Republicans are staring down an increasingly narrow path to reclaiming the Senate majority this year amid Democratic gains in key battleground states that the GOP had once been bullish about.
The current outlook for the GOP is a much different one than the party saw just a few months ago, when Republicans were favored to win control of the Senate and Democrats faced the prospect of an electoral thrashing.
But now, with the midterms fewer than 50 days away, Democrats appear increasingly likely to hold their seats in once-foreboding battlegrounds like Arizona and New Hampshire, while Republicans are up against the possibility that their Senate prospects could come down to just a couple states.
“If you look at those core states that we started with, the list has really been cut in half at this point,” one Republican strategist who has worked on Senate campaigns said. “Arizona looks like more of a stretch. Same deal with New Hampshire. I think that leaves Nevada and Georgia as the best options.”
“The problem is, we can’t really afford to lose either one,” the strategist added.
Senators and party strategists on both sides of the aisle say that the battle for control of the upper chamber is still a toss-up.
Republicans need to net just a single seat in November to regain the majority, and Democratic incumbents, like Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.), appear more vulnerable now than they did just a month ago.
Likewise, the Senate race in Wisconsin has tightened substantially in recent weeks, pumping the brakes on Democrats’ hopes of ousting Sen. Ron Johnson (R) and adding another seat to their Senate roster.
Still, Republicans also acknowledge that they have been left with little room for error.
“It’s 50-50, so there was no room for error to begin with,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist, said. “And as these races have tightened up, if there’s a way to go from no room for error to even less room for error, that’s where we’re at.”
A number of factors have contributed to the shrinking battlefield. Democrats benefited from a jolt of momentum over the summer after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion rights case.
Then there’s former President Trump’s reemergence as a headline-grabbing figure, which has helped Democrats sharpen their argument that the midterms could prove pivotal to the future of American democracy.
But just as influential is the roster of Republican Senate candidates in battleground states. Many of the party’s nominees are first-time candidates who were elevated by Trump in their primaries but have struggled to find their footing in the general election campaign. That has given Democrats a distinct edge, even in some of the toughest races.
In Arizona, for instance, GOP Senate hopeful Blake Masters has fallen further and further behind Sen. Mark Kelly (D) since clinching the Republican nomination last month. While Kelly has raised more than $54 million for his reelection bid, Masters has pulled in less than $5 million.
Meanwhile, recent polling has shown Kelly opening up a wide lead in the race. One AARP Arizona survey released this week found Masters trailing by an 8-point margin — 42 percent to Kelly’s 50 percent.
Masters’s mounting struggles have prompted some Republicans to reevaluate the race. The Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), pulled the remainder of its ad spending out of Arizona this week, saying that other “Republican outside forces” were showing up to fill the void.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, buoyed Democratic hopes in the state this week when it moved the Arizona Senate contest into its “lean Democrat” column.
Democrats are also more optimistic about Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-N.H.) reelection in November after Republican voters tapped Don Bolduc, a hard-right skeptic of the 2020 presidential election, as their nominee. One poll released this week from the University of New Hampshire showed Hassan leading by an 8-point margin.
Then there’s Pennsylvania, where Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has opened up a solid lead over his Republican opponent, celebrity physician Mehmet Oz. A poll from Muhlenberg College and The Morning Call out Thursday found Fetterman with a 5-point edge over Oz. The seat is currently held by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R).
Still, Republicans have raised questions about Fetterman’s health and fitness to serve in the Senate since he suffered a stroke earlier this year. Heye, the Republican strategist, said that the fate of the race could come down to Fetterman’s performance in a debate scheduled for next month.
“The stakes for Fetterman in the debate are much higher than they are for anybody else in any other state, so until they do that, it’s really hard to do any prognostication on what will happen,” he said. “For Fetterman, he has to be able to demonstrate that he can go onto the Senate floor and go toe-to-toe with Mitch McConnell.”
For now, at least, Republicans say their best chances to oust Democratic Senate incumbents are in Georgia and Nevada, where polling shows GOP challengers gaining ground.
In Georgia, former football star Herschel Walker has begun to close the gap with Warnock after trudging through a series of gaffes and controversies over the summer. In Nevada, meanwhile, the most recent polling shows former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt taking the lead over Cortez Masto. Republicans now say Nevada may end up being their best pick-up opportunity.
Senate Republicans, however, say they are still bullish about their chances of capturing the majority this year. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), predicted this week that the GOP would hold at least 52 seats and insisted that the battlefield had actually expanded to include blue states like Colorado and Washington state.
“I think Herschel Walker’s going to win. I think Adam Laxalt’s going to win. Everybody’s going to believe we’re going to win in New Hampshire, Arizona, Colorado and Washington,” Scott said, adding: “I think we’re going to have 52-plus.”
Democrats are also worried that they’re working on borrowed time. The fight over abortion rights has energized the party and its candidates, giving them hope in an otherwise brutal political environment. But Democratic operatives say they’re not sure how long that momentum will hold.
“The question is how much sustained momentum the abortion issue has,” one Democratic operative involved in the midterms said. “Democrats always fear peaking too early, and rightfully so … there’s a lot of time left. We’re running the races we need to be running, but whether Democrats are as fired up in six weeks as they were seven weeks ago, I don’t know.”
In one sign that top Republicans are looking to close the cash deficit with Democrats, a group of Trump allies are launching a new political action committee — dubbed MAGA Inc. — that will pour money into the midterms.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who ousted Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) in 2018, said that issues like abortion rights would ultimately prove inconsequential for Republicans in November, arguing that pocketbook issues like inflation will determine the outcome.
He quoted James Carville, the veteran Democratic strategist who helped lead former President Clinton’s campaign to victory in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
“No matter how much they talk, no matter how much they deny, no matter how much they spin, you cannot pee on people’s backs and convince them it’s raining,” Cramer told The Hill.
“People are hurting out there. This inflation thing that’s without a question Democrats’ fault — this is hurting people on a real personal level, and I just don’t think they’re going to vote for a party that’s done this to them.”
And there are still clear challenges for Democrats: President Biden’s approval rating, though improving, remains underwater; inflation remains at its highest level in decades at 8.3 percent; and gas prices are still higher than they were a year ago.
Speaking to reporters this week, Kellyanne Conway, the veteran Republican pollster and former Trump adviser, said that it’s up to the GOP to make the midterms a referendum on Biden and Democratic control of Washington, acknowledging that if voters are focused on the roster of Republican candidates, things become more difficult.
“If the elections are about the Republican candidates, it’s going to be harder to win,” Conway said. “If the election is about John Fetterman and Raphael Warnock or that woman in Nevada who has three names and zero accomplishments … then if it’s about them, easier to beat them.”