Senate ratings update: Battle for control is a toss-up

Pennsylvania, Ohio races looking better for Democrats

New ratings by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales show GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in a Toss-up race in Pennsylvania. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
New ratings by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales show GOP Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in a Toss-up race in Pennsylvania. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 29, 2022 at 2:16pm

ANALYSIS — Less than a year ago, Democrats were struggling to win big races in places where Joe Biden had won handily in 2020. Now, they’re within striking distance of winning in some states that Biden barely carried, and it could be enough to hold the Senate majority.

The size and shape of the Senate battleground is similar to what it was last August, when Democrats were defending Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire and Republicans were defending Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

Achieving a net gain of one seat looked well within reach for the GOP, considering Democratic candidates underperformed Biden’s 2020 margin of victory by about 12 points in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races in 2021 and Biden narrowly won six of the eight initial Senate battleground states in 2022. As long as Republicans held their own seats, they only needed to defeat one of the vulnerable Democratic incumbents. 

[House ratings update: GOP majority could be slim]

Biden’s job approval rating has been poor or mediocre since the country’s exit from Afghanistan last year, and there’s little historical precedent for a party in power dramatically improving their election prospects in the final few months of a midterm. Typically, it’s a slide toward significant losses. 

But there’s evidence that this cycle will not be a typical midterm. 

A combination of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, subsequent GOP efforts to eliminate access to legal abortion at the state level, revelations from the Jan. 6 House select committee, continuing investigations into former President Donald Trump and even some improvement in gas prices have given Democrats a boost. That has manifested itself in improvement in the national generic ballot and Democratic overperformances in recent House special elections in Nebraska, Minnesota and New York. 

Republicans also have the Senate-specific challenge of underperforming nominees. The GOP can no longer rely on a positive political environment to prop up candidates in Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where they are facing some of Democrats’ strongest campaigns.  

The fight for control of the Senate has always been more competitive than the fight for the House this cycle. So as the fight for the House has brightened a bit for Democrats, the battle for the Senate looks like a toss-up. The new Inside Elections projection is Republicans +1 seat to Democrats +1 seat, including no net change, which would keep Democrats in control. Previously, the projection was Republicans +1 to +3 seats. 

There’s also been some movement at the individual race level. 

Oz in transition trouble

In Pennsylvania, the rating has changed from Tilt Republican to Toss-up. GOP nominee Mehmet Oz has yet to consolidate Republican voters after the bitter primary and has not repaired his image to the point where GOP strategists are comfortable with his standing in the race.

The rating shift toward Democrats is notable considering their nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, has not fully recovered from the stroke he suffered days before the primary. But Democrats have done a good job of keeping the heat on Oz, who has been unsteady in his transition from TV celebrity to Senate candidate. 

Losing their own seat in Pennsylvania (retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey currently holds it) makes it more difficult for the GOP to win the majority because it would then require Republicans to defeat two well-financed Democratic incumbents. 

GOP spending in Ohio

In Ohio, the rating has changed from Solid Republican to Likely Republican. Trump won the Buckeye State handily in 2016 and 2020, but Republicans are having to work to secure retiring Sen. Rob Portman’s seat.

Author J.D. Vance has been underwhelming since winning the GOP primary, and Rep. Tim Ryan has run as good a campaign as Democrats could have hoped for. Republicans didn’t plan on having to spend money in Ohio, but now, Senate Leadership Fund is in the early stages of a multimillion-dollar TV ad buy to push the race to its more typical partisan performance. 

The spending is likely to be effective, but it’s a clear sign that the race is not firmly in the GOP column. And it’s another piece of evidence that the Senate landscape has shifted. Republicans are having to spend money propping up candidates in their own seats (Pennsylvania and Ohio) instead of spending on offensive opportunities in Washington and Colorado, where they have better candidates. 

It’s not exactly clear what the political environment will be in a couple of months, but the fight for the Senate is coming down to the wire. And the way things are headed, control could come down to yet another runoff in Georgia, this time on Dec. 6.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.