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Two Senate races that could be sleepers in the battle for control

Lee in Utah and Grassley in Iowa are worth watching

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., faces an opponent who is trying to build a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah., faces an opponent who is trying to build a coalition of Republicans, Democrats and independents. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — What are the sleeper races to watch? Every cycle, it’s a regular question that comes up in presentations and conversations, and yet I often struggle with the answer, even after many years. Defining a sleeper race can be murky, but there are a couple of Senate races that probably don’t get enough attention.

Complicating the answer of what races are sleepers is the fact that political handicappers and analysts are supposed to be able to avoid surprises. It’s part of our job to uncover sleeper races by talking to sources and analyzing data as part of the regular process. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. Democrat Kendra Horn’s 2018 victory in Oklahoma’s 5th District is a recent example.

But it might be helpful to remember how surprise races happen in the first place. It’s usually because no one is paying attention, including the candidates and parties involved. If the candidates and parties aren’t taking the race seriously, then there’s limited polling and information to be uncovered, making it harder for a surprise race to be discovered. 

It also might be prudent to draw a distinction between a sleeper race and a surprise. 

Right now, I’d be surprised if Republican QAnon supporter Jo Rae Perkins defeated Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden in Oregon. Someone will likely respond, “Oh, so you think Perkins can win?” But the answer is no. That’s why I’d be surprised if she did. 

That’s a little different from a sleeper race, which might be better defined as a race that isn’t in the regular conversation about competitive races. 

A good example of a sleeper race is the Senate race in Utah, where independent Evan McMullin is trying to knock off Republican Sen. Mike Lee with a unique coalition. Democrats declined to put up a nominee, so McMullin is attempting to forge a coalition of Democrats, independents and some Republicans. 

It’s still a long shot, especially given the small number of independents who have been elected to Congress in the past. But it’s worth a look. In an interview earlier this year, McMullin explained that he needed support from 25 percent of Republican voters to win. Nearly 40 percent of GOP voters voted for someone other than Lee in the June 28 primary. Certainly more Republicans will vote in the general election, but the primary result showed McMullin’s path is more than a fantasy. 

Inside Elections recently changed the rating of the Utah Senate race from Solid Republican to Likely Republican, boosting Democratic chances of keeping their narrow Senate majority. Even though McMullin has said explicitly that he won’t caucus with either party, a Lee loss would make it more difficult for Republicans to get the majority. 

Of course, there’s still the question of whether a race rated as something other than Solid can be considered a sleeper race. Would a loss by a senator on a pre-election list of most vulnerable incumbents still qualify as a sleeper?

Grassley race tighter than expected

Another Senate race to watch is in Iowa. Inside Elections still rates GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s reelection race as Solid Republican, but there’s significant evidence that this will be his closest race since his initial victory by 8 points back in 1980. 

With the tighter-than-expected race between Grassley and Democrat Mike Franken, and three competitive House races in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Districts, Iowa could be a lot more competitive this cycle than you’d think for a state that voted for Donald Trump by more than 8 points in 2016 and 2020. 

Yet once again, if Franken defeats Grassley, does it qualify as a surprise or sleeper if you’re reading about it two months ahead of the election? Probably not. But I do know that I have come to expect other surprises. I’m just not sure what they are just yet.

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

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