The Memo: Here are the three states that will decide control of the Senate

The crucial battles in the midterm elections are coming into sharp focus with less than four weeks to go.

Republicans are expected to prevail in their quest to retake the House majority. But the Senate is a different story.

Control of the upper chamber, currently split 50-50, is on a knife-edge. The fight will be decided by whoever can eke out victories in a handful of states.

Three states are more important than all others — not only because the races are close but because they give one party or the other their best chance to flip a seat.


Although GOP candidate Mehmet Oz has struggled in the general election race, Democrat John Fetterman’s health is proving to be a wildcard for the November election. (Associated Press)

The race in the Keystone State was guaranteed to be one of the nation’s most high profile from the moment Mehmet Oz — better known as TV’s “Dr. Oz”— won the Republican nomination, powered by the endorsement of former President Trump.

But Oz has struggled in the general election. Part of the problem has been his difficulties in uniting Republicans behind him after a divisive primary. He has also faced the constant accusation that he is an out-of-touch out-of-stater, given his wealth, his fame and his longtime residency in New Jersey.

Still, Oz has made significant progress in closing a Fetterman lead that was in the double digits in a couple of summer polls. 

Part of the issue may simply be GOP voters coming home. But Oz has also found traction with his attacks on Fetterman as purportedly soft on crime.

Fetterman, as Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, also chairs the state’s Board of Pardons. The board has recommended far more commutations of life sentences during his tenure than before he took the helm. Fetterman evinces pride in his role as a criminal justice reformer. But some of the attacks have clearly hit the mark.

The real wild card, electorally speaking, is Fetterman’s health. 

The Democrat suffered a stroke earlier this year. 

He can sometimes mangle words, and he has auditory processing issues that often require him to used closed captioning — even though medical experts emphasize this problem should not be confused with cognitive impairment.

“Of all the issues, that has remained transcendent,” said Terry Madonna, the senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Millersville University, and a longtime expert on Pennsylvania politics. “The question of, ‘Is he able to serve?’ has remained a viable issue for the Oz campaign.”

Madonna noted that other issues remain salient, including crime, which advantages Republicans; and abortion, which advantages Democrats.

“I wouldn’t begin to predict who is going to win,” Madonna said.

Fetterman was leading by 3.4 percentage points in the RealClearPolitics (RCP) polling average on Thursday evening.

If he holds on to win, it will be a huge moment for Democrats as the GOP would need to pick up two other seats to take control of the Senate. Democrats would be able to afford one loss.  

The seat is being vacated by a retiring Republican, Sen. Pat Toomey.


Sen. Raphael Warnock has had a narrow lead in the polls despite the drama circulating around allegations from the mother of one of Herschel Walker’s children. (Greg Nash/Associated Press)

Republicans once had high hopes of notching a win in Georgia with a defeat of Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), who has only been in office since January 2021.

The state remains Republican leaning, even though Biden, Warnock and Sen. Jon Ossoff (D) all won narrow victories in the 2020 cycle. Like all Democrats, Warnock is also running into the headwinds of inflation, Biden’s low approval ratings and the historic pattern in which a president’s party almost always loses seats in the first midterms of his tenure.

Warnock has a narrow lead in the polls, however. The RCP average puts him ahead of former football star Herschel Walker by 3.3 points. Data and polling site FiveThirtyEight gives Warnock a 60 percent chance of prevailing.

Warnock has a capacity to draw in moderate voters, something that he has reinforced with campaign ads focused on conspicuously nonpartisan issues like improvements to the port of Savannah and support for the state’s peanut farmers.

But above all, Warnock has been lucky in his opponent.

Walker, another Trump endorsee, had raised eyebrows even before being hit with scandal, thanks to idiosyncratic comments about issues like climate change.

The big drama in the race has come this month, with allegations from the mother of one of Walker’s children that he had previously paid for her to have an abortion.

Walker is running a vigorously anti-abortion campaign — he does not believe terminations should be legal even in cases of rape or incest — and so he now faces charges of hypocrisy. He denies paying for, or even knowing about, the woman’s abortion.

Warnock, a pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist — the church where Dr. Martin Luther King served as co-pastor — has some problems of his own relating to a contentious custody battle. But they are less lurid and politically explosive than the accusations aimed at Walker.

The two will meet for a crucial debate on Friday night.

“The big question is whether either one of the two candidates makes a misstatement — the kind of misstatement that could be repeated” and go viral, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. 

Given the closeness of the race, such an error “could be determinative” Bullock added.

The debate, to be held in Savannah, will be hosted by Nexstar Media, the parent company of The Hill.

Georgia is also unusual in that it requires a candidate to win more than 50 percent of the votes cast to avoid a runoff. The quest is complicated for Warnock and Walker by the presence of a third-party candidate, Chase Oliver of the Libertarian Party.

“If the election were held today, I think Warnock would lead,” said Bullock. “But I doubt he would get a majority. We might well be heading for another vote in December.”


The outcome of the Nevada Senate race between Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Adam Laxalt will be an important test of where the Democratic Party stands with Latino voters. (Greg Nash/Associated Press)

Republicans uneasy about Pennsylvania and Georgia have one significant cause for optimism — and it comes in the Silver State.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is, as of Thursday, the only incumbent Democratic senator trailing in the polls — albeit by a very narrow margin. She lags her Republican opponent Adam Laxalt by a little less than 2 points in the RCP average.

Laxalt is clearly identified with the pro-Trump “MAGA” wing of the GOP. But he is a former attorney general in the state, and his boosters argue he has broader appeal than some more fractious pro-Trump candidates in other states.

Cortez Masto has challenges, including an economy that was particularly susceptible to COVID-19 lockdowns because of how heavily it relies on the hospitality and gaming industries.

Cortez Masto, the only Latina to ever serve as a U.S. senator, is also not the most magnetic of candidates.

“She is not a very dynamic, charismatic individual at all, just as her predecessor [the late Sen. Harry Reid] was not,” said Jon Ralston, the CEO of the Nevada Independent, and one of the state’s best-known political journalists. “She is very disciplined and hard-working behind the scenes, but she is not going to wow too many voters. The base of the Democratic Party probably dislikes Laxalt more than they like her.”

But Ralston argues Laxalt has weaknesses too, and has only avoided the negative national attention visited on the likes of Oz because he gives few interviews beyond ideologically-friendly media outlets.

The race in Nevada will also be closely watched to see if the Democratic Party’s hold on Latino voters continues to weaken.

If that happens, it’s likely the end of the road for Cortez Masto. But such an outcome is far from certain.

“It’s the cliché of clichés in politics, but it really is going to come down to turnout,” said Ralston.

Tags 2022 midterms Adam Laxalt Catherine Cortez Masto Donald Trump Georgia Herschel Walker Herschel Walker John Fetterman John Fetterman Madonna Mehmet Oz Mehmet Oz Nevada Pennsylvania Rafael Warnock Raphael Warnock

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