The race for the Senate is in the eye of the beholder less than six weeks from Election Day, with ads about abortion, crime and inflation dominating the airwaves in key states as campaigns test the theory of the 2022 election.
The cycle started out as a referendum on President Joe Biden – an easy target for Republicans, who need a net gain of just one seat to flip the evenly divided chamber. Then the US Supreme Court’s late June decision overturning Roe v. Wade gave Democrats the opportunity to paint a contrast as Republicans struggled to explain their support for an abortion ruling that the majority of the country opposes. Former President Donald Trump’s omnipresence in the headlines gave Democrats another foil.
But the optimism some Democrats felt toward the end of the summer, on the heels of Biden’s legislative wins and the galvanizing high court decision, has been tempered slightly by the much anticipated tightening of some key races as political advertising ramps up on TV and voters tune in after Labor Day.
More on key Senate races
Republicans, who have midterm history on their side as the party out of the White House, have hammered Biden and Democrats for supporting policies they argue exacerbate inflation. Biden’s approval rating stands at 41% with 54% disapproving in the latest CNN Poll of Polls, which tracks the average of recent surveys. And with some prices inching back up after a brief hiatus, the economy and inflation – which Americans across the country identify as their top concern in multiple polls – are likely to play a crucial role in deciding voters’ preferences.
But there’s been a steady increase in ads about crime too as the GOP returns to a familiar criticism, depicting Democrats as weak on public safety. Cops have been ubiquitous in TV ads this cycle – candidates from both sides of the aisle have found law enforcement officers to testify on camera to their pro-police credentials. Democratic ads also feature women talking about the threat of a national abortion ban should the Senate fall into GOP hands, while Republicans have spent comparatively less trying to portray Democrats as the extremists on the topic.
While the issue sets have fluctuated, the Senate map hasn’t changed. Republicans’ top pickup opportunities have always been Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire – all states that Biden carried in 2020. In two of those states, however, the GOP has significant problems, although the states themselves keep the races competitive. Arizona nominee Blake Masters is now without the support of the party’s major super PAC, which thinks its money can be better spent elsewhere, including in New Hampshire, where retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc is far from the nominee the national GOP had wanted. But this is the time of year when poor fundraising can really become evident since TV ad rates favor candidates and a super PAC gets much less bang for its buck.
The race for Senate control may come down to three states: Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania, all of which are rated as “Toss-up” races by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales. As Republicans look to flip the Senate, which Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called a “50-50 proposition,” they’re trying to pick up the first two and hold on to the latter.
Senate Democrats’ path to holding their majority lies with defending their incumbents. Picking off a GOP-held seat like Pennsylvania – still the most likely to flip in CNN’s ranking – would help mitigate any losses. Wisconsin, where GOP Sen. Ron Johnson is vying for a third term, looks like Democrats’ next best pickup opportunity, but that race drops in the rankings this month as Republican attacks take a toll on the Democratic nominee in the polls.
These rankings are based on CNN’s reporting, fundraising and advertising data, and polling, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed. It will be updated one more time before Election Day.
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
The most consistent thing about CNN’s rankings, dating back to 2021, has been Pennsylvania’s spot in first place. But the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey has tightened since the primaries in May, when Republican Mehmet Oz emerged badly bruised from a nasty intraparty contest. In a CNN Poll of Polls average of recent surveys in the state, Democrat John Fetterman, the state lieutenant governor, had the support of 50% of likely voters to Oz’s 45%. (The Poll of Polls is an average of the four most recent nonpartisan surveys of likely voters that meet CNN’s standards.) Fetterman is still overperforming Biden, who narrowly carried Pennsylvania in 2020. Fetterman’s favorability ratings are also consistently higher than Oz’s.
One potential trouble spot for the Democrat: More voters in a late September Franklin and Marshall College Poll viewed Oz has having policies that would improve voters’ economic circumstances, with the economy and inflation remaining the top concern for voters across a range of surveys. But nearly five months after the primary, the celebrity surgeon still seems to have residual issues with his base. A higher percentage of Democrats were backing Fetterman than Republicans were backing Oz in a recent Fox News survey, for example, with much of that attributable to lower support from GOP women than men. Fetterman supporters were also much more enthusiastic about their candidate than Oz supporters.
Republicans have been hammering Fetterman on crime, specifically his tenure on the state Board of Pardons: An ad from the Senate Leadership Fund features a Bucks County sheriff saying, “Protect your family. Don’t vote Fetterman.” But the lieutenant governor is also using sheriffs on camera to defend his record. And with suburban voters being a crucial demographic, Democratic advertising is also leaning into abortion, like this Senate Majority PAC ad that features a female doctor as narrator and plays Oz’s comments from during the primary about abortion being “murder.” Oz’s campaign has said that he supports exceptions for “the life of the mother, rape and incest” and that “he’d want to make sure that the federal government is not involved in interfering with the state’s decisions on the topic.”
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
Republicans have four main pickup opportunities – and right now, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s seat looks like one of their best shots. Biden carried Nevada by a slightly larger margin than two of those other GOP-targeted states, but the Silver State’s large transient population adds a degree of uncertainty to this contest.
Republicans have tried to tie the first-term senator to Washington spending and inflation, which may be particularly resonant in a place where average gas prices are now back up to over $5 a gallon. Democrats are zeroing in on abortion rights and raising the threat that a GOP-controlled Senate could pass a national abortion ban. Former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt – the rare GOP nominee to have united McConnell and Trump early on – called the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling a “joke” before the Supreme Court overturned the decision in June. Democrats have been all too happy to use that comment against him, but Laxalt has tried to get around those attacks by saying he does not support a national ban and pointing out that the right to an abortion is settled law in Nevada.
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
The closer we get to Election Day, the more we need to talk about the Georgia Senate race going over the wire. If neither candidate receives a majority of the vote in November, the contest will go to a December runoff. There was no clear leader in a recent Marist poll that had Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who’s running for a full six-year term, and Republican challenger Herschel Walker both under 50% among those who say they definitely plan to vote.
Warnock’s edge from earlier this cycle has narrowed, which bumps this seat up one spot on the rankings. The good news for Warnock is that he’s still overperforming Biden’s approval numbers in a state that the President flipped in 2020 by less than 12,000 votes. And so far, he seems to be keeping the Senate race closer than the gubernatorial contest, for which several polls have shown GOP Gov. Brian Kemp ahead. Warnock’s trying to project a bipartisan image that he thinks will help him hold on in what had until recently been a reliably red state. Standing waist-deep in peanuts in one recent ad, he touts his work with Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville to “eliminate the regulations,” never mentioning his own party. But Republicans have continued to try to tie the senator to his party – specifically for voting for measures in Washington that they claim have exacerbated inflation.
Democrats are hoping that enough Georgians won’t see voting for Walker as an option – even if they do back Kemp. Democrats have amped up their attacks on domestic violence allegations against the former football star and unflattering headlines about his business record. And all eyes will be on the mid-October debate to see how Walker, who has a history of making controversial and illogical comments, handles himself onstage against the more polished incumbent.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
Sen. Ron Johnson is the only Republican running for reelection in a state Biden won in 2020 – in fact, he broke his own term limits pledge to run a third time, saying he believed America was “in peril.” And although Johnson has had low approval numbers for much of the cycle, Democrats have underestimated him before. This contest moves down one spot on the ranking as Johnson’s race against Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has tightened, putting the senator in a better position.
Barnes skated through the August primary after his biggest opponents dropped out of the race, but as the nominee, he’s faced an onslaught of attacks, especially on crime, using against him his past words about ending cash bail and redirecting some funding from police budgets to social services. Barnes has attempted to answer those attacks in his ads, like this one featuring a retired police sergeant who says he knows “Mandela doesn’t want to defund the police.”
A Marquette University Law School poll from early September showed no clear leader, with Johnson at 49% and Barnes at 48% among likely voters, which is a tightening from the 7-point edge Barnes enjoyed in the same poll’s August survey. Notably, independents were breaking slightly for Johnson after significantly favoring Barnes in the August survey. The effect of the GOP’s anti-Barnes advertising can likely be seen in the increasing percentage of registered voters in a late September Fox News survey who view the Democrat as “too extreme,” putting him on parity with Johnson on that question. Johnson supporters are also much more enthusiastic about their candidate.
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, who’s running for a full six-year term after winning a 2020 special election, is still one of the most vulnerable Senate incumbents in a state that has only recently grown competitive on the federal level. But Republican nominee Blake Masters is nowhere close to rivaling Kelly in fundraising, and major GOP outside firepower is now gone. After canceling its September TV reservations in Arizona to redirect money to Ohio, the Senate Leadership Fund has cut its October spending too.
Other conservative groups are spending for Masters but still have work to do to hurt Kelly, a well-funded incumbent with a strong personal brand. Kelly led Masters 51% to 41% among registered voters in a September Marist poll, although that gap narrowed among those who said they definitely plan to vote. A Fox survey from a little later in the month similarly showed Kelly with a 5-point edge among those certain to vote, just within the margin of error.
Masters has attempted to moderate his abortion position since winning his August primary, buoyed by a Trump endorsement, but Kelly has continued to attack him on the issue. And a recent court decision allowing the enforcement of a 1901 state ban on nearly all abortions has given Democrats extra fodder to paint Republicans as a threat to women’s reproductive rights.
6. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
North Carolina slides up one spot on the rankings, trading places with New Hampshire. The open-seat race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr hasn’t generated as much national buzz as other states given that Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in the state since 2008.
But it has remained a tight contest with Democrat Cheri Beasley, who is bidding to become the state’s first Black senator, facing off against GOP Rep. Ted Budd, for whom Trump recently campaigned. Beasley lost reelection as state Supreme Court chief justice by only about 400 votes in 2020 when Trump narrowly carried the Tar Heel state. But Democrats hope that she’ll be able to boost turnout among rural Black voters who might not otherwise vote during a midterm election and that more moderate Republicans and independents will see Budd as too extreme. One of Beasley’s recent spots features a series of mostly White, gray-haired retired judges in suits endorsing her as “someone different” while attacking Budd as being a typical politician out for himself.
Budd is leaning into current inflation woes, specifically going after Biden in some ads that feature half-empty shopping carts, without even mentioning Beasley. Senate Leadership Fund is doing the work of trying to tie the Democrat to Washington – one recent spot almost makes her look like the incumbent in the race, superimposing her photo over an image of the US Capitol and displaying her face next to Biden’s. Both SLF and Budd are also targeting Beasley over her support for Democrats’ recently enacted health care, tax and climate bill. “Liberal politician Cheri Beasley is coming for you – and your wallet,” the narrator from one SLF ad intones, before later adding, “Beasley’s gonna knock on your door with an army of new IRS agents.” (The new law increases funding for the IRS, including for audits. But Democrats and the Trump-appointed IRS commissioner have said the intention is to go after wealthy tax cheats, not the middle class.)
7. New Hampshire
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
A lot has been made of GOP candidate quality this cycle. But there are few states where the difference between the nominee Republicans have and the one they’d hoped to have has altered these rankings quite as much as New Hampshire.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who lost a 2020 GOP bid for the state’s other Senate seat, won last month’s Republican primary to take on first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. The problem for him, though, is that he doesn’t have much money to wage that fight. Bolduc had raised a total of $579,000 through August 24 compared with Hassan’s $31.4 million. Senate Leadership Fund is on air in New Hampshire to boost the GOP nominee – attacking Hassan for voting with Biden and her support of her party’s health care, tax and climate package. But because super PACs get much less favorable TV advertising rates than candidates, those millions won’t go anywhere near as far as Hassan’s dollars will.
A year ago, Republicans were still optimistic that Gov. Chris Sununu would run for Senate, giving them a popular abortion rights-supporting nominee in a state that’s trended blue in recent federal elections. Bolduc told WMUR after his primary win that he’d vote against a national abortion ban. But ads from Hassan and Senate Majority PAC have seized on his suggestion in the same interview that the senator should “get over” the abortion issue. Republicans recognize that abortion is a salient factor in a state Biden carried by 7 points, but they also argue that the election – as Bolduc said to WMUR – will be about the economy and that Hassan is an unpopular and out-of-touch incumbent.
Hassan led Bolduc 49% to 41% among likely voters in a Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. The incumbent has consolidated Democratic support, but only 83% of Republicans said they were with Bolduc, the survey found. Still, some of those Republicans, like those who said they were undecided, could come home to the GOP nominee as the general election gets closer, which means Bolduc has room to grow. He’ll need more than just Republicans to break his way, however, which is one reason he quickly pivoted on the key issue of whether the 2020 election was stolen days after he won the primary.
Incumbent: Republican Rob Portman (retiring)
Ohio – a state that twice voted for Trump by 8 points – isn’t supposed to be on this list at No. 8, above Florida, which backed the former President by much narrower margins. But it’s at No. 8 for the second month in a row. Republican nominee J.D. Vance’s poor fundraising has forced Senate Leadership Fund to redirect millions from other races to Ohio to shore him up and attack Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee who had the airwaves to himself all summer. The 10-term congressman has been working to distance himself from his party in most of his ads, frequently mentioning that he “voted with Trump on trade” and criticizing the “defund the police” movement. Vance is finally on the air, trying to poke some holes in Ryan’s image.
But polling still shows a tight race with no clear leader. Ryan had an edge with independents in a recent Siena College/Spectrum News poll, which also showed that Vance – Trump’s pick for the nomination – has more work to do to consolidate GOP support after an ugly May primary. Assuming he makes up that support and late undecided voters break his way, Vance will likely hold the advantage in the end given the Buckeye State’s solidifying red lean.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio
Democrats face an uphill battle against GOP Sen. Marco Rubio in an increasingly red-trending state, which Trump carried by about 3 points in 2020 – nearly tripling his margin from four years earlier.
Democratic Rep. Val Demings, who easily won the party’s nomination in August, is a strong candidate who has even outraised the GOP incumbent, but not by enough to seriously jeopardize his advantage. She’s leaning into her background as the former Orlando police chief – it features prominently in her advertising, in which she repeatedly rejects the idea of defunding the police. Still, Rubio has tried to tie her to the “radical left” in Washington to undercut her own law enforcement background.