A lot can change in a couple of months. Democrats now face a midterm environment that looks decidedly brighter than it was in the middle of the summer.
There were glimmers of optimism back in July for the party trying to hold on to its narrow Senate majority, in the immediate aftermath of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The ruling appeared to energize the Democratic base – something the party had been struggling with given President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings.
Strong performances by Democrats in special House elections and a defeated anti-abortion ballot initiative in deep-red Kansas have given them more confidence that running on abortion, especially when framed in terms of rights and liberties, can be effective.
On top of that, Democrats have enacted a sweeping health care, tax and climate law, gas prices have come down and former President Donald Trump has thrust himself back in the headlines by revealing the FBI’s search of his Mar-a-Lago home, offering a foil for Biden and the party in power.
At the individual Senate race level, Republican candidates are struggling – both with fundraising, which is nothing new, and with how to adapt to a general electorate after months of trying to appeal to Trump and his base during the primaries. There have been frequent stories, for example, about GOP nominees scrubbing their websites of Trump-centric rhetoric and hard-line anti-abortion stances.
It hasn’t helped that the two men who are ostensibly in charge of winning Republicans the Senate – Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee – have sparred publicly about midterm strategy. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” McConnell said last month, before later describing the GOP’s chances of flipping the Senate as a “50/50 proposition.” Scott responded in an op-ed without mentioning the Kentucky Republican by name, writing, “If you want to trash-talk our candidates to help Democrats, pipe down.”
The shifting winds, both nationally and in specific races, have resulted in several changes to this month’s ranking of the top 10 Senate seats most likely to flip since CNN’s last list in July. The ranking is based on CNN’s reporting, fundraising and advertising data, and polling, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed. Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson is the only Republican running for reelection in a state Biden carried, moves up the list as several public polls show him in a vulnerable position. And Arizona, where Republican Blake Masters has struggled to fundraise, moves down the list as allies have either not yet come to his defense or have actively moved money away from his race to shore up seats such as Ohio, which bumps up one spot in the rankings – at least for now.
Despite the recent good news for Democrats and the structural fact that this year’s battleground states were largely won by Biden two years ago, Republicans still have a good shot of winning the Senate, especially with the economy in flux. All they need is a net gain of one seat. Biden’s approval numbers may have improved slightly in certain polls, but that’s not saying much considering most Americans still disapprove of his performance. And the historical trend of first-term presidents seeing their party lose congressional majorities in the midterms looms large.
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
Amid all the viral jeering in Pennsylvania – whether over crudités or Snooki – the real question heading into the post-Labor Day sprint is whether Republican voters will “come home” for Senate nominee Mehmet Oz. That is: Will they show up and cast their ballots for the celebrity doctor, who doesn’t seem to have used the summer to try to repair his image after an ugly May primary? That’s one reason why Pennsylvania, which Biden narrowly won in 2020, remains the seat most likely to flip this fall, as Oz and Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman vie to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.
But in this critical battleground, which saw visits from both Biden and Trump over the holiday weekend, the race is expected to tighten – the question is by how much. As it tries to make up lost ground, Oz’s campaign has been mocking Fetterman’s health in the wake of his May stroke – an unusual and arguably risky strategy coming from a cardiothoracic surgeon. (Fetterman, newly back on the trail, struggles with “auditory processing,” his campaign has acknowledged.) Outside Republicans are sticking to a more predictable script, trying to paint Fetterman, who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign for president, as weak on crime.
The Democrat has responded in ads of his own by mocking Oz’s “Gucci loafers” and arguing that he couldn’t hack it in Braddock, the western Pennsylvania borough where Fetterman served as mayor. “We did whatever it took to fund our police,” Fetterman says in one spot – an example of how Democratic candidates this cycle are trying to get ahead of GOP efforts to tie them to “defund the police” rhetoric.
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
Nevada, a state that Biden won by about 2 points in 2020, remains the seat second most likely to flip. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto didn’t start off the cycle as well defined as other swing-state Democratic incumbents facing reelection for the first time, and she’s running in a state with a transient population where economic concerns remain pressing. Her challenger, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt – the grandson of a former governor and senator with the same last name – secured support early on from both McConnell and Trump and comfortably won his primary in June.
But if there’s one issue that could work in Democrats’ favor come November, regardless of economic conditions, it may be abortion. A recent ad from Cortez Masto uses audio of Laxalt calling Roe v. Wade a “joke.” The Republican has attempted to defuse such efforts to paint him as a threat to abortion rights, arguing in an August op-ed that he does not support a national abortion ban and that voters already settled Nevada’s “pro-choice” policy. However, both Democrats and Republicans acknowledge that the issue of abortion has some power here to make a difference. Whether it’ll be salient enough for voters when they enter the voting booth, however, remains to be seen.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
The Badger State moves up two spots on this list, with the seat now looking more likely to flip than it did in the middle of the summer.
At least two public polls have suggested GOP incumbent Ron Johnson is in trouble against Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who easily won last month’s Democratic primary after his closest challengers dropped out and endorsed him. Barnes was at 50% to Johnson’s 46% among registered voters in Fox’s mid-August survey, which was within the poll’s margin of error. In a Marquette Law School poll taken around the same time, Barnes led Johnson 51% to 44%. In both surveys, inflation was the most important issue to voters, which should benefit Republicans. (Voters who said inflation was the most important issue for their Senate vote overwhelmingly broke for Johnson in the Fox poll.) As it has in other states, the GOP-aligned nonprofit group One Nation has tried in ads to tie “Washington spending” to rising consumer prices. But the Marquette survey found that voters were less concerned about inflation than they had been in June, thanks to falling gas prices and costs – a positive trajectory for Democrats.
Now that they have an opponent, however, Republicans are going hard after Barnes, arguing that his numbers will look different once they’re done with their attacks. The GOP playbook so far has been to try to tie Barnes to the “squad” of House progressives, with the NRSC saying he’s “not just a Democrat, but a dangerous Democrat” in an ad about ending cash bail. Wisconsin Truth PAC, a pro-Johnson super PAC, ran an ad saying Barnes “supports defunding the police” – which the Democrat calls a “lie” in his own spot that features him unpacking groceries.
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
Georgia lands at No. 4 this month, with Wisconsin moving up. While the Peach State went blue in 2020 and elected two Democratic senators in runoffs last year, voters here have otherwise been accustomed to voting for Republicans statewide. That means Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who’s seeking a full six-year term in November, is in for a tough reelection regardless of the tailwinds his party may be picking up elsewhere.
But the wild card here is his GOP opponent, Herschel Walker, a Trump recruit whom many Republicans had tried to keep out of this race. A new ad from a Democratic outside group uses footage of the candidate and his ex-wife describing how he once put a gun to her head. (Walker has said he has dissociative identity disorder, which was previously known as multiple personality disorder, and has sought to advise people with mental health problems.) Walker has raised decent money – although his haul still pales in comparison with Warnock’s – and observers credit a staff shakeup for helping the Republican get his campaign on track.
Still, Democrats think they have plenty to attack him on, including his habit of saying controversial or illogical things when he goes off script. While Warnock has worked to build an identity that’s his own and to explain the health care, tax and climate law in his ads, Republicans have been trying to tie him to Biden and to blame the President’s agenda – and Warnock’s votes for it – for the pain Georgia voters are feeling in the grocery checkout line.
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, who’s running for a full six-year term in November, faces a tough reelection because of the ancestrally red state he’s running in. But Arizona drops a spot on this list in light of his challenger’s struggles. Republican Blake Masters won the early August primary with backing from Trump and financial support from billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel. But as CNN has reported, Thiel isn’t committing to getting him over the finish line – and Masters himself has struggled to raise money to compete with Kelly. And if he was counting on outside funding propping him up, that’s mostly gone for now – the GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund cut its September ad reservations for Masters while it moved money around to Ohio. (It still has airtime reserved in October.)
Masters has earned media attention for scrubbing his website of language that included the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, along with a section arguing that the country would be better off if Trump were still president, and some strict anti-abortion positions – a sign of how Republicans are trying to distance themselves from previously held abortion stances heading into the general election. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is attacking Masters on abortion, with one ad featuring a testimonial from a female voter: “Blake Masters has no idea what I went through, and he has no business making that decision for me.”
Republicans, meanwhile, are still hoping the conservative DNA of Arizona, which backed Biden narrowly in 2020, will help their candidate, with the NRSC blasting what it calls Kelly’s “radical, extreme America.”
6. New Hampshire
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
New Hampshire is the only competitive state with an outstanding primary. The September 13 Republican contest will decide who’s taking on first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan – and potentially how competitive that November election will be.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who unsuccessfully sought the state’s other Senate seat in 2020, led the GOP field with 43% among likely primary voters, well ahead of state Senate President Chuck Morse’s 22%, according to an August Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. That could be a concern for Republicans looking to flip this seat. Gov. Chris Sununu, whose late decision not to challenge Hassan left the GOP without a field-clearing candidate, recently called Bolduc “kind of a conspiracy theorist-type candidate.” Besides going hard right, Bolduc lacks resources. He’d raised just $579,000 by the end of the pre-primary reporting period on August 24, compared with Hassan’s $31.4 million.
The fear that Bolduc could jeopardize their chances of flipping the seat has prompted outside Republicans to boost Morse on the airwaves, which in turn has Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC attacking him. And in a sign of Republican optimism about this race, the Senate Leadership Fund has said it’s planning to spend $23 million for fall TV reservations here.
7. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
As Republicans look to hold the seat of retiring Sen. Richard Burr, they have yet another nominee who has been outraised. GOP Rep. Ted Budd had brought in more than $6 million by the end of June, while Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley had raised $16 million.
Budd won the GOP nomination with early backing from Trump, but Democrats argue he’s too conservative for a purple state – which Biden lost by a point – and is further to the right than its current GOP senators. (Sen. Thom Tillis, for example, has said he’d vote for legislation codifying same-sex and interracial marriage, a bill that Budd opposed in the House.) Democrats are hitting Budd on the airwaves over abortion, which comes amid the recent reinstatement of North Carolina’s 20-week abortion ban. Beasley, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, is trying to run as an outsider. “I like that Cheri Beasley hasn’t worked in Washington,” one woman says in an ad for the Democrat.
Budd has run hybrid ads with the NRSC that attack Biden over inflation, with montages of a little girl’s disappointed face when her mother signals they cannot afford to buy cupcakes. Another features Budd standing on an empty stage in front of a fake banner that reads “Cheri Beasley Welcomes Joe Biden” as the Republican says Biden won’t show up in North Carolina because “he’s too busy making life harder for you.” Beasley still faces an uphill battle in a state Trump carried twice, but Democrats hope that the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court may be able to juice turnout among communities that don’t always vote, especially in midterms.
Incumbent: Republican Rob Portman (retiring)
Ohio switches places with Florida this month, although that could change again before Election Day. At this moment, however, retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s seat appears more likely to flip because Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is running a better campaign than Republican J.D. Vance, who, as CNN reported, hasn’t been very active on the trail.
Perhaps even more concerning to Washington Republicans is Vance’s fundraising – Ryan had raised six times more by the end of June. All of that prompted the Senate Leadership Fund to pull ad reservations in Arizona, a state Biden narrowly won, and invest $28 million in Ohio, a state Trump twice won by 8 points. One Nation, the GOP-affiliated nonprofit group, has already been hitting Ryan for supporting legislation in Congress it asserts has worsened inflation.
Ryan has been working hard to distance himself from the national party – most recently, for example, he came out strongly against Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. He’s running on an economic populist message, declaring in an ad that he “voted with Trump on trade,” but he’s also talking about abortion. He called the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade “the largest governmental overreach into the private lives of American citizens in the history of our lifetime” on CNN’s “State of the Union” last month – one example of how Democrats have been adopting GOP rhetoric about freedom and liberty in their messaging on abortion.
Still, Ryan may soon hit a ceiling of support in this red state, and with more resources coming in from Republicans, Vance may again have the advantage. If that doesn’t start to make a difference for him soon, though, this race will deserve another closer look.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio
Florida drops one spot this month on account of Ohio moving up, but the fundamentals of the two states suggest that the Sunshine State may eventually revert to being the more competitive race for Democrats. (Trump carried it by just 3 points in 2020, less than half his margin in Ohio.) Unlike the Republican nominee in the Buckeye State, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida isn’t having the same struggles with fundraising, even though he has been outraised by his Democratic challenger, US Rep. Val Demings, who easily won her primary last month. (She had raised nearly $48 million by the beginning of August compared with Rubio’s nearly $37 million.)
Law enforcement and policing remain a big focus of the attacks between them, and Demings’ background as a former Orlando police chief provides an interesting dynamic. “I’ll protect Florida from bad ideas like defunding the police,” she says in a spot that touts her experience fighting crime. “That’s just crazy.” Rubio and the NRSC argue, however, that her voting record compares with that of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and undermines her law enforcement background. “Maybe she used to be a cop, but in Washington, Val Demings is just another radical, rubber stamp,” one of their hybrid ads says.
Incumbent: Democrat Michael Bennet
It’s hardly surprising that one of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s first negative ads in his bid for a third full term is about abortion. In a state that Biden won by nearly 14 points in 2020, Democrats are making the elimination of federal abortion rights a central part of their midterm message.
Republican nominee Joe O’Dea is responding in ads narrated by his daughter and his wife. “When Joe O’Dea says he’s American before he’s a Republican, he means it,” his wife says. O’Dea, who told CNN he disagreed with the Supreme Court’s abortion decision, is trying to cast himself as a moderate. But Democrats are quick to point out that he voted for a failed 2020 state ballot measure to ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy. And O’Dea acknowledges he would’ve voted to confirm the conservative justices who backed overturning Roe v. Wade. (He also said he would have supported Obama-nominated Justice Elena Kagan, who dissented in the high court’s abortion ruling.)
Democrats still remember when overplaying the abortion issue cost them a Senate race here in 2014. And Bennet, who won reelection in 2016 by less than 6 points against a challenger without national GOP backing, knows he’ll need support beyond the Democratic base to win in light-blue Colorado. He recently criticized the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness announcement, for example, saying it should have been further targeted. And he’s tried to convey an across-the-aisle appeal in advertising, with a fly fishing instructor in a recent ad stating, “I’m not a Democrat, but I know Michael doesn’t take the bait from Washington.”