The fight for the Senate: Fundamentals, polling and opposition research

Republican candidates on the defensive, particularly for past positions

Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman arrives for a rally in Philadelphia on Saturday. Polls show Fetterman leading GOP nominee Mehmet Oz, and  Democrats are showing growing confidence about the race, Rothenberg writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman arrives for a rally in Philadelphia on Saturday. Polls show Fetterman leading GOP nominee Mehmet Oz, and Democrats are showing growing confidence about the race, Rothenberg writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 26, 2022 at 2:17pm

ANALYSIS — When I was handicapping races day in and day out, I always started with race fundamentals (e.g., demographics, past political performance in the district or state) and, later in a cycle, switched to watching polls to see where races stood and were headed. But on rare occasions, it was so clear that one side had such a huge advantage in messaging that it was relatively easy to handicap a race even before it had started. 

This year, two contests stand out before even considering fundamentals and polling: Arizona and New Hampshire. Republican nominees in both states — Blake Masters in Arizona and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire — are carrying so much political baggage that it is difficult to see how they can win, even with a midterm breeze at their backs. 

Fundamentals suggest that the 2022 Arizona Senate race between Masters and incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly should be a toss-up. The state was very close in the past two presidential and Senate contests, and the long-term shift of suburban voters toward the Democrats creates problems for the GOP. But Republicans should benefit from a favorable midterm environment, which includes an unpopular Democrat in the White House and inflation.

New Hampshire was expected to be a squeaker this year. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan was definitely at risk, especially if Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who coasted to reelection victories in 2018 and 2020, ran against her. He refused, and Bolduc eventually won the nomination.

Masters and Bolduc are gifts to Democrats in both states because of what they have said in the past. Both men are 2020 election deniers, and Masters has raised the possibility of “privatizing” Social Security.

In a recent piece, Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times noted position flip-flops by Bolduc, Masters and other Republican Senate nominees (including Tiffany Smiley in Washington and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania), and asked, “The real question now is: Can they get away with it?” In my experience, the answer is an unequivocal “no.”

Democratic strategists have so much video and audio, as well as newspaper clips, that candidates like Masters and Bolduc can’t simply start from scratch by changing their positions. They need to flip-flop to try to appeal to independents and moderates, but that only undermines their appeal among MAGA voters who supported them in their primaries.

Not surprisingly, a new Granite State Poll ballot test of likely voters released Thursday by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed Hassan at 49 percent to Bolduc’s 41 percent.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, incumbent Kelly leads Masters 50 percent to 42 percent in a bipartisan poll conducted for AARP.

Even if both races are closer than those two surveys indicate, the two GOP challengers will have to spend plenty of time on the defensive, giving the two Democratic incumbents the opportunity to stay on the attack.

Pennsylvania is in a similar place to Arizona and New Hampshire, since Republican Senate nominee Oz has also flip-flopped, and Democrats have done a good job noting that he has for years lived in a New Jersey mansion. 

Multiple polls show Democrat John Fetterman leading Oz, and even some normally nervous Democrats are showing growing confidence about the race. Of course, the Democrat’s health is an issue, and his performance on the stump and in any debates could be crucial.

You can bet that Democrats will revisit the lines of attack used by David McCormick, who lost narrowly to Oz in the Pennsylvania GOP primary, and by Chuck Morse, the establishment favorite who lost narrowly to Bolduc in the New Hampshire Republican primary.

With the trajectories of the Senate races in Arizona, New Hampshire and, possibly, Pennsylvania now favoring the Democrats, Senate Republican strategists are in the less-than-ideal position of having to sweep two vulnerable Democratic-held seats — in Georgia and Nevada — and retain one vulnerable Republican seat, in Wisconsin, to win a Senate majority.

That certainly isn’t impossible, but it isn’t the slam dunk that analysts and observers once expected.

All of this assumes that Republicans retain Florida and two open seats — in North Carolina and Ohio (where Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is running a very strong race against pro-Trump Republican J.D. Vance) — and Democratic incumbents in Colorado and Washington retain their seats.

Concerns over inflation and eventually recession could still provide Republicans with just enough momentum to help them add seats and retake the Senate. But for now, Democrats are in a much better position in the fight for the Senate than they could have hoped for in early 2022.