background_fid.jpg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

4 Senate races that could provide the key to control

As the election nears, control of the Senate is coming down to only half a dozen seats or less with really four that could provide the key — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.
Hill Street Studios
/
Getty Images
As the election nears, control of the Senate is coming down to only half a dozen seats or less with really four that could provide the key — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.

The fight for the Senate couldn't be tighter. The chamber is 50-50 and the top Senate contests are as close as they can get. Republicans need to net one pickup to take control.

As the election nears, it is coming down to only half a dozen seats or less with really four that could provide the key — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.

Pennsylvania is so important to Democrats, because if Lt. Gov. John Fetterman can hold on against celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, then Republicans would need to win two of three of Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.

If Oz is able to pull it out, then Republicans' path to control opens up.

Of course, those aren't all the races.

Here's a look at our last top 10 seats (which we are expanding to 11 in this issue) most likely to flip before final votes are cast Tuesday (Toss Up and Lean ratings are based on the Cook Political Report). Check out our previous look at where things stood in the key races, which also ranked them in order of most likely to change hands.

1. PENNSYLVANIA (R-Open) TOSS UP

<strong>Left:</strong> Dr. Mehmet Oz speaks onstage at the Good Health is Good Business panel at The Town Hall during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 29, 2016 in New York City. <strong>Right:</strong> Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate John Fetterman holds a rally at Nether Providence Elementary School on October 15, 2022 in Wallingford, Pennsylvania.
/ Slaven Vlasic/Stringer via Getty Images; Mark Makela/Getty Images
/
Slaven Vlasic/Stringer via Getty Images; Mark Makela/Getty Images
Left: Dr. Mehmet Oz speaks onstage at the Good Health is Good Business panel at The Town Hall during 2016 Advertising Week New York on Sept. 29, 2016, in New York City. Right: Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate John Fetterman holds a rally at Nether Providence Elementary School on Oct. 15 in Wallingford, Pa.

With Republican Sen. Pat Toomey's retirement, this state has become Democrats' top pick-up opportunity. Despite the difficult national landscape for Democrats, Republicans have struggled because Oz has not been well liked. Conservatives didn't like that Trump endorsed him, and his favorability ratings with independents are upside down.

A flood of ads from Republican outside groups hitting Fetterman on crime helped close the gap in this race, but Fetterman has won statewide before, is a known quantity and is better liked than Oz. Democrats are betting those factors mostly insulate him from a difficult debate performance that exposed his auditory processing difficulties in recovering from a stroke earlier this year. Previous: 1

2. GEORGIA (D-Warnock) TOSS UP

Republican Herschel Walker, left, is challenging incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. Walker is facing allegations he paid an ex to have an abortion despite his hard-right stance on the issue.
/ Megan Varner/Getty Images; Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images
/
Megan Varner/Getty Images; Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Republican Herschel Walker, left, is challenging incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. Walker is facing allegations he paid an ex to have an abortion despite his hard-right stance on the issue.

This race pits Democratic incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock against former University of Georgia and NFL star Herschel Walker. Republicans have struggled to define Warnock in this race, though they have tried to tie him to Biden's policies in this state that leans Republican, especially in a midterm with high inflation and Biden's approval rating under water.

But then there's the complication that is Walker for Republicans. Walker was boosted to the nomination by Trump, but has had a seemingly endless stream of controversies and scandals, from domestic violence accusations to the number of children he's fathered to women who say Walker urged them to get abortions. Walker is staunchly — publicly — against abortion rights.

This is a state that will see lots of crossover voters, voting for both incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Warnock. Kemp is the heavy favorite in his race for reelection over Democrat Stacey Abrams. That means there are going to have to be a whole lot of Kemp-Warnock voters for Warnock to pull off reelection. Another factor: if no one gets above 50%, this race would head to a runoff on Dec. 6. If that happens, there's the very real possibility that control of the Senate won't be known until some time after then. Previous: 2

3. NEVADA (D-Cortez Masto) TOSS UP

Republicans in recent weeks have started to feel very good about their chances here. Trump-backed challenger Adam Laxalt, a former state attorney general who denies the result of the 2020 presidential election, is a political scion in the state. His father was a senator and his grandfather a governor.

Democrats continue to say incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto is running a good campaign, but the political environment makes it an uphill battle. The state has high white- and Latino working-class populations, which have struggled to recover financially from the effects of the pandemic. Latinos are a key voting bloc here for Democrats, and the party needs them to turn out to vote.

In past years, Democrats have been able to mobilize their base to eke out close victories in Senate and presidential elections, but with the late Sen. Harry Reid no longer running the state's political machine, that traditionally vaunted get-out-the-vote effort is going to be put to the test. Previous: 3

4. ARIZONA (D-Kelly) TOSS UP

Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, left, is holding up well against Trump-backed Republican Blake Masters, right, in the Arizona Senate race, but it's shaping up to be a tight finish.
/ Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
/
Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, left, is holding up well against Trump-backed Republican Blake Masters, right, in the Arizona Senate race, but it's shaping up to be a tight finish.

Incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly has led this race against Trump-backed Republican challenger Blake Masters for months, but as operatives in both parties have expected, this race has tightened considerably. Arizona is a place where Republicans outnumber Democrats and where independents really matter. That's the hurdle for both incumbent Kelly and Masters.

For Kelly, it's the difficult economy and immigration in this border state that have put him on defense. He has tried to distance himself, for example, from Biden's border policies.

For Masters, it's been his shifting positions on whether Trump won the 2020 election and abortion. He ran an ad during his primary claiming falsely that Trump did win, but in the general election he says he now believes he didn't. He also backtracked on his hardline stance on abortion, having called himself "100% pro-life" and even advocating for a federal "personhood" law "that recognizes that unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed." Both of those have been scrubbed from his website, and he now describes his position in ads as "common sense," while trying to paint Kelly as an "extremist" on the issue.

Putting Masters at a disadvantage is the finger pointing between the Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell-tied Senate Leadership Fund and Masters' billionaire mentor, Peter Thiel. Thiel poured in millions at the beginning of the campaign to boost Masters, and McConnell's group wanted Thiel to spread it around more to other GOP campaigns. That hasn't happened, Senate Leadership Fund has pulled out of Arizona and Thiel hasn't been supporting Masters' campaign financially as he had been in the primary. Previous: 4

5. WISCONSIN (R-Johnson) TOSS UP

Incumbent Ron Johnson seems to have an edge in this race, although both sides expect this one to be close because of the state's evenly – and hotly – divided electorate. Johnson hasn't backed down from controversial positions, and isn't very well liked in the state. That said, he's well aware of how he's viewed, has run a hard-nosed campaign and may have the slightest edge.

Republicans have run a deluge of ads attacking Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on crime — and Johnson has seen a boost in the polls as a result. Barnes is going after Johnson on abortion now, and Democrats expect this race to tighten and likely be a 1-to-2 point race, as so many statewide races in this sharply politically polarized state have been. Previous: 5

6. NORTH CAROLINA (R-Open) LEAN R

<strong>Left</strong>: Representative Ted Budd speaks during a Save America rally for former President Donald Trump at the Aero Center Wilmington on September 23, 2022 in Wilmington, North Carolina. <strong>Right:</strong> North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley speaks to a crowd during an election night event on May 17, 2022 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
/ Allison Joyce/Getty Images; Sean Rayford/Getty Images
/
Allison Joyce/Getty Images; Sean Rayford/Getty Images
Left: Representative Ted Budd speaks during a Save America rally for former President Donald Trump at the Aero Center Wilmington on September 23, 2022 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Right: North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley speaks to a crowd during an election night event on May 17, 2022 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Put simply: Republicans have the advantage here because of the partisan lean of the state. It's not because Republican Rep. Ted Budd has run a particularly effective campaign. Budd got Trump's endorsement and that got him through the primary, but Budd has been outraised and outspent by Democrat Cheri Beasley.

Budd's campaign spent a paltry $7 million on TV ads through Oct. 17. So outside groups, like SLF, have had to come in to keep a pro-GOP presence on the airwaves in a significant way, spending $64 million on Budd's behalf. Previous: 6

7. NEW HAMPSHIRE (D-Hassan) LEAN D

This race has quickly receded as a top GOP target. Republicans saw incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan as a generic Democrat, someone they could pick off in a swing state in a year when the president's approval rating is upside down.

The problem is the GOP didn't get a generic Republican out of their primary. Republicans missed out on recruiting Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who is popular in the state, and wound up with controversial retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. Bolduc has aligned himself with Trump, denies the 2020 election results, has boosted vaccine conspiracies and has raised and spent very little money. Republican outside groups had been playing heavily in this state, but after a $26 million investment from the Senate Leadership Fund, it pulled up stakes recently. But pay attention to the margin here. Polls close at 8 p.m. ET, and if Hassan is struggling or behind, it could be a big night for Republicans. If not, control of the Senate will be fairly narrow, as expected. Previous: 7

8. OHIO (R-Open) LEAN R

<strong>Left:</strong> Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a rally on May 2, 2022 in Lorain, Ohio. <strong>Right</strong>: J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022 in Delaware, Ohio.
/ Drew Angerer/Getty Images
/
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Left: Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks during a rally on May 2 in Lorain, Ohio. Right: J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a rally hosted by former President Donald Trump at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23 in Delaware, Ohio.

This is a state where operatives in both parties strongly urged ignoring the polls throughout this campaign. While Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan held eyebrow-raising leads here for some time over struggling Trump-backed Republican J.D. Vance, people close to both campaigns emphasized that the Republican lean of this state would likely move it in Vance's direction.

That was helped by the Senate Leadership Fund pouring in about $30 million to boost Vance, and relatively little spent by Democratic outside groups on behalf of Ryan. Ryan's campaign has spent about $35 million on TV, while outside groups only spent $8.5 million through Oct. 17, a signal that Democrats haven't been confident about this as a real potential takeover.

Vance was never the conservative favorite. Trump came in, surprisingly endorsed him and Vance won. Now, ironically, Vance has had to rely on McConnell's group to help him try and get across the finish line. Previous: 8

9. COLORADO (D-Bennet) LEAN D

Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet has been pushed in this race by wealthy Republican businessman Joe O'Dea, who has struck a moderate chord, particularly on abortion rights and partisanship.

The race looks like it could be decided in single digits, though Bennet is still favored. Democrats started to spend more money in the state to help shore it up. They have hit O'Dea on gun safety and are accusing him of "talking out of both sides of his mouth" on abortion.

Republican outside groups, on the other hand, perhaps seeing the Democratic lean of the state, have not played as strongly here as some other places. Resources are finite, and Republicans are happy to see Democrats have to use some of theirs in this Democratic-leaning state. Previous: 10

10. FLORIDA (R-Rubio) LIKELY R

<strong>Left:</strong> Val Demings (D-FL) questions during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on November 19, 2019. <strong>Right: </strong>U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio addresses the New Hampshire Rockingham Committee Freed Founder's Dinner on May 9, 2014.
/ Shawn Thew - Pool/Getty Images; Scott Eisen/Getty Images
/
Shawn Thew - Pool/Getty Images; Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Left: Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., questions during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 19, 2019. Right: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio addresses the New Hampshire Rockingham Committee Freed Founder's Dinner on May 9, 2014.

Florida has continued to trend Republican, and incumbent Marco Rubio has leaned into that. He's gone after the "radical left" — even airing ads claiming, "They indoctrinate children and try to turn boys into girls. ... If you speak out, they ban you on social media and call you a racist."

His strategy has been to try and tie his challenger, Democratic Rep. Val Demings, a former police chief in Orlando, to progressive policies. Demings has raised significant amounts of money and polls had shown her making this a race over the summer. But, as so often happens, as voting gets closer, the partisan lean of a state tends to weigh out.

Something to watch in Florida elections is what effect the recovery from Hurricane Ian will have. The campaigns were still scrambling to figure that out in the final weeks. Previous: 9

11. WASHINGTON (D-Murray) LIKELY D

The Senate race here has become one where Democrats are taking no chances. Incumbent Democrat Patty Murray has been trying to stave off a fairly strong challenge from Republican veterans advocate Tiffany Smiley.

Smiley has hammered Murray on inflation, crime and homelessness in the state, and recent surveys have shown her outpacing Murray with independents. Murray is still the favorite in this state Biden won by 20 points, but her lead in public and private polling has gone into single digits in the last few weeks. Outside groups Women Vote and EMILY's List have poured in more than $6 million on TV ads in recent weeks to boost Murray, focusing on abortion rights.

Murray has touted her tenure and some pieces of recently passed Democratic legislation, even as Smiley has tried to use those very things against her. Previous: unranked


Notes: Pay attention to the margin in the Iowa Senate race, where Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is up for reelection. The contest appeared to tighten recently. ... Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the only Republican senator standing for reelection this year who voted for Trump's impeachment after Jan. 6. She is likely to win, thanks, in part, to ranked-choice voting.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tags
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.