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Battle for Senate control marked by volatility as midterms near

As the race for the Senate enters its final stage, political prognosticators find themselves at a loss trying to predict what’s going to happen

Members of the media watch Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz on a TV monitor as he faces off against Democrat John Fetterman during their debate in Harrisburg, Pa., on Tuesday. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Less than two weeks before the midterm elections, the path to Senate control appears uncertain and volatile, as polls show Democrats and Republicans running neck and neck in several battleground states that hold the key to the majority.

Republicans this week have touted their momentum, as Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman, recovering from a stroke, struggled in a high-profile debate performance in Pennsylvania, and as the Cook Political Report moved the race in Arizona between Sen. Mark Kelly (D) and Republican Blake Masters from leaning Democratic to a toss-up.

But Democrats have shown surprising strength in other races, including in red-trending Ohio. And new allegations against the Republican nominee in Georgia, Herschel Walker, could further boost Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D). In total, polling averages show at least seven Senate races within the margin of error, making the battle for the Senate a true toss-up.

“It’s more a mixed bag than all going one direction, and Republicans are good at projecting confidence and Democrats are good at freaking out,” said Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist opposed to former president Donald Trump.

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Senate control
Democrats will keep Senate majority after winning eight out of the nine seats rated competitive by Cook Political Report. The only remaining race will be decided in Georgia in a Dec. 6 runoff — here’s how it will work.
House control
Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, creating a split Congress and dealing a blow to President Biden and his agenda.
What the results mean for 2024
A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign on Tuesday, ignoring the advice of longtime allies who encouraged him to delay the announcement.

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As the race for Senate control enters its final, candidate-by-candidate stage of the campaign, political prognosticators find themselves at a loss trying to predict what’s going to happen. Inflation and historical trends benefiting the party out of power favor Republicans, but the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade earlier this year and the primary victories of some inexperienced Republican Senate candidates have kept Democrats surprisingly competitive.

“You’ve got this unique cycle where both sides appear to have a high energy and enthusiasm level,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm. “We see polls in New York showing [the governor’s race] being a close race. We see polls in Oklahoma showing the Democrat winning [the governor’s race]. What election year can you recall when you can look at both of those things?”

Democratic Senate incumbents benefited as Republicans picked novice candidates in bruising Senate primaries in key states, in some cases elevating candidates who had advocated expansive bans on abortion. But polls in several key Senate races have tightened since the summer, as conservatives have consolidated around the candidates and independent voters have shifted. Recent polls have shown Mehmet Oz, who consistently trailed Fetterman, nearly catching up to the Democrat before Tuesday’s debate. The same dynamic is at play in Arizona, as traditionally conservative voters appear to be coming home to the Republican candidate, despite his relatively high unfavorability ratings.

“The more voters have heard from Republican candidates and compared that to the broken track record of their opponents, the more their decision becomes clear and, quite frankly, easy,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.

Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Nevada and Georgia also have been barraged with ads tying them to crime and inflation, while Democratic groups and candidates have focused on abortion and raised questions about Republican candidates’ character.

What more than 1,000 political ads are arguing right before the midterms

Brent Buchanan, president of Cygnal, a Republican polling firm, noted that abortion has fallen down some voters’ priority list, and cited Walker as a “perfect example” of why Democrats focusing on issues of candidate quality does not work. Walker’s polling numbers remained fairly steady as he faced an allegation from a woman that he paid for her abortion.

“That’s what Democrats are totally missing — there’s no value proposition for character issues because it does not impact the voter’s life at all,” Buchanan said. “But inflation and crime, those things have a direct daily impact and threat to voters’ lives.”

But the movement toward Republicans in Senate races so far is not as dramatic as what’s happening in the House, where Democrats are on defense in districts that President Biden won by double digits just two years ago.

Democrats are focused on defending their Senate incumbents in Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire and Arizona while hoping to flip seats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer was caught on a hot mic reassuring Biden about the party’s chances of holding on to the Senate majority. “Looks like the debate didn’t hurt us too much in Pennsylvania ... so that’s good,” he said, while also noting there was some momentum in Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is in danger of losing her seat. He also said Democrats were going “downhill” in Georgia, and said it was hard to believe the state would vote for Walker.

Democratic-aligned groups and candidates are planning to outspend Republicans in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona in the final two weeks of the race, according to advertising reservations analyzed by the firm AdImpact as of earlier this week. One of the biggest gaps is in Arizona, where Democrats plan to spend nearly $13 million and Republicans have reserved $7 million.

Democrats are fighting to hold their congressional majority. Here’s their plan of attack for the 2022 midterm elections, which usually flip the House. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

“A couple of months ago everyone said Republicans would sweep the Senate — now they’re cutting funding and pulling out of battleground states,” David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “In the closing weeks our incumbents have the advantage in their races, we have multiple offensive opportunities strongly in play, and Democrats are well positioned to protect and expand our Senate majority.”

Pennsylvania has been a bright spot for Democrats, as Oz has lagged Fetterman in the purple state. But some Democrats fretted about his performance in Tuesday night’s debate, and Republicans said they believe it will tip the race in Oz’s favor.

Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), called the performance “disastrous” and said it would fuel questions about Fetterman’s fitness for office.

Fetterman, Rubio and more: Dispatches from the 2022 campaign trail

“No question John Fetterman has lost ground in the last month or so,” said former Democratic Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell. “No question about that. And it’s been a slow but fairly steady descent. The question is, is there a peak to it?”

Rendell said it was impossible to know whether the debate performance would hurt or help Fetterman.

National Democrats cite Oz’s debate comment about leaving abortion up to “local political leaders” — which has already been cut into an ad — as the most salient moment of the night, and believe attacks on Fetterman will backfire.

Polls have also shown movement toward Republicans in Arizona, where Kelly, a former astronaut, has been leading Masters, a venture capitalist and protege of tech billionaire Peter Thiel.

“If it ends up being a wave night, do not be surprised to see surprise results like in Arizona, which means we are not talking about if Republicans have won back Senate control, but how large their majority could be beyond 51-49,” wrote the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, as it shifted the race to toss-up status, citing several private polls.

A Senate majority would give Republicans more say over Biden’s judicial nominations and other appointments, as well as the ability to send Republican legislation to Biden’s desk, if the House flips to GOP control.

Some operatives of both parties have long predicted the Arizona Senate race would tighten. And polls have overestimated Democrats there before: Kelly won his 2020 special election by just over two percentage points after many public polls close to Election Day had him up by at least five points.

This year’s race “never should have been anything but a toss-up,” said a Democratic operative working on Senate campaigns, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the race candidly. But they added: “I would much rather be Mark Kelly today than Blake Masters.”

GOP strategist Chuck Coughlin, whose firm HighGround has done polling on the Senate race, said conservative-leaning older voters appear to be consolidating behind Masters, who emerged from a caustic August primary with less GOP support than the Republican nominee for governor, Kari Lake. Coughlin pointed to Arizona’s high inflation and front-and-center border debate as boons for Republicans, and argued both Masters and Lake would have an advantage if the political environment alone determined the race. “I would say game over, Republicans are going to be a plus-eight, plus-nine” in turnout advantage, he said.

Still, some Republicans once gloomy about Masters’s prospects have changed their tune as more money pours into the race, as polling tightens, and as the national environment grows tougher for Democrats.

Barrett Marson, another GOP strategist in Arizona, said he thought a month ago that Masters would underperform Martha McSally, the Republican nominee who lost in 2020. Now, he said, he believes that Masters “may actually win this thing.”

“We have never taken this race for granted,” Sarah Guggenheimer, a spokeswoman for Kelly’s campaign, said in a statement Thursday. “As Senator Kelly travels to every corner of Arizona to speak to voters and fire up volunteers, it’s never been more clear how much overwhelming enthusiasm there is to re-elect Senator Kelly and keep him fighting for our state.”

The 2022 Midterm Elections

Georgia runoff election: Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) won re-election in the Georgia Senate runoff, defeating Republican challenger Herschel Walker and giving Democrats a 51st seat in the Senate for the 118th Congress. Get live updates here and runoff results by county.

Divided government: Republicans narrowly won back control of the House, while Democrats will keep control of the Senate, creating a split Congress.

What the results mean for 2024: A Republican Party red wave seems to be a ripple after Republicans fell short in the Senate and narrowly won control in the House. Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential campaign shortly after the midterms. Here are the top 10 2024 presidential candidates for the Republicans and Democrats.

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