These 10 senators are most vulnerable six months from Election Day

Late primaries mean some may wait months to learn who's opposing them

Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto went to the Senate floor this week to decry "misleading" ads in her state about the prescription drug provision. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto went to the Senate floor this week to decry "misleading" ads in her state about the prescription drug provision. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 10, 2022 at 5:00am

Six months from Election Day, the 10 most vulnerable senators range from the deeply endangered to incumbents who may face emerging and onerous headwinds, depending on how the issues and potential opponents shake out.

Uncertainty dominates the map, presenting a foggy outlook in some of the Senate’s most pivotal reelection battles. Two of the Democrats’ most vulnerable members, Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly and New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan, have no clear challengers yet, the result of GOP governors in both states deciding not to run and elevating the stakes in those Republican primaries.

On issues, Republicans are banking that high inflation, President Joe Biden’s unpopularity and economic tumult will drive voters their way. Democrats see abortion and voting rights as policies that may woo back swing suburbanites. The fraught politics surrounding COVID-19 may well still permeate the campaigns. 

[The 10 most vulnerable House members]

Some of these races — in places like Nevada, Georgia and Wisconsin — will help determine which party controls the chamber, along with pivotal open-seat contests that don’t feature any incumbents and are not part of this ranking. But other vulnerable senators, such as Republicans Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mike Lee of Utah, face electoral threats not from Democrats but from their own side of the aisle. Murkowski’s competition includes fellow Republican Kelly Tshibaka, who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, in an all-party primary. To win again, Lee must fend off fellow Republicans and an independent.

Cortez Masto led the Senate Democrats’ campaign committee last cycle, when the party claimed the majority, but now she's the incumbent most at risk of defeat.

The chamber’s first Latina, her bid for a second term will likely be against Adam Laxalt, the Trump-backed former state attorney general whose father and grandfather were senators and has already drawn prominent national GOP figures to campaign on his behalf. Cortez Masto raised $4.4 million in the first quarter of 2022, which brought her cash on hand up to $11.1 million.

Laxalt, who is in a contested primary with veteran Sam Brown and others, had $2.2 million in the bank on March 31.

Trump-endorsed former NFL player Herschel Walker has emerged as Warnock’s likely November opponent, but first he has to win a bruising May 24 primary. Democrats hope Walker’s history of alleged domestic violence and business failings provide a weakness that Warnock will be able to exploit with close to a $20 million cash-on-hand advantage as of March 31. Warnock, the state’s first Black senator — who has kept his post as the pastor of Martin Luther King Jr. ’s former church — has remained popular in the state, while Biden has not. And national Republicans think Walker, who is also Black, has been able to head off concerns about his past by discussing how he overcame mental health struggles

Johnson’s popularity has been steadily declining since he was first elected as a tea party darling in 2010. Democrats plan to attack him as a polarizing figure whose amplification of Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen and controversial claims about the COVID-19 vaccine are proof that he has lost touch with his business-friendly roots. Wisconsin narrowly voted for Biden last year, but  Johnson has picked up his fundraising, bringing his cash on hand to $3.6 million at the end of March. That’s allowed him to get his message on television early, while his potential Democratic opponents are locked in a tightening primary. 

[December 2021's list of the most vulnerable senators]

Kelly has proved to be a fundraising juggernaut in his quest to hold on to the Arizona Senate seat he won in a 2020 special election. Still, the electoral dynamics of Arizona, which Biden carried by a hair, place the former astronaut on the top five of the latest list. He had $23.3 million in cash on hand at the close of the first quarter, after raising another $11.4 million.

None of the potential Republican challengers have been able to bring in that kind of money, but in an environment more favorable to the GOP than 2020, the race is a Toss-up. It’s also a long way off from the state’s Aug. 2 primary.

Hassan very narrowly flipped this seat six years ago and benefits from a field of lesser-known Republicans facing off in a September primary. She finished the first quarter with $7.6 million after outraising the entire Republican field combined, which includes state Senate President Chuck Morse, former Londonderry town manager Kevin Smith and retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc and has since attracted more candidates. But her own upside-down favorability and Biden’s low approval ratings in the Granite State aren’t likely to help Hassan, who has tried to distance herself from the administration on issues such as immigration and gas prices.

In spite of his national profile, Democrats think Rubio hasn’t managed to win the hearts of Florida’s voters, and that could make him vulnerable to Democratic Rep. Val B. Demings, who faces only nominal opposition in the Aug. 23 primary. Her background as Orlando’s first Black female police chief and blockbuster fundraising could help defuse some of the GOP’s crime-related attacks and motivate the state’s low-propensity Black voters. But Rubio will be helped by the star power of Gov. Ron DeSantis at the top of the ticket in a state that has veered to the right in recent years. 

Colorado has become reliably Democratic in statewide elections in recent cycles. But the large number of unaffiliated voters could be up for grabs in a cycle that favors Republicans, especially considering the state’s inflation rates, which have outpaced the national average. Republicans plan to attack Bennet for his allegiance to Biden — he voted with the president 98.7 percent of time, according to CQ Vote Watch. They think Bennet could be especially vulnerable to moderate construction company owner Joe O’Dea, who has already put $630,000 of his own money into the race. But O’Dea could get pulled to the right in his primary against state Rep. Ron Hanks, who questions the 2020 election.

This won’t be moderate-leaning Murkowski’s first steep reelection fight and probably won’t even be her toughest (she famously won in 2010 as a write-in candidate after losing the GOP primary). But she does have a race. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund super PAC have lined up to spend millions on her behalf as she seeks to fend off challengers that include Trump-backed Tshibaka. Murkowski held more than $5 million in her campaign as of March 31, while Tshibaka had slightly less than $1 million. First, Murkowski faces an all-party primary, with the top four proceeding to the general election. Alaska relies on ranked-choice voting, which most insiders view as an advantage for the incumbent.

Utah Democrats abandoned the idea of fielding a challenger to Lee from their party and instead offered their blessing to independent (and former Republican) Evan McMullin. Lee also has challengers inside the GOP, including former state lawmaker Becky Edwards and Ally Isom, a former deputy chief of staff to then-Gov. Gary Herbert. Lee held the cash advantage with $2.4 million on hand as of March 31, compared with about $900,000 for McMullin, almost $300,000 for Edwards and about $100,000 for Isom. Unlike other Republicans who have faced their party’s ire for infidelity to Trump, McMullin and others criticize Lee as being too acquiescent to the ex-president.

Though Murray is heavily favored in her quest to win a sixth term, it’s worth keeping an eye on how this race develops. Even Republicans conceded that their party would need to ride a big red wave to boot this incumbent, first elected in 1992. But GOPers are buzzing about Tiffany Smiley, a political novice and veterans advocate whose husband lost his sight serving in the Army in Iraq. Murray held $7.9 million in her reelection campaign as of March 31 to Smiley’s $2.5 million. The race, so far, isn’t attracting big money from key outside players, but if the environment strongly favors the GOP, Murray may call for the cavalry.