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Don’t be so sure that Republicans will win the Senate 

Democrats, including the president, are hardly coasting on high approval ratings, but polls still show the GOP will have a tough time translating that into a legislative sweep.

BOSTON (CN) — Expectations that Republicans will win control of the U.S. Senate in November, like the apocryphal reports of Mark Twain’s death, may have been greatly exaggerated.  

Republicans face an uphill battle and could very easily lose seats, despite political winds in their favor with President Biden’s approval rating hovering near 40% and as many as three-quarters of Americans telling pollsters that the country is on the wrong track.  

“Right now I’d say the Democrats are very slightly favored” to hold the Senate, said David Niven, who teaches American politics at the University of Cincinnati. 

“Based on the fundamentals, you’d rather have the Republicans’ hand this year, but when you look at it race by race, the Democrats are not in bad shape,” agreed Stephen Medvic, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. 

This is due to the peculiarity of which seats are in play this year, some key Republican retirements, and the fact that the GOP has repeatedly followed its 2016 playbook at the state level and nominated celebrity political neophytes rather than proven vote-getters. 

“The problem with rookie candidates is that they make rookie mistakes. They’re more likely to do stupid things,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Such a candidate “can’t necessarily win a race for your party, but they can definitely screw it up.” 

“Candidates matter in close races,” agreed Medvic. “We’ve seen this in past cycles, where Republicans nominate someone the base may be excited about but who makes mistakes and goes down to defeat.” Three such candidates over the years were Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010, Todd Akin in Missouri in 2012 and Roy Moore in Alabama in 2017.  

President Trump in particular has pushed the party to embrace political amateurs. “In high-profile races, you’d ordinarily want someone who’s experienced and battle-tested,” Medvic said, “but that’s not Trump’s approach. He likes celebrity. And it’s risky.” 

Niven commented that, “in state after state, Republicans have nominated some variation of Trump rather than the strongest candidate.” 

With the current Senate split 50-50, Republicans need a net gain of one seat to take control. They have targeted four Democratic incumbents they hope to pick off — and yet not one of the Republican challengers in those states is ahead in the polls. 

Meanwhile, Republicans must defend five seats of their own, including a vulnerable incumbent in Wisconsin and four states where the incumbent is retiring, and the party must hold onto an open seat with an untested candidate. Polls are close in most of those states and in one, Pennsylvania, the Democrat is clearly ahead. 

Here’s a look at the nine races that will likely decide control of the Senate: 

The Democratic Seats That Republicans Hope to Flip 

President Donald Trump elbow bumps with Herschel Walker during a Sept. 25, 2020, campaign rally in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

GEORGIA.  Incumbent Democrat and minister Raphael Warnock is squaring off against Heisman trophy winner and legendary running back Herschel Walker, who has never run for office before. Walker has “hero status” in Georgia and does very well among voters old enough to remember his exploits in the early 1980s, said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. 

But although Walker is Black, he’s polling at only 7% among Black voters in one recent poll, which showed the race tied overall. 

Walker has the support of Trump, but he also has a checkered history including numerous public falsehoods about his business and personal affairs, the recent disclosure of three out-of-wedlock children, allegations of domestic abuse, and the fact that he has dissociative identity disorder and has acknowledged having 12 different personalities. 

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“Herschel Walker has more baggage than the Atlanta airport,” said Bullock. “A whole lot of his biography turns out not to exist.” 

Warnock recently released an ad that showed Walker claiming on television that he could somehow cure Covid with a body spray. “When your opponent is running ads that consist entirely of you talking, that’s not usually a good sign,” Smith observed dryly. 

Although polls show the candidates in a dead heat, Walker could easily “self-destruct,” said Bullock, because he “cruised through the primary signing footballs and taking pictures with people but we still don’t know his positions on Medicaid expansion or the Second Amendment or Ukraine.” Once he starts getting tough questions, “he could say things that cause weakly identified Republicans and independents to say that he’s a hell of a football player but he’s not ready for the Senate.” 

ARIZONA. Incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly won a special election in 2020 with 51% of the vote in a state that went for Biden by 0.3%. While the state is closely divided, Republicans failed to persuade Governor Doug Ducey to enter the race, and Kelly’s opponent will be decided in an Aug. 2 primary featuring five lesser-known candidates. 

Earlier this month Trump endorsed Blake Masters, a protégé of venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who immediately rocketed to a slight lead in the polls after languishing for months in fourth place. Masters generated controversy in April when he blamed America’s gun violence problem on “Black people, frankly.” He also claimed in ads that “Trump won in 2020” and characterized Roe v. Wade as “genocide.”  

If Masters wins the primary, he will be another political neophyte picked by Republicans to go up against an established Democratic candidate. 

Masters is opposed in the primary by Mark Brnovich, the state attorney general whom Trump called a “disappointment” and blasted as “politically correct” for accepting the 2020 election results, and energy executive Jim Lamon who has spent $13 million of his own money in the race. 

Head-to-head polling between Kelly and his Republican rivals has been scarce. The Cook Political Report rates the contest a toss-up.  

NEVADA. “Nevada is the state where the Democrats are most vulnerable,” said Anthony Chergosky, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the country’s first Latina senator, is facing off against Adam Laxalt, the grandson of Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt and the illegitimate son of New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, who didn’t acknowledge having an affair with the older Laxalt’s lobbyist daughter until 2013. 

Although Nevada has voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections, “it has not become the Democratic party stronghold that it looked like it was on the way to becoming,” said Chergosky. “It’s highly competitive.” The state is more than a quarter Hispanic, and “the Latino vote is not static; it’s very much in play,” he said.  

Polls show a highly fluid race. Polling in the state is notoriously difficult due to a high transient population and a large number of tourism and casino employees who work late-night shifts. 

Laxalt, who was endorsed by Trump, has questioned the validity of the 2020 election and called Supreme Court Justice-designate Ketanji Brown Jackson a “pedophile apologist.”  

Cortez Masto has the advantage of incumbency, but she is a one-term senator who won her election in 2016 with only 47% of the vote and she hasn’t yet reached that mark in any of the recent polls. Incumbency is also less of an advantage in a highly transient state where voters might not have long-term familiarity with a candidate. 

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In efforts to distance herself from the Biden administration, meanwhile, Cortez Masto has called for an end to mask mandates on airplanes and opposed Biden’s rollback of Title 42, which allowed border agents to refuse entry to migrants to mitigate the effects of Covid. 

NEW HAMPSHIRE. Incumbent Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan is vulnerable here due to inflation and high gas prices, but the state’s two marquee Republicans — Governor Chris Sununu and former Senator Kelly Ayotte — both declined to run against her. That created an eight-way skirmish among lesser-known Republicans that won’t be settled until a very late primary on September 13, at which point the winner might well have spent whatever funds he or she raised on the primary battle and struggle against the better-funded Hassan. 

Polling of the Republican primary has been virtually nonexistent. Among the eight candidates, the most establishment figure and the one who has raised the most money is state Senate President Chuck Morse. But “while state senate president sounds like a prominent position, in New Hampshire it’s not,” noted Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. 

Morse is a mainstream Republican who “is not especially Trumpy” and supported Jeb Bush in 2016, according to Scala. His top rivals include Londonderry town manager Kevin Smith and Brigadier General Donald Bolduc, a right-wing candidate who ran for the Senate in 2020 with ads that called him a “badass” and derided his opponents as “a bunch of liberal socialist pansies.”  

Trump hasn’t endorsed any of the candidates. 

Hassan’s ads have also attempted to distance her from the Biden administration and show that she cares about gas prices and inflation. But this is tricky because Hassan has always been “a mainstream Democrat, not a Manchin or a Sinema,” Scala noted, although Smith says that “she’s cautious and hasn’t made a lot of noise on social issues.” 

While Hassan is the favorite on paper, Scala says the race is hard to call because “the general barometers are blowing orange if not red for Democrats” and New Hampshire has a 20-year history of punishing the president’s party in midterms. 

The Republican Seats That Democrats Hope to Flip 

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, center, visits a Democratic Party event at the Steamfitters Technology Center in Harmony, Pa., on March 4, 2022, where candidates were meeting and collecting ballot petition signatures for the upcoming Pennsylvania primary election. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PENNSYLVANIA. With Republican Senator Pat Toomey retiring, Pennsylvania is the Democrats’ best opportunity to pick up a seat. Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman is consistently leading in the polls against Trump-backed Republican Mehmet Oz, a celebrity TV doctor and the first Muslim nominated for the Senate by a major party. 

Fetterman “seems like he was designed in a lab to fix the Democratic Party’s problems in rural areas,” said Chergosky. The candidate is 6-foot-8 with a bald head and a goatee and regularly sports Carhartt sweatshirts and baggy basketball shorts. “He’s the physical embodiment of Pennsylvania,” Republican strategist Sarah Longwell quoted Democratic voters as saying. 

Medvic calls him “a throwback” and “an old-fashioned working-class Democrat.” 

Fetterman has health issues; he suffered a stroke during the campaign and has revealed a serious heart problem. “I almost died,” he said. So far, though, his near-death experience hasn’t affected his popularity, nor have Republican attempts to call him a radical socialist and link him to Senator Bernie Sanders. 

Oz won the primary with 31% in a multiple-candidate field and beat hedge fund manager David McCormick by only 951 votes, a result that required weeks of tabulating including a mandatory recount. Attack ads had painted Oz as a slick Hollywood celebrity who recently changed his views and moved to the Keystone State in order to run for office.  

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Oz is “a uniquely inauthentic candidate,” Niven said. 

Medvic noted that “most Republicans wanted someone else,” and “he now has to work hard to generate enthusiasm among Republicans who still fear he’s not a genuine conservative.”  

Midterm turnout could be boosted by a highly contentious governor’s race featuring a Trump-endorsed far-right candidate who wants to ban abortions even to save the life of the mother. “If a lot of people turn out, that could help Fetterman,” Medvic said. 

Democrats do well in Pennsylvania by winning the big cities and key suburbs and limiting Republican margins in rural areas. The key question is whether a smooth TV doctor can turn out large numbers of rural voters when pitted against a burly Democrat who wears working-class attire over his numerous tattoos. Right now, Dr. Oz’s prognosis is questionable at best. 

WISCONSIN. Republican Senator Ron Johnson once promised not to run for a third term but he’s doing so anyway, and Democrats hope to flip his seat in a state that went heavily for their party in the 2018 midterms and voted for Biden in 2020. A recent Marquette poll showed Johnson with only a 37% favorability rating (versus 46% unfavorable). “He’s the most endangered Republican in the Senate, and Wisconsin is the Democrats’ best chance to pick up a seat after Pennsylvania,” said Chergosky. 

Most polls show Johnson in a statistical dead heat with his top Democratic rivals, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes and Alex Lasry, whose family owns the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team. The two and some other Democrats will face off in an Aug. 9 primary. 

Johnson is a staunch Trump supporter who once called man-made climate change “lunacy” and has been accused by opponents of spreading misinformation about Covid, election fraud and the January 6 protests. The senator is also running a “base-first strategy,” which means “he has intensely loyal supporters but he’s also uniquely polarizing,” Chergosky explained. 

Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki said the party’s strategy will be to claim that Johnson has morphed over the years from an outsider former business executive to “a conspiracy-theory-fueled crank.” 

But the Democratic candidates have weaknesses as well. “Republicans are, I think, salivating to face Barnes” because he is a progressive in a purple state, said Jessica Taylor of the Cook Political Report.  

Barnes supports Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, strongly backs Senator Bernie Sanders, and has expressed admiration for Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. 

Lasry, who is 34, has few ties to the state and only moved there when his family bought the Bucks in 2014. Last year he took a tax deduction by claiming that New York was his primary residence; he later said this was an employee’s mistake and returned the money. He also received an extension that allows him not to disclose his financial information until after the primary. 

If he wins, Republicans will paint him as a “rich young carpetbagger” and “an out-of-state billionaire who wants to come here and tell us what’s what,” said Chergosky. On the other hand, Lasry has virtually unlimited resources and has shown an ability to rise high in the polls by blanketing the airwaves with TV commercials. 

Ohio Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance laughs while speaking with Spencer Johnson at a campaign event in East Canton, Ohio, on March 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Jill Colvin)

OHIO. As in Georgia and Pennsylvania, Ohio Republican primary voters picked a celebrity political neophyte — J.D. Vance, author of the popular memoir "Hillbilly Elegy," who surged ahead in the primary after Trump endorsed him. Vance is running against longtime Congressman Tim Ryan, who briefly ran for president in 2020, to replace retiring Republican Rob Portman. 

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Although Ohio has been trending Republican for a while, recent polls show a tight race within the margin of error and a lot of undecideds. 

Vance’s problems are that “he has no established connection to Ohio,” and “he doesn’t seem to be running on any purpose other than outrage,” said Niven, who added that he has “a full litany of cultural grievances” and “it’s an article of faith in the Vance campaign that you can’t be too outrageous.”  

Vance raised eyebrows when he called for a “de-Baathification program” for woke people, said “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine,” tweeted that women who thought it was better to work long hours than become mothers had “been had,” and suggested that Biden was flooding red states with fentanyl as a form of revenge. 

Ryan, on the other hand, is a “thoroughly acceptable” mainstream Democrat who is poised to capitalize, Niven said, if Vance’s more extreme comments turn off suburban voters. 

Ironically, Vance is a relatively recent Trump convert, having called him “reprehensible” in 2016 while describing his policy proposals at the time as “immoral to absurd.” 

Democrats wrote off the Ohio race early on. Priorities USA, the largest Democratic super PAC, ignored the state when it spent $30 million on digital advertising in January, as did Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC when it spent $106 million on ads. 

But with Vance winning the primary and polls now showing a close race, Ohio “is on the Democrats’ radar nationally,” Niven said. “It’s not an easy win but it’s a monumental opportunity in terms of holding the Senate.” 

NORTH CAROLINA. Polls show a tight race to replace retiring Republican Senator Richard Burr in a state where Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara considered throwing her hat in the ring. Both Lindsey Graham and Kellyanne Conway urged Lara to run, but she eventually declined and both she and her father-in law endorsed Congressman Ted Budd, who went on to defeat former Governor Pat McCrory in a primary. 

McCrory had a wide lead in the polls before the Trump family endorsement but ended up losing by 33 points. He did not endorse Budd. 

The Democratic candidate is Cheri Beasley, the state’s first Black female chief justice. She faced no primary opposition and thus has been able to conserve resources and move to the middle. 

The race has already turned negative, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee running an ad accusing Beasley of releasing child sex offenders. Some TV stations pulled the ad after complaints that it distorted the facts. 

Budd had a consistent lead in the early polls, but as the race has tightened Democrats are putting more resources into it. Schumer’s PAC recently announced a seven-figure ad buy. 

This image from video from a campaign ad by Eric Greitens for U.S. Senate shows Greitens brandishing a long gun and declaring that he's hunting RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only. The video was scraped off Facebook within a few hours on June 20, 2022. It remains live, however, on YouTube, where it's been watched thousands of times. You can also still see the video on Twitter, but you can't retweet it. (Courtesy of Eric Greitens for U.S. Senate via AP)

MISSOURI. Missouri is a solidly Republican state and Democrats ordinarily wouldn’t have much of a chance here, except that right-wing former Republican Governor Eric Greitens is running in a primary to succeed retiring Roy Blunt and has been leading in most polls. 

Greitens resigned in 2018 after allegations of sexual assault and campaign-finance improprieties fueled talk of impeachment. He created a further scandal recently by running a campaign ad in which he was shown with a high-powered weapon and a SWAT team and appeared to endorse violence against moderate Republicans. 

Polling matchups show that if Greitens wins the Aug. 2 primary, he would have a lot more trouble beating the leading Democratic candidates than the other Republican candidates would. 

Missouri’s other senator, Republican Josh Hawley, urged Greitens to quit the race in March after Greitens’ ex-wife accused him of abusing her and their children. And a super PAC led by former Missouri Republican Senator John Danforth has raised millions of dollars to back an independent candidate in the fall if Greitens is the nominee. 

Trump endorsed Greitens for governor in 2016. He said in March that he planned to make an endorsement in this year’s Missouri Senate race and he hadn’t ruled out backing Grietens again. 

“If Greitens wins the primary, Republicans could lose a state that’s eminently winnable,” Smith said. 

The bottom line. As things stand now, Republicans are likely to lose Pennsylvania and could lose one or more other states where they are running untested or controversial candidates. To make up the difference, let alone come out ahead and win control of the chamber, they need to pick off several incumbent Democrats in four states — and yet they aren’t leading in the polls in any of them. 

So while the GOP might well ride a red wave in the House of Representatives, in the Senate it is still swimming upstream.

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