Republicans are feeling new optimism about their chances of taking over the Senate as struggling GOP candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Ohio have stabilized their races, giving themselves a chance to gain ground in the polls after a tough summer.
Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor, is starting to close the gap in Pennsylvania as a barrage of attacks on Democratic candidate John Fetterman are starting to take their toll.
In Arizona and Ohio, GOP nominees backed by former President Trump came under criticism from fellow Republicans for lackluster fundraising and falling behind their Democratic opponents in the polls.
Meanwhile, Republicans still regard Nevada as one of their top two pickup opportunities. Polls in the state show former Attorney General Adam Laxalt with a consistent — though small — lead over incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D).
Republicans think that the political momentum that President Biden and Democrats received after passing key pieces of Biden’s agenda, including tax reform, climate programs and prescription drug reform, is starting to fade.
They also say polls from the summer were influenced by the Supreme Court’s decision striking down Roe v. Wade in late June and think that issue will be less potent a month from now.
“I was in two fundraisers last week and I’m getting the sense that Republicans in the Senate are feeling pretty good or really good,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide.
“I get the sense that they’re looking at Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, plus — maybe picking up another seat,” he added. “I’m a little surprised.”
Republicans grew pessimistic about their prospects of winning back the Senate over the summer as Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, pulled out to a big lead over Oz and GOP candidates Blake Masters and J.D. Vance, in Arizona and Ohio respectively, appeared to flounder.
GOP strategists predict persistently high inflation will continue to take a toll on Democrats and that gas prices will start climbing again now that OPEC has announced it would cut oil production.
“People are looking at polling trends and internal polling,” Darling said, arguing that over the summer, “people were overemphasizing the impact of the abortion issue and the impact of gas prices coming down a bit.
“The issue that obliterates all other issues is the economy,” he added.
The political forecasting website FiveThirtyEight.com a few weeks ago gave Democrats a 71 percent chance of keeping control of the Senate, but those odds have now dipped to 67 percent.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last week said Republicans have a “50-50 shot of getting the Senate back.”
“We’re in a bunch of close races,” he said. “It’s going to be really, really close either way.”
Pennsylvania has been the bellwether race in the battle for the Senate and Oz has steadily gained ground on Fetterman, who is recovering from a stroke suffered earlier this year and still has problems hearing, requiring him to rely on closed captioning in video conversations.
Republicans have pounded Fetterman over his record as the chairman of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardon’s amid rising crime and a spate of high-profile incidents in Philadelphia.
The Cook Political Report earlier this week shifted the Pennsylvania Senate race back to the toss-up category after rating it as a “lean Democratic” race for nearly two months.
National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) last month identified Nevada and Georgia as Senate Republicans’ two best pickup opportunities.
Since then, former NFL star Herschel Walker, the Senate GOP nominee in Georgia, has continued to struggle.
The latest damaging revelation about Walker, who wants to completely ban abortion, is that he paid for a girlfriend’s abortion. Walker denied the allegation, but his defense was undercut when it was further revealed that he later had a child with the woman who claimed he paid for the procedure.
Polls show the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D), consistently ahead of Walker.
But Republicans are heartened by a new CBS News-YouGov poll conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4 in Arizona, showing Masters trailing Sen. Mark Kelly (D) by only three points.
“It does seem like the Republican candidates in a few states, Pennsylvania and maybe even Arizona, have settled down their campaigns a bit,” said Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
Smith, who spent five days in Arizona this past week, said Masters has tried to reach out to more moderate Republicans, distancing himself from the pro-Trump rhetoric he employed to win the primary earlier this year.
He overhauled his campaign website to soften language on abortion, deleting a statement expressing support for a federal personhood law.
And the NRSC has just announced a new seven-figure advertising investment in Arizona, another sign that Republicans still think Masters has a chance to win, even though the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC linked to McConnell, canceled $10 million in advertising in the state last month.
The Senate Leadership Fund has instead shifted its money to Ohio, announcing in August a $28 million ad buy to prop up Vance, who has lagged far behind his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan, in fundraising.
The nonpartisan research company AdImpact now projects voters will see $344 million worth of political spending on ads.
Matt Dole, a Republican political consultant based in Ohio, said Vance has found his footing in the campaign after struggling over the summer.
“The polls show that J.D. Vance has settled into a comfortable, small lead. And certainly the context on the ground indicates he has the wind at his back. In a mid-term election year, more Republicans turn out than Democrats. The economy is bad and the incumbent president is Democrat. All of those context things point to J.D. Vance having the wind at his back.”
There’s also growing discussion about the possibility that the polls are undercounting Trump-allied voters as they did in 2016 and 2020.
“What is true of these polls is that when you get down into the cross tabs, they wildly oversample college-educated men and women who have traditionally leaned left over the last few cycles,” Dole said. “The hypothesis is if the polls show Vance up three points, he’s probably up five to eight points.
Senate Democrats acknowledge they’re nervous about the polls misreading Republican voter enthusiasm in yet another election cycle.
“The classic view of polling is that at best it’s a snapshot in time, and the only one that matters is the one on Election Day,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Vance and Ryan are scheduled to hold their first and only statewide debate on Monday.
A Spectrum News-Siena College poll of 642 likely Ohio voters conducted from Sept. 18 to Sept. 22 showed Ryan leading Vance by three points but a Marist poll of 1,347 Ohio adults showed Vance up by a point.
In Wisconsin, where Democrats hope to knock off GOP incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican negative advertising blitz has driven down the favorable ratings of Democratic candidate Mandela Barnes, the lieutenant governor.
A recent AARP Wisconsin poll showed Johnson leading Barnes by five points, 51 percent to 46 percent, among likely voters. Most worrying for Democrats, Barnes’s favorable rating stood at 43 percent — five points lower than Johnson, who had a 48 percent favorable rating.
Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in the last four election cycles there are instances “where Republicans were underestimated in polls more often than Democrats were.”
“You have to be wary that the instruments we’re using to try to assess the election are going to have errors and they might be biased against Republicans,” he said.