Candidates for the Democratic Senate appear to be doing well.
Just a few months ago, Republicans were widely regarded as the favorites to take control of the Senate after the pivotal US midterm elections in November. Given the current 50-50 split, Republicans only need to flip one seat to regain the majority in the upper house.
But now, with the nomination of several controversial Republican candidates and a recent string of Democratic legislative victories, many election forecasters are rethinking their predictions. Democrats now seem better positioned to retain the Senate than at any other point in this election cycle, although experts emphasize that the outlook for November could change significantly again.
Democrats have the advantage of a favorable Senate card this year, as they will not be defending seats in states carried by Donald Trump in 2020.
Democrats’ prospects have also been helped by Republicans’ failure to recruit top candidates in several states, including incumbent governors Doug Ducey of Arizona and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire. Instead, vulnerable Republicans secured nominations in a number of key battlefield states, often with Trump’s backing.
In Georgia, former professional soccer player Herschel Walker has faced a scandal for failing to acknowledge the existence of two secret children and abusing his ex-wife. Walker has acknowledged the abuse and said he was suffering from mental illness at the time.
In Pennsylvania, famed physician Mehmet Oz alienated voters because of his questionable past health claims and his lengthy residency in New Jersey before deciding to run for office.
Ohio author JD Vance struggles to gain a foothold, most recently being criticized for his now-closed nonprofit dedicated to fighting opioid addiction promoting the work of a doctor with ties to the pharmaceutical industry.
While Republican candidates have stumbled, Democrats have enjoyed a wave of victories on Capitol Hill.
Last week, Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping spending package that includes hundreds of billions of dollars in investments aimed at reducing planet-heating emissions and lowering Americans’ health care costs.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade, ending the federal right to abortion, also appears to be driving voters to the polls. Democrat Pat Ryan won a hotly contested special congressional race in New York on Tuesday after running a campaign aimed at protecting abortion rights.
Republican Senate candidates have indicated that abortion rights could be a weakness for them in the November election. Blake Masters, who is running against Democratic Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona, this week changed his campaign website to remove some language expressing his support for strict abortion restrictions.
All those developments seem to resonate in several key Senate races. According to FiveThirtyEight, Democrats have taken a slight lead in Ohio and Georgia, while party candidates in Pennsylvania and Arizona have opened larger gaps of eight to nine points.
“Pensions, failed recruits and vile primaries — coupled with Trump’s endorsement — have left Republicans with a roster of flawed and deeply damaged candidates, while Democrats have strong, battle-tested incumbents and challengers backed by their own. unique coalition of voters, Christie Roberts, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a memo late last month.
Even senior Republicans have acknowledged that the tide has turned against them in the Senate battle. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Monday the party’s chances of regaining control of the chamber were “50-50”.
“We now have a 50-50 Senate. We have a 50-50 nation,” McConnell said at a business lunch in Kentucky. “And I think the outcome will be very, very close anyway.”
Election forecasters have also picked up on this shift in momentum. FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model now says Democrats have a bit of a preference for maintaining control of the Senate, while the Cook Political Report last week updated its Senate prediction to “toss up.”
“I would have said, before the primaries started in earnest in early May, that Republicans had at least a 60% chance of overturning Senate control,” said Jessica Taylor, editor of Cook’s Senate and Governors. “We see it now as a pure fling, and I see everywhere between Democrats picking up one seat and Republicans picking up three.”
Democrats don’t throw away this newfound advantage, but make it a point to highlight the weaknesses of their opponents. An anti-Trump group ran an ad in which Walker’s ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, described how he once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her.
The Ohio Democratic Party bought the abandoned website of Vance’s defunct nonprofit and added a greeting to its homepage that read, “This site no longer exists because JD Vance is a fraud.”
Democrat John Fetterman in Pennsylvania has made more and more humorous efforts to troll his opponent. At one point, Fetterman’s campaign circulated a petition calling for Oz to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Fetterman has even gone so far as to enlist the help of celebrities such as Nicole “Snooki” Polizzifrom the reality TV show Jersey Shore, to movie ads encouraging Oz to come home to New Jersey.
Democratic candidates for the senate have also had a little cash advantage in recent months. The DSCC reported revenue of $10 million in July, marking the fourth straight month that the group sidelined its counterpart, the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The NRSC recently halted its ad purchases in three battlefield states, raising questions about potential financial problems, though the committee vehemently opposed that speculation.
“We have invested in building our grassroots fundraising program, which has paid off this cycle and will benefit the NRSC and the party as a whole in the cycles to come,” Chris Hartline, the NRSC’s communications director, said Monday. “We work closely with all of our campaigns and will continue to do so.”
But even if the Democrats manage to retain control of the Senate, Republicans still prefer to take back the House, in part because of their success in the realignment. If Congress is divided after the midterm elections, Democrats will face serious hurdles in trying to advance their legislative agenda.
“In that scenario, I expect that [House] Republicans go too far week after week, passing one form of extreme legislation after another if they don’t try to investigate the Biden administration. All of this will die a quick, painful death in the Senate,” said Jim Manley, who served as senior adviser to Harry Reid, the late Democratic Senate leader.
While it may be difficult to pass bills, a Democratic Senate majority could still bring significant rewards to Biden, especially when it comes to presidential nominations. If another Supreme Court seat becomes vacant between now and 2024, a Democratic Senate would help Biden add another liberal judge to the bench.
“While there may not be much of a chance for legislation because the House will be dominated by extremists, that doesn’t mean nothing can be done,” Manley said. “Maybe there will be a chance or two to work on a bipartisan basis after some negotiation, but I think the Senate would spend most of their time in such a scenario confirming judicial nominees.”
While things are looking good for Democrats now, experts are warning that November is a political eternity away and historical trends are working in their favor. The president’s party usually loses seats in midterm elections, and Biden’s approval rating has been under water for about a year now, which could be enough for Republicans to flip the Senate.
“While it’s better for the Democrats, it could backfire. This could just be a speck on the radar. I wouldn’t be shocked if it does and we’ve returned to a mid-term stagnation, where the party emerging from power is the momentum,” Taylor said. “But even if the Democrats can cut that, it could mean preserving the Senate.”