WASHINGTON — One week from Election Day, the race for Senate control remains neck and neck in an unusually volatile political environment, with small margins carrying high stakes for the future of President Joe Biden's legislative agenda and judicial nominees.
Signs of a Republican-friendly landscape are evident in the historical markers of low presidential approval and high economic anxiety, according to recent polls. Yet the same surveys show Democratic candidates holding their own in pivotal swing states.
Now, a year that began with a strong GOP advantage — tilting toward Democrats over the summer and back to Republicans this fall — paints a murkier picture in the final stretch, with the latest polls giving hope to both parties.
Kyle Kondik, an election analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said the battle for the Senate looks like a coin-flip.
“The data we have are not pointing in one direction,” Kondik said. “You just have these competing factors of weaker Republican candidates, but also Biden’s approval being really bad and Democrats’ having to defy gravity to a significant extent.
“It certainly feels hazier than 2018 and 2014 were at this juncture,” he said, referring to midterm elections in which the trends clearly pointed to big wins for the party out of power. “Polling for the Senate is still real close in a lot of these states.”
The Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote giving Democrats control. A net gain of one for Republicans would flip the majority and give them control over what legislation, executive personnel and judicial picks get votes. They would also have the power to launch committee investigations and issue subpoenas.
Election analysts and strategists in both parties largely agree that the centers of the fight for the Senate are Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada. Whichever party wins two of those three races is likely to end up in control for at least the next two years. And recent polling averages show a dead heat in all three contests. Early voting is underway in all three states, and so far it doesn’t paint a clear picture of which party might have the upper hand heading into Election Day, next Tuesday.
While analysts say Republicans have a clear advantage in flipping the House, the picture in the Senate is more complicated.
The FiveThirtyEight Senate projection is dead even, giving both Republicans and Democrats 50% chances of winning control.
The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows the GOP winning 50 seats on Election Night and Georgia headed to a Dec. 6 runoff, with neither candidate topping the 50% needed under state law to win on the first ballot. If that happens, it would be another month until the Senate majority is determined.
Factors working in Republicans’ favor include Biden’s low approval rating and deep anxiety about the economy and the direction of the country. A recent NBC News poll found that 71% of respondents said the country was on the “wrong track” and that Republicans have a 9-point advantage over Democrats in terms of their voters’ having high enthusiasm about casting ballots this fall.
So why do the surveys also show Republican Senate candidates struggling?
“Because they’re not superstar candidates,” said Bill McInturff, a GOP pollster who co-conducts the NBC News poll. “If Republicans had superstar candidates, this would already be over and very clear.” He said “massive Democratic money” raised in states like Arizona and Pennsylvania is helping the party in power.
Still, McInturff said he believes the headwinds are too strong for Democrats to overcome.
“Nationally, Joe Biden is at 41% in swing states and in some of these Senate states even lower. So you’re asking a Democratic candidate to run roughly 10 points above the president,” he said. “There may be a Democrat or two that can do that, given this cycle, but having multiple Democrats run 8 to 10 points above Biden’s job approval is going to be very difficult.”
Apart from candidate contrasts and fundraising strengths, Democrats are helped by signs that they are relatively energized for a party out of power in a midterm election. The Supreme Court’s decision over the summer to revoke the constitutional right to abortion has revved up the base. A perception that GOP control would threaten democracy is also motivating liberal-leaning voters.
“I think it’s a jump ball, but we’re the taller player,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said. “So we’ve got the edge here.”
Lake said one important group of swing voters, women over 50, is “concerned about inflation” but “also concerned about Social Security.” And she said that while they’re leery of Democrats, “they’re not sure the party out of power is going to be better.”
Older women are “the swing vote this cycle,” Lake said. “And they’re cross-pressured. There’s a lot of turmoil going on.”
Still, Lake worries that Democrats as a whole haven’t communicated a clear pocketbook message to voters: “Overall, nationally, we need a stronger economic message.”
Unenthusiastic voters could also play an important role.
Biden’s job approval rating was 45% in the recent NBC News poll. But disapproval of Biden doesn’t neatly correlate to wanting Republicans in charge: The survey found that the 7% who “somewhat disapprove” of the president were almost evenly divided over which party they preferred to control Congress.
Republicans are haunted by memories of 2020, when two Georgia runoffs led to Democrats’ flipping two seats and capturing control of the Senate. They're eager to prevent Georgia from being decisive again.
“I feel really good about 51 seats on Election Night,” said a national GOP strategist plugged into the party’s polling, describing the Republicans’ path as winning in Nevada and Pennsylvania and holding their seats elsewhere.
But the strategist, discussing internal information on condition of anonymity, conceded that Ohio is still “closer than we’d like it to be” and that it's unexpectedly "tight" in Utah, where an independent candidate is challenging the GOP incumbent.
McInturff said “another tier” of Senate races outside the core three could yield shocks for Republicans — Democratic-held seats in Arizona, New Hampshire, Colorado and Washington.
“There’s always one weird upset,” he said. “And that’s the point. You can’t predict a weird upset. But the Senate is closer to being Republican than people imagine.”