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Analysis: Get up to speed on the fight to control the US Senate

by Atlanta Business Journal

(CNN) — It’s a little more than a month to Election Day, which will decide control of the House and Senate.

The national midterm narrative is set around large debates over the economy, government spending, climate change, inflation, abortion rights and immigration.

But it’s voters in individual states that choose senators and late-breaking stories about candidates can have an effect.

In Georgia, for instance, abortion rights opponent Herschel Walker has denied a report that he paid for a woman to have an abortion. The Daily Beast subsequently reported Wednesday evening that the anonymous woman in their initial report is also the mother of one of Walker’s children. CNN has not independently confirmed the woman’s allegation about the abortion or that she is the mother of one of his children, and has also reached out to the Walker campaign about the latest story.

Another interesting local story that could echo nationally is whether independent candidate Evan McMullin can win the Senate race in deeply conservative Utah.

I talked to Simone Pathe, the senior Washington editor for CNN Politics, who also compiles our regular rankings of the 10 Senate seats most likely to flip party control. The most recent edition published this week.

My email conversation with Simone is below.

There’s a very small universe of competitive seats

WHAT MATTERS: You’ve been updating these 10 seats periodically since the last election. How has the landscape changed in the past two years?

PATHE: The universe of seats we’re talking about has remained remarkably consistent, which is a reflection of just how few competitive seats there are. (In total, Democrats are defending 14 seats while Republicans are defending 21, but only a fraction of those are in play in November.) Since our very first ranking of the cycle, in March 2021, the seat most likely to flip has been Pennsylvania. And while the rest of the order has bounced around a bit, the states on the list have stayed the same — except No. 10. Colorado started out in that position, but then was replaced with Missouri when it looked like former Gov. Eric Greitens could win the GOP nomination and jeopardize the party’s chances in an otherwise deeply red state. With that threat having passed (Greitens lost the primary in August), Colorado is back at No. 10.

So why does that matter? Much of a party’s prospects depend on the playing field. And in that regard, Democrats have been heartened that many of the most competitive races this year are in states that President Joe Biden won in 2020, albeit some quite narrowly. He carried seven of the 10 races on our ranking, including all of the states where Democrats’ most vulnerable incumbents are running for reelection — Nevada, Georgia, Arizona and New Hampshire. Biden also won Democrats’ best pickup opportunities: Pennsylvania and Wisconsin after former President Donald Trump had carried them four years earlier. That should be good news for Democrats in an era of generally decreased ticket-splitting. (It’s pretty rare these days for a state to vote for president one way and back a senator from the opposite party — think of Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Jon Tester of Montana or Joe Manchin of West Virginia as exceptions to the rule.)

This is still a very hard year for Democrats

WHAT MATTERS: On paper, this is an election where Democrats should lose. Why are they expressing some confidence about the Senate?

PATHE: Big picture, midterm history is working against Democrats this year. The party in the White House typically loses seats in the first midterm election of a new administration, which should set up Republicans to flip the evenly divided chamber. (Remember the GOP needs a net gain of just one seat for victory.) Add to that the fact that the political environment, through a combination of factors, has seemed to favor Republicans. Biden has been unpopular; Democrats with narrow congressional majorities spent a long time fighting among themselves; and voters’ perceptions of the economy, despite a strong labor market, were poor as inflation soared. Not to mention the residual economic, logistical and psychological effects of a pandemic. A whopping 85% of US adults said things in the country were headed in the wrong direction in an AP-NORC survey released in late June.

The Supreme Court’s major abortion decision that same month, however, shook up the political landscape. The overturning of Roe v. Wade energized Democratic voters who may not have been that excited about Biden or had been feeling ‘meh’ about showing up to vote in November. The potency of the abortion rights message was seen in the results of a ballot measure in deep-red Kansas and several better-than-expected performances for Democrats in special elections for the US House over the summer. Things started to look marginally better for Biden, too, with the passage of the party’s climate, health care and tax package and a slight decline in gas prices. Several factors on the right — the return of Trump to the daily headlines following the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago and abortion restrictions coming into effect at the state level — helped Democrats make the case that the election isn’t a referendum on Biden, but rather a choice between them and an “extreme” GOP.

What are we learning in the final stretch?

WHAT MATTERS: I get the sense some of Democrats’ late summer optimism has cooled. What are you seeing in individual races?

PATHE: While the Supreme Court decision certainly complicated the narrative about this election, polls across the country consistently show that inflation and economic concerns are voters’ top issues as they head to the ballot box, which should work in the GOP’s favor. But whether Republicans can capitalize on those headwinds remains a question, even as many key races tighten in their direction in the final stretch.

On the micro level, one of the biggest surprises of the year has been that the major Republican super PAC has had to walk away from Arizona, a battleground state where the GOP nominee has struggled to fundraise, to shore up another lackluster fundraiser in Ohio. Those moves led to minor shifts in our rankings. Arizona has slid down a spot since the summer, meaning it’s now slightly less likely to flip, although the conservative DNA of the state keeps it at No. 5, which is exactly where it started. And Ohio has slid above Florida as more likely to change hands, even though Trump won the Buckeye State by a greater margin than Florida. There was a long time when we thought New Hampshire would eventually catapult toward the top, but Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to pass on the race has kept it in the bottom half of the ranking.

What are the wild card local issues?

WHAT MATTERS: The national narrative is set around a few key issues: inflation and the economy, abortion rights, election security and election rights, crime and immigration. Are there any wild card issues popping up in individual Senate races?

PATHE: While those themes do dominate, there are attack lines that are specific to candidates and races. In Georgia, for example, Democratic groups have been running ads against GOP nominee Herschel Walker over domestic violence allegations against him. (These began airing well before his most recent controversy.)

Republicans have also found a new way to attack Democrats for supporting the climate, tax and health care package (officially called “The Inflation Reduction Act”) in a way that combines some of their ominous messaging about safety with a traditional small government theme. Take this ad from the Senate Leadership Fund — the super PAC tied to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — that shows grainy footage of doors being kicked open by men in uniform as the narrator says, “Beasley’s going to knock on your door with an army of new IRS agents,” referring to North Carolina Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley. (As our colleague Katie Lobosco has explained, the legislation does give the IRS new funding that it’s long been asking for, but much of it will be for hiring staff — not just enforcement agents — that they’ve lost and are expected to keeping losing.)

Is Trump at fault if Republicans can’t pick up one Senate seat?

WHAT MATTERS: A major theme for Republicans has been the influence of former President Donald Trump in primaries. The political outsiders he backed won in some key races and are turning out to be flawed candidates. If Republicans cannot claim the majority, will they have Trump to blame?

PATHE: Probably less Trump himself and more a party that has enabled him and allowed him to hold almost maximum influence. Even those candidates who didn’t end up securing his endorsement in primaries were often bending over backwards to appeal to him.

In Georgia’s Senate race, plenty of Republicans were concerned about Walker’s past and signaled the alarm pretty loudly well before he got in the race. But after Trump crowned the former football star his choice, the rest of the party eventually fell in line. Meanwhile, Senate Republicans lost out on some top recruits because they were never going to fit the Trump mold. Govs. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Sununu of New Hampshire — who could have been much more competitive general election candidates — rebuffed multiple entreaties from establishment Republicans in DC to run.

Those who won the coveted stamp of approval have found out the hard way that it doesn’t necessarily come with the money they need to wage top-tier races. And clearly some candidates who leaned hard into Trump’s rhetoric during the spring and summer are beginning to realize support for some of his positions, like denying the 2020 election results, could backfire with a general electorate — or else they wouldn’t be backtracking on that, as both Arizona’s Blake Masters and New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc have notably done.

Insiders vs. Outsiders

WHAT MATTERS: The other way to look at it is a field of numerous GOP political newcomers running against numerous Democrats who have spent careers in politics. What do you make of that divide?

PATHE: A lot of Republicans in top races are relative newcomers — Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, J.D. Vance in Ohio, Walker in Georgia, Masters in Arizona. And while an “outsider” brand is often helpful when running against the party in power, it may not be that helpful if they don’t have the discipline to raise money or the political savvy to put together a campaign to capitalize on it. And in some cases, being a Democratic incumbent may actually have some benefits. Sens. Mark Kelly of Arizona and Raphael Warnock of Georgia — who have essentially been campaigning and raising money nonstop since they won special elections in the last cycle — have built up strong name recognition and personal brands. Republicans used to argue that perceptions of Kelly, a former astronaut, would completely change once he had a voting record, but his image has been hard to knock — even more so without SLF on the air in Arizona anymore.

And don’t forget — it’s not just GOP newcomers and Democratic career politicians. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — the only Republican running for reelection in a state Biden won in 2020 — broke his own term limits pledge to run a third time. And in North Carolina, it’s Beasley, the Democrat, who’s trying to run as the outsider against three-term GOP Rep. Ted Budd. The former state Supreme Court chief justice has run for office statewide before, but as a judge, and this time she’s trying to become the state’s first Black senator.

Is Democrat a dirty word for some Democrats?

WHAT MATTERS: In several of your most recent rankings, you mention Democrats trying to appeal across party lines by not mentioning they are Democrats. What does that tell you about how the party is viewed?

PATHE: Washington, DC, is a dirty word in much of the country, and few candidates want to be associated with the party in power — even if they are proud of some of Democrats’ recent legislative successes. It’s also a reflection of Biden’s unpopularity, especially in states that he just barely won or lost in 2020, where Democrats need to overperform the President to have a shot. In ads from Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Georgia’s Warnock, for example, they’re even name-dropping Republicans! Ryan likes to tout that he voted with Trump on trade. Warnock mentions Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville in one ad about stopping regulations for peanut farmers.

Congressperson who?

WHAT MATTERS: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said control of the Senate is a jump ball, but Republicans have a much better chance of taking control of the House. Why is there a more distinct GOP advantage in the House?

PATHE: House races are much more nationalized, which means Republicans have a better chance of riding the national environment to victory in those races. It may sound counterintuitive since they’re more local, but because representatives have lower profiles than senators, it’s harder for them to build a brand that will withstand the prevailing national winds. Travel to any congressional district in America, talk to voters on the street, and you’ll find some of them won’t know who their representative is or what district they live in — but they may feel like they want a check on Washington.

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