicans; there is even a chance they can win both chambers. The direction of Congress for the next two years and the country for a while after will come down to a few key Senate races. Here are some key races:
A longtime Republican stronghold, Georgia voted for Joe Biden in 2020, the first time a Democratic candidate carried the state since 1992. That same year, in two close runoff races, incumbent Republican Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler lost their seats to two Democratic challengers. One of those challengers, incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock, aims to keep his seat and the Democrats’ hopes alive in the Peach State in a race many experts believe is indicative of Democrats’ chances to face the Senate. He faces Republican nominee and former NFL running back Herschel Walker. Recent allegations from The Daily Beast about Walker paying for a girlfriend’s abortion in 2009 have caused a backlash, given his pro-life stance. While some pollsters, including the Republican Trafalgar Group, have reported a slight shift in Warnock’s favor, the impact of this revelation appears to be mixed. Currently, Warnock holds a slight edge over Walker; Warnock has passed 50% in aggregate polling for the first time recently. However, this race is far from decided and will be one of the closest in the country.
Although Pennsylvania has voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in 7 of the 8 previous elections, statewide office alternates between Democratic and Republican control. The 2022 Senate race is no exception, as Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. John Fetterman faces off against Republican nominee, celebrity surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz to replace retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey. Fetterman is also part of a growing number of Democratic candidates openly supporting the legalization of marijuana and raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. Oz, meanwhile, has closed in on Fetterman’s lead in recent weeks, hammering Fetterman as being too radical and soft on crime. On the other hand, Oz has been criticized for lacking a cohesive platform and appearing like an opportunist, given that he only switched his legal residence to Pennsylvania in 2020 after decades of living in New Jersey. The winner of this race will not set the tone for party control in Pennsylvania but will be a crucial determinant for both parties’ hopes to control the Senate.
Of the three key toss-up races that could decide Senate control, Nevada has not received the attention of Georgia and Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, the race in Nevada has been consistently tight, as Democratic incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto trails slightly in a precarious race against the Republican nominee, former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt. The Nevada race is emblematic of how the GOP has made inroads since 2020 with demographics they previously did not fare well with, particularly the Latino community. Laxalt has focused on the economy and immigration as his main issues. However, he was also a primary player in efforts to overturn the 2020 election results in Nevada. On the other hand, Cortez Masto has heavily emphasized her record of defending reproductive rights and environmental legislation. Though the Nevada race does not carry the bombast and national star power of the Georgia and Pennsylvania races, it still carries the potential to make or break each party’s chances.
Since 2016, Ohio has gone from a tossup state to one that is reliably Republican by growing margins. But Democrats still hope that Rep. Tim Ryan can win the state’s Senate Race against Republican nominee and author of Hillbilly Elegy J.D. Vance. Amidst some controversy, both candidates have stressed the need for the U.S. to take on China and encourage manufacturing and production inside American borders; this message is bound to resonate with voters of a state that has lost roughly 300,000 manufacturing jobs over three decades. Ryan and others have attacked Vance’s nonprofit, Our Ohio Renewal, for spending more money on management expenses than solutions to the opioid crisis. Ryan currently trails Vance in most polls but has closed in since September. For Democrats, it is possible that Ryan’s Ohio upbringing and message of economic renewal can win the day over Vance’s alignment with Donald Trump and stance on cultural issues like education. Otherwise, Democrats’ hopes in the Buckeye State might be dashed for the foreseeable future.
Incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson looks to retain his seat against his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. Johnson has a slight and growing lead over Branes, despite Barnes having surged in the polls earlier in the election cycle. The race between Johnson and Barnes has mainly focused on crime and inflation. Johnson has attributed inflation to deficit spending. Meanwhile, Barnes believes addressing inflation requires cutting middle-class taxes and ensuring top earners pay their fair share. Most recently, Johnson stirred controversy in his debate against Barnes after accusing him of being “against America” in response to a question about what each candidate admired about their opponent. Wisconsin’s shift towards the Republican Party since 2010 has turned it into a battleground for both parties. This makes this race one that Republicans will watch closely to see how strongly their messaging can translate to winning there once again.
As in Wisconsin, Democratic incumbent Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona maintains a consistent, slight edge over his Republican opponent, venture capitalist Blake Masters. A former astronaut, Kelly was elected in 2020 as a pragmatic outsider who could cut through the Washington partisanship. He has since garnered a reputation as one of America’s most bipartisan senators, facilitating cooperation on issues like gun control and infrastructure. Masters, by contrast, has consistently aligned himself with former President Trump and espoused some radical views, including the Great Replacement theory and that the 2020 election was “stolen.” However, in the aftermath of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson, Masters scrubbed his campaign website and softened his rhetoric on abortion. While Democrats have made many inroads in Arizona since 2018, this race will still be decided by single-digit margins. Republicans look to stem the tide of enthusiasm for Democrats in Arizona. But, in late Republican Senator John McCain’s home state, Republicans’ nomination of hardline candidates like Masters could spell a worthy gamble or a death knell for the party’s immediate future in an increasingly blue state.
New Hampshire, Colorado, and North Carolina are other Senate seats less likely to flip party control but still worth observing. The midterms will be a crucial referendum on Americans’ confidence in President Biden and the Democratic Party. For an administration that has prided itself on helping pass prolific legislation, a Democratic victory in one house bodes better for the Biden administration’s legislative future. The Inflation Reduction Act introduced historic provisions on climate change, an issue likely to resonate and influence many voters, particularly younger ones. But the stakes go beyond a single administration. In addition to the economy and climate change, divides on cultural issues such as education and abortion are on the minds of many voters. They have already influenced elections and referenda in the last two years. There are exceptionally high stakes for reproductive rights in the Senate, as Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham have touted the idea of passing a national abortion ban, contrary to public opinion and even members of his party. Whichever party controls the Senate will likely immediately set the tone on abortion and reproductive rights legislatively.
Furthermore, the Republican Party has continued to trend toward an open tolerance of candidates like Laxalt and Masters, who have cast doubt or rejected the 2020 election results. A large part of this is Donald Trump’s legacy; almost all Republican candidates Trump has endorsed have won their primaries, even unseating some incumbents who voted to impeach him after the 2021 Capitol riots. Even establishment Republicans like Ron Johnson have hesitated to definitively call out these party elements, falling back on responses around unexplained “irregularities.” If Republicans win the majority in 2022, their views on election security will have historic implications for the 2024 presidential election responsible for certifying the 2024 presidential election. While exaggerating the importance of congressional elections is becoming trite, there is a real sense that the 2022 midterms carry higher stakes than other elections in recent memory.