The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Democrats can hold the Senate, in six races

On paper, the job of keeping the Senate looks pretty difficult for Democrats — and it is. Republicans need to net just one seat in November’s midterm elections to take back control of the Senate for at least the next two years.

Midterm elections are usually a referendum on the party in power — and historically, the president’s party usually loses. Biden’s approval ratings, though they’ve risen somewhat in recent weeks, currently hover in the 40s. But things have been looking up lately for Democrats, for a variety of reasons: the politics of abortion, lower gas prices and extreme Republican candidates.

Here are six races key to Democrats’ ability to keep the Senate, in order of likelihood. Polls show all of them being very, very close.

1. Keep: Arizona

The Democrats running for reelection in three swing states — Nevada, Arizona and Georgia — are the most vulnerable senators up for election this year. They’re all relatively new to the job, and though voters in these states chose President Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, they did it narrowly.

The Democrat: Sen. Mark Kelly has an impressive résumé: He’s a former astronaut, a prominent gun-control advocate, and husband of former Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. He is also one of Senate Democrats’ best fundraisers, raising tens of millions of dollars for his reelection. He’s running for his first full term after being elected in 2020 to replace the late Republican senator John McCain, flipping the seat. Of all the vulnerable Democrats on this list, Kelly is the one Democratic strategists have the most confidence in. He generally keeps his head down and out of the news and frames himself as a moderate. But Republicans point out that he votes almost exclusively with Democrats and Biden (unlike the his fellow Democrat from Arizona, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema).

The Republican: Blake Masters is one of the most controversial Republican Senate candidates of this year’s midterms. He has embraced the call for denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election. (Biden won Arizona, but Republicans there have been especially committed to false election claims, demanding repeated audits and pushing for major changes in how elections are run in the state.) He also has a history of making inflammatory remarks: For example, 15 years ago on an online chat board, he praised the words of a Nazi leader. He also drove hard to the right on abortion, only to conspicuously try to come back to the center as it became clear that voters were turned off by more extreme ban proposals. (It became national news recently when his website no longer mentioned support for strict abortion bans.) And my Washington Post colleagues report that his top donors — former boss and tech baron Peter Thiel, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — have been fighting over who should have to fund his campaign in its last few months.

Suffice it to say, Republican operatives are pessimistic about Masters flipping this seat. “Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” McConnell warned this summer. His super PAC later pulled millions of ads reserved for Masters.

The biggest GOP flip flops on abortion

2. Keep: Nevada

The Democrat: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is the first Latina U.S. senator ever, and she’s found her footing in this election by running as a lawmaker standing between Republicans and a national abortion ban. “There is no doubt in my mind that the Republicans in the Senate right now — that some of them are writing a draft legislation to further restrict abortion in this country,” she said in July, The Post’s Hannah Knowles reports. (That turned out to be prescient.)

But voters in Nevada are notoriously hard to get to the polls. Many in Las Vegas only live there for a few years, or work long or odd hours. And there are signs that the state’s sizable Latino population isn’t as inclined to vote Democratic as it once was.

The Republican: Adam Laxalt is a fairly well-known name in Nevada politics. He is the grandson of a former Nevada governor and was the state’s attorney general. But he’s got views on the 2020 presidential election (he’s said it was “rigged”) as well as abortion (he’s called Roe v. Wade a “joke”) that could be a mismatch for a blue-leaning state. He’s working to broaden his appeal, by saying he does not support a federal abortion ban and by talking nonstop about inflation, which has hit Nevada workers particularly hard.

3. Keep: Georgia

The Democrat: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock pulled off a massive win in 2021 in a runoff for a special election. Now he’s running for the full, six-year term. What happens in his reelection will shed light on whether his and Biden’s narrow win in Georgia (alongside Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff) is something Democrats can replicate in this traditionally conservative state.

Warnock is Georgia’s first Black senator and a prominent pastor. He’s campaigning in rural areas on Biden’s bipartisan wins like more benefits to veterans. But his efforts to get Congress to pass a national voting-rights law — Georgia Republicans passed one of the most restrictive voter laws in the nation after the 2020 election — failed, disappointing many in his base.

The Republican: Herschel Walker is another controversial Senate candidate. (Sensing a theme with Republicans and these toss-up races?) The domestic violence allegations against him are getting a lot of attention. In an ad, his ex-wife recounts “the first time he held a gun to my head.” (Walker does not deny the assault, saying he struggled with mental health issues.) There are questions about his business dealings, a charity he’s involved in and whether he tried to hide the existence of three of his children. And then there are his gaffes: “Don’t we have enough trees around here?” he said recently, about addressing climate change. But Walker managed to get support from top Senate Republicans and Trump for his nomination.

If Democrats hold the three seats above (plus another that leans in their favor, Sen. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire), they can keep their delicate 50-50 majority. But they also have a chance to expand it by taking down some Republicans. Here are some other races to keep an eye on:

4. Flip: Pennsylvania

The Republican: It’s an open seat, with Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R) retiring. GOP voters nominated Mehmet Oz, a TV star doctor who has Trump’s endorsement. He comes across as awkward on the campaign trail and struggled to downplay his extreme wealth and questions about his ties to Pennsylvania. Yet he’s a Republican in a state that voted for Trump in 2016 and almost did so again in 2020.

The Democrat: John Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, cuts a singular figure in politics: He’s bald, 6-foot-9, tattooed and campaigns in a hoodie and gym shorts. He supports policies that align him with the liberal wing of his party, such as universal health care, which could be too liberal for this swing state. Another weakness may be that he suffered a serious stroke during the primary, originally downplayed it, and then had to take months off the campaign to recover. But he’s been a savvy campaigner, and a new poll shows him narrowly leading Oz.

5. Flip: Wisconsin

The Republican: Wisconsin is a tougher — but possible — win for Democrats. Sen. Ron Johnson (R) is his party’s most vulnerable senator. He is the only Republican senator running for election this year in a state that voted for Biden. He has also leaned into misinformation in the Trump era, from the coronavirus to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and it’s affecting his popularity in this swing state. (The Jan. 6 congressional committee revealed texts that showed Johnson’s staff tried to give Vice President Mike Pence a slate of illegitimate electors that day. “Do not give that to him,” the vice president’s staff responded.) In the past, observers have made the mistake of prematurely counting Johnson out, only for him to surprise nearly everyone and win reelection.

The Democrat: Barnes is Wisconsin’s lieutenant governor. He’s mostly liberal, young (35) and aiming to be the first Black senator from Wisconsin. While he inspires liberals in the state, he also once posed with an “Abolish ICE” T-shirt, and there’s evidence from a recent Marquette University Law School poll that independent voters are shifting away from Barnes.

6. Flip: Ohio

The Republican: This is an open seat too, held by a retiring Republican. J.D. Vance, a venture capitalist and author, has Trump’s endorsement but has gained a reputation for out-there, right-wing rhetoric. His campaign for this open seat has struggled to gain momentum.

The Democrat: Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan has made inroads with independent voters, a recent poll shows, but he’s also a Democrat (who votes with Biden most of the time) in a state increasingly hesitant to elect Democrats statewide. Ohio, which used to be considered a swing state, is less and less often seen as competitive for Democrats — it voted for Trump twice.