2022 midterms

Senate Control Could Come Down to These Long-Shot Races

Washington’s Patty Murray is a very long-shot target for Republicans in November. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

As we draw closer to the end of the 2022 midterms cycle, the battleground for control of the U.S. Senate is becoming reasonably clear. To seize the majority, Republicans need to protect their vulnerable seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and pick off a Democratic seat in Georgia or Nevada. You will notice the disparate number of must-win states: It’s a big part of why Democrats are currently favored to maintain control. (They are also helped, of course, by the sudden crisis threatening to overcome the campaign of Georgia Republican Herschel Walker).

Obviously, some other Senate races are in play, or could be if things get tight in the weeks just ahead. Right now, the RealClearPolitics polling averages for an open seat in North Carolina show favored Republican Ted Budd only leading Democrat Cheri Beasley by 1.5 percent with Budd well under 50 percent. As the Washington Post’s Paul Kane reports, national Democrats are conflicted on this race:

Senate Majority, the super PAC aligned with Democratic leaders, has been on air boosting Beasley since late August. The DSCC has been helping the Beasley campaign, but its advertising unit has not jumped into North Carolina with a multimillion-dollar campaign.

Veterans of past campaigns know how tough the state is. In 2020, 2016 and 2014, Democrats poured tens of millions into North Carolina, only to lose close races each time, their candidates never receiving more than 47 percent. Democrats narrowly lost the last three presidential elections there as well, never getting higher than 48 percent.

It should be observed that this is exactly how Democrats used to think about Georgia until their candidates suddenly flipped two Senate seats and the entire chamber in the 2020 cycle (actually winning both in a January 5, 2021, general-election runoff).

Objectively speaking, an even tougher race is in Florida, where the RCP averages show incumbent Republican Marco Rubio leading Democratic congresswoman Val Demings by four percent. The state, moreover, has been trending red. But Demings’s quality as a candidate and fundraiser, and the possibility of pulling off an upset in the home state of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, has kept online funds and media attention flowing toward the Democrat.

A longer shot for Democrats — so long that the national party committee has kept its distance — is in Iowa, where 89-year-old Republican Chuck Grassley is running for an eighth term. What keeps Democrats intrigued, aside from Democrat Mike Franken’s fundraising prowess, is that polls keep showing Grassley at under 50 percent, always a perilous position for a universally known incumbent as Iowa’s veteran ace pollster Ann Selzer’s numbers show:

Grassley leads 47% to 39% against Franken, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, in the latest poll, conducted July 10–13 by Selzer & Co. Another 7% of likely voters say they would vote for someone else, 2% say they would not vote and 5% say they are not sure.

While Grassley leads Franken, the margin is narrower than in any Iowa Poll matchup involving Grassley since he was first elected to the U.S. Senate. Grassley has not polled below 50% in a head-to-head contest since October 1980, before he went on to defeat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. John Culver.

Grassley may have been saved from a possible upset, though, by an allegation from a former Franken campaign staffer that the candidate assaulted her (forcibly kissing her without consent) while she was working for him. But the race still bears watching.

Iowa has been trending heavily Republican since 2014. But another state where Republicans haven’t lost a statewide race since 1980 could theoretically produce the most audacious Senate upset in the 2022 Democratic playbook. Two-term Utah Republican Mike Lee is in an uncomfortably close race with Independent Evan McMullin, who is running with Democratic backing. McMullin is best known for running for president as a conservative Independent in 2016, representing Republicans who couldn’t stomach Trump (especially numerous among morally rigorous Latter-Day Saints). He won 22 percent of the vote in Utah, finishing just five points behind Hillary Clinton; McMullin and Clinton together held Trump to the lowest percentage any Republican presidential nominee had received in Utah since Barry Goldwater lost the state in 1964.

Thanks to a combination of Democratic and Never Trump Republican support, McMullin has consistently held Lee to a single-digit lead in the polls. A September survey published by the Deseret News showed the incumbent leading McMullin by a mere 3 percent (37 percent to 34 percent) among likely voters with 16 percent undecided and the rest scattered among minor-party candidates. Typically non-major-party candidates fade down the stretch in general elections. But Lee is not in a particularly strong position, particularly after his Senate colleague Mitt Romney declared neutrality in the race. An added wrinkle is that Trump has endorsed Lee, even though in 2016 Lee voted against the 45th president and for Evan McMullin.

With only 14 Democratic Senate seats up this year as opposed to 21 currently held by Republicans, the GOP has fewer long-shot targets. But there are two that could become iffy if the once imposing, then vanishing GOP wave reappears between now and November 8.

The most logical long-shot is in Colorado, where incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet won only 48 percent of the vote in 2010 and just barely 50 percent in 2016, before running a highly unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2020. Republicans, moreover, got lucky when self-funding novice candidate Joe O’Dea, the rare Republican who generally favors the right to an abortion, won the nomination to face Bennet. The incumbent leads by 8.3 percent in the RCP polling averages but regularly falls short of 50 percent.

A less logical target is five-term Democratic incumbent Patty Murray of Washington. In that state’s nonpartisan top-two primary in August, Murray beat top Republican Tiffany Smiley by a 52-34 margin. In the recent past, Washington primary results have been highly predictive of general-election results. Most of the general-election polls show Murray comfortably ahead of Smiley. But Trafalgar Group has two surveys out showing Smiley within two points of Murray, so Republicans still can envision a miracle.

One final race in which Republicans have dim but undistinguished hopes is in New Hampshire, where Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan was considered very vulnerable going into the midterm cycle. But then the preferred Republican challenger, Governor Chris Sununu, took a pass on the race, and the GOP eventually got stuck with retired general and all-around extremist Don Bolduc. Hassan leads Bolduc by 6.6 percent in the RCP polling averages, but Republicans haven’t given up on the race.

It’s likely that both parties’ long shots will remain just that, but there are enough former one-in-a-million candidates in the Senate to keep hope alive for not only a clean win, but for a governing majority next year.

More on the 2022 midterms

See All
Senate Control Could Come Down to These Long-Shot Races