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The states that matter in 2024

Tough luck if you live in the dozens of other states

The seats held by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., offer Republicans two of their biggest pickup opportunities.
The seats held by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., offer Republicans two of their biggest pickup opportunities. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s only February, nine months until the 2024 elections, but it’s already clear that a small number of states will decide which party holds the White House and both chambers of Congress in 2025. 

No, I’m not regurgitating my 2015 column, which identified the states that would pick the president in 2016.

That list included Iowa, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida — states that no longer are toss-ups in presidential politics.

This column is about the nine states that in November will decide (1) the presidential contest, (2) the fight for the Senate, and (3) the fight for control of the House of Representatives.

The presidency

Three Great Lakes states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and three Southern/Sunbelt toss-ups (Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada) are likely to pick the next president of the United States.

Donald Trump carried five of the six states in 2016 (losing only Nevada), while Joe Biden carried all six four years later. The margins in all those states, in both 2016 and 2020, were extremely narrow, and most nonpartisan handicappers expect they will be close again this November. 

Two other states are worth watching but aren’t likely to be as crucial: New Hampshire (carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020) and North Carolina (carried by Trump twice). Two states that divide their Electoral College votes by congressional district (Maine and Nebraska) merit your attention, as well. But none of those states come close to being as decisive as the Big Six.

The Senate

In the campaign for the Senate, this year’s map strongly favors Republicans. Democrats (and independents who caucus with Democrats) sit in 23 seats that are up in November, while Republicans defend a mere 11 Senate seats this year. 

At least seven Democratic-held Senate seats are in play. Four of them are also in states that are crucial in the presidential contest: including Michigan (retiring Debbie Stabenow’s open seat), Nevada (Jackie Rosen), Pennsylvania (Bob Casey), and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin). 

Three of them are in reliably Republican states: Montana (Jon Tester), Ohio (Sherrod Brown), and West Virginia (Joe Manchin III), which is certain to flip to the GOP now that Manchin is retiring.

Also at risk is the seat of one independent who caucuses with the Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Sinema has not announced whether she will run for reelection (most likely as an independent). If she does, Arizona will likely have a three-way race in the fall.

Montana and Ohio stand out because of their conservatism and strong support of Trump in the last two presidential elections. But Tester and Brown have won in difficult circumstances before, and they survived during Trump’s 2018 midterm election (when Republicans picked up two seats) by delivering populist messages that appealed to working-class voters.

Democrats have no top tier Senate targets among GOP-held seats yet, though some believe that Texas (Ted Cruz) and Florida (Rick Scott) could become very competitive by the fall.

The House

Finally, the House is likely to be in play in November, largely because of opportunities in one state.

Few U.S. House seats were competitive in 2022, and most states won’t have competitive contests next year. But due to extensive redistricting in New York state and court-ordered new districts that could elect a few more minority members, Democrats could add House seats in November.

The Empire State has at least six Republican-held seats that look to be at risk later this year, a number large enough to determine whether Democrats can flip the chamber and make House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries the new speaker in 2025. 

Who matters?

But if a handful of states will play a major role in deciding control of the White House and both houses of Congress in November, 40 states won’t be nearly as relevant. 

If you live in Tennessee, Massachusetts, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, or dozens of other states that are not politically competitive, you really won’t have much of a say in picking the next president or the next Congress. What your state will do in November is a foregone conclusion.

If you really want to identify the voters most likely to pick the next president, you can forget about strong partisans from competitive states. It’s swing voters from the swingiest states, like Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, who will really matter if the race for the White House is close.

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