‘Candidate quality issues’ aside, Republicans have a real shot at the Senate
While Republicans are seen as heavy favorites to win control of the House of Representatives in this year’s midterms, the fate of the Senate is much less certain, though Democrats do appear to have a narrow advantage.
One explanation for this disparity is the nature of House and Senate contests. House races are primarily tied to public sentiment and correlate with presidential approval, while individual candidates matter much more in Senate races.
Presidents with an approval rating below 50 percent — as President Biden’s has been for most of his term — see their party lose an average of 37 House seats in the midterms. When Americans are dissatisfied with how things are going in the country — as the public is today — this also typically translates into considerable gains in the House for the out-party.
However, a wave election in the House does not guarantee the same in the Senate. 2010 was a historically strong midterm year for Republicans — the GOP picked up 63 House seats — yet Democrats retained their Senate majority.
This year, the combination of the anti-Democratic national political environment, historical midterm trends that benefit the out-party, and high levels of GOP voter enthusiasm will likely be enough for Republicans to flip the House by a comfortable margin.
However, the weaknesses of individual Republican Senate candidates in toss-up races are a drag on the GOP’s chances of flipping the upper chamber and are giving Democrats a reasonable chance of retaining their slim Senate majority in an otherwise weak year for the party.
But will Republican candidates’ extreme positions and lack of experience ultimately prevent the party from flipping the Senate, or will traditional midterm forces and a favorable national issues agenda for the GOP enable them to prevail?
Control of the Senate will come down to a handful of races — including Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Ohio — all of which are states that Biden carried by less than two points in 2020, or in the case of Ohio, Donald Trump won.
Georgia — which Biden carried by two-tenths of 1 percent in 2020 — is one state where the broader anti-Democratic sentiment is most likely to trump candidate quality.
Even though the Republican candidate, Herschel Walker, is a former NFL star with no political experience who has promoted conspiracy theories about evolution, he is effectively tied in the race with incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Anti-Democratic and anti-Biden sentiments are strong in the state, 57 percent of voters disapprove of the president, per recent CBS polling. And in addition to having overwhelming support from his party, Walker leads among older voters, White men and women, and conservatives — generally considered to be the most reliable groups to turnout — and, just as importantly, has a narrow advantage with Independents.
Further, as is the case nationally, the economy and inflation are Georgia voters’ top concerns, and these issues favor Republicans. The majority of voters who say the economy is very important to their vote are supporting Walker (56 percent) over Warnock (44 percent).
In Pennsylvania, Republican nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz is faring slightly worse than Walker. Pennsylvania is a solidly purple state — and a more traditional Republican would likely lead this year — yet Oz is seen as an inexperienced, out-of-touch millionaire from a different state, a characterization that Democrat John Fetterman’s campaign has worked to reinforce.
However, the race has tightened, and a new Emerson College poll shows Oz trailing by just 2-points, 45 percent to 43 percent. The narrowing of the race has coincided with the recent string of bad news with the economy — which tracks, as the economy is by far the most important issue for Pennsylvania voters (39 percent), much more so than democracy (14 percent) or abortion access (13 percent).
In Arizona, Trump-backed venture capitalist and far-right candidate Blake Masters trails incumbent Mark Kelly by more than 5-points. While Kelly is viewed as one of the best-positioned Democratic swing-state Senate candidates, his lead has diminished since August, and Republicans have an 8-point voter enthusiasm advantage in the state, per Fox News polling.
Further, likely Arizona voters are more favorable toward Donald Trump (50 percent) than toward President Biden (41 percent), a recent poll by Data for Progress shows. The issues agenda is also working in Masters’ favor, as Arizona voters widely prioritize economic issues (45 percent) over abortion rights (18 percent).
However, Masters’ path is much less certain than Walker’s or even Oz’s. His promotion of far-right conspiracy theories and his anti-mainstream positions make him a uniquely weak candidate and have translated to a fundraising disadvantage. A Super PAC aligned with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) recently canceled $10 million in ad buys in the state in anticipation of a Masters loss.
The Ohio Senate race is one of the best examples of how candidate quality can trump broader political trends. While Trump won the state by 8 points in both 2016 and 2020, polling is extremely close between Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan and Trump-endorsed Republican J.D. Vance.
Vance’s inexperience as well as his comments degrading women, law enforcement, and victims of rape and domestic abuse are keeping the door open for a Ryan victory. Ryan has also run an expert campaign that could be a model for Democrats to win back white working-class voters — still, even so, Vance still holds a slight lead in the race, which underscores the power of the current anti-Democratic sentiment in swing- and right-leaning states.
Given the deteriorating state of the economy, there is a decent chance that the national anti-Democratic tide could override the negatives of Walker, Oz, Masters and Vance. It is also worth noting that Senate polls in the last election had a Democratic bias of 5-points, according to FiveThirtyEight — which could signal an even more pro-Republican outcome than is anticipated.
Ultimately, the mere fact that these objectively weak GOP candidates are running so close to politically viable Democrats is indicative of the energy on the Republican side and the weakness of the national Democratic Party.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. His new book is “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.”