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Senate wild cards: Five sleeper races that could surprise in 2022

With polls showing the race for control of the 50-50 Senate headed for a photo finish, a single unexpected outcome could decide which party controls the chamber for the next two years.
Tiffany Smiley, Evan McMullin, Mike Franken and Joe O'Dea.
Tiffany Smiley, Evan McMullin, Mike Franken and Joe O'Dea.AP

WASHINGTON — Every election tends to produce some surprises. With one-third of Senate seats coming before voters this fall, there are numerous contests that have perhaps flown too far under the radar for some but that analysts say could yield potential upsets.

And with polls showing the race for control of the 50-50 Senate headed for a photo finish, a single unexpected outcome could decide which party controls the chamber for the next two years.

Here are five races where long-shot contenders could shock the nation on Nov. 8; we've also included how the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which analyzes elections and campaigns, rates the odds.

Utah

Republican Sen. Mike Lee was all set to coast to re-election in ruby-red Utah. Then the Democrats opted not to put up a candidate and instead supported independent conservative Evan McMullin, bolstering the former Republican who left the party over its support for former President Donald Trump.

Polls vary sharply, from displaying a big lead for Lee to a narrow edge, with one survey by a pro-McMullin group showing their candidate with the upper hand. A recent survey by Deseret News shows Lee with a lead of 41% compared with 37% for McMullin, which falls slightly outside the margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 points.

Lee has sounded the alarm. “I need help, Sean,” he said in a recent appearance on Fox News Channel's “Hannity,” urging Americans to donate to his campaign. “It would be a shame — an utter shame — if we lost the majority, Republican majority in the Senate.”

McMullin has vowed not to caucus with either party if elected, seeking to neutralize Lee's attack.

At a recent debate, McMullin sought to portray Lee — a former anti-Trump Republican turned Trump ally — as a threat to the Constitution. He cited Lee’s text messages to the then-White House chief of staff that he was “trying to figure out a path that I can persuasively defend” to keep Trump in office after he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden. Lee said he was simply seeking out the facts and noted that he ultimately voted to certify Biden’s victory.

Cook Political Report rating: “Likely Republican”

Colorado

In Joe O’Dea, Republicans found a centrist candidate who is running as a rare breed: He's pro-Obamacare, anti-Trump and if elected vows to be a “Republican Joe Manchin.”

But has Colorado become too blue for it to matter? O’Dea’s path is complicated but plausible — if 2022 ends up being a more GOP-friendly year in the state than the latest surveys suggest.

He faces Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, who led by 7 points, which is outside the margin of error, in a recent Marist poll, and remains favored to win a third term in a highly educated state that Trump lost by 13.5 points in 2020.

O'Dea recently clashed with Trump, saying he shouldn’t run for president in 2024, prompting Trump to call O’Dea a “RINO character” (meaning Republican in name only) and saying “MAGA doesn’t Vote for stupid people with big mouths.”

Trump bashing O’Dea “could help him with moderate voters,” said Jessica Taylor, who oversees Senate races for the Cook Political Report. “But does that mean that MAGA voters that he still needs to turn out are going to? Or skip that race on the ballot?”

Cook Political Report rating: “Lean Democratic”

North Carolina

Republicans are favored to win North Carolina, but only slightly. Polls have shown a neck-and-neck race for months in the battle between GOP candidate Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley for the open seat vacated by retiring Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican.

Recent surveys show Budd leading by an average of 2 to 3 points, often within the margin of error. This is tighter than in several other races that are more closely watched and seen as ultra-competitive. Both candidates have kept a relatively low profile and avoided attention-seeking moves to make a national splash.

Budd is favored in a reddish yet purple state that hasn’t voted Democratic statewide for federal office since 2008, although the party has come close on numerous occasions, which is giving some party leaders hope of an upset victory in 2022.

Cook Political Report rating: “Lean Republican”

Iowa

At 89 years old, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley is running for another six-year term. He has been a U.S. senator for nearly 42 years and served in public office for 63 years. Grassley is a legend in Iowa politics and widely seen as unbeatable in the red-trending state, but the years may be catching up to him.

A recent poll by The Des Moines Register — conducted by J. Ann Selzer, whose polls are known for meeting the gold standard — found Grassley’s lead shrinking to 3 points among likely voters, which is within the margin of error. Buried in the survey was a hint as to why: 60% said his age was a concern, including 37% of Iowa Republicans and 64% of independents.

“It says to me that [Democratic nominee Mike] Franken, is running a competent campaign and has a shot to defeat the seemingly invincible Chuck Grassley — previously perceived to be invincible,” Selzer said, according to The Des Moines Register.

Grassley remains a heavy favorite in the Republican-friendly state in what is a tough year for Democrats. But his years of coasting to lopsided victories may be over, and the Selzer poll has given the Democratic Party some glimmers of hope for an upset.

Cook Political Report rating: “Likely Republican”

Washington

Sen. Patty Murray, the third-ranked Democrat and chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, is the GOP’s white whale this cycle. Washington state hasn’t elected a Republican senator since 1994, although Murray knows how close it can get in GOP-friendly years: She hung on by only 5 points in 2010. And she’s taking no chances against Republican opponent Tiffany Smiley.

Murray leads by mid-to-high single digits in recent surveys, which fall mostly outside the margin of error. The race has tightened somewhat, prompting the Cook Political Report to recently shift its rating from “solid” to “likely” Democratic.

Murray is running on protecting legal abortion and attacking Smiley as a danger to reproductive rights; she’s touting Democratic achievements like the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Smiley, like many GOP candidates, is focusing more on inflation and crime.

Cook Political Report rating: “Likely Democratic”