Seven Senate Races Will Make or Break Biden’s Agenda

Bloomberg mapped out three plausible outcomes of the US Senate after the 2022 midterms. If Democrats win big, Biden could accomplish something no Democratic president has in decades.

Election Day can’t come quickly enough for Senate Democrats. A tumultuous summer marked by the overturning of abortion rights tempered Republicans’ expectations of a conservative wave, but the GOP has regained momentum, setting up a thriller for control of the chamber.

Both parties have already poured some $928 million into the seven most-contentious US Senate races, plus traditional battleground New Hampshire, a figure that could swell to $1 billion in the final weeks of the election, according to fundraisers and ad buyers. Ads are running non-stop in hard-fought Georgia and Pennsylvania, as well as states like Arizona, Wisconsin and Nevada.

Tight Senate Races Head into October

Both parties are sparing no expense to woo voters in the handful of the most closely fought US Senate contests

Note: Both Oklahoma Senate seats are up in 2022. A special election will choose a successor to retiring Sen. Jim Inhofe Sources: U.S. Senate, RealClearPolitics average of polls as of Oct. 12, Bloomberg research

Republicans are strongly favored to take control of the more polarized House. But President Joe Biden has a chance to be the first Democrat to gain Senate seats in a midterm since John F. Kennedy, remarkable given his poor approval ratings, stubborn inflation and historical trends that punish the party in power.

The stakes couldn’t be higher as Democrats barely cling to leads in enough battlegrounds to at least maintain their narrow majority. A GOP Senate would dramatically alter the trajectory of Biden’s presidency, dashing his ambitions of codifying abortion rights and creating a stronger social safety net, while giving Republicans’ burgeoning populist wing a newfound ability to probe the administration. Battles over spending priorities threaten to trigger government shutdowns and spur a showdown over the debt ceiling, while Biden’s judicial and executive nominees would face stiff resistance.

Based on in-depth conversations with political strategists and independent analysts, as well as reviews of polling data and historical trends, we look at three plausible outcomes for the battle for control of the Senate.


Democrats Pick Up 2 Seats

Democrats’ dream scenario would be to win at least the two GOP-held seats in states won by Biden — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — while holding on to their incumbents everywhere else. A 52-seat majority would neutralize two Democratic moderates — Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — who have foiled many of the party’s priorities.

Source: Bloomberg

Democrats also see a pickup opportunity in North Carolina, where Cheri Beasley is polling neck and neck with Representative Ted Budd in a state with a Democratic governor. Democrats additionally tout well-funded campaigns and close polls in GOP-leaning Ohio and Florida.

Take, for instance, Ohio Republican J.D. Vance, who is facing a surprisingly tough race against Democratic Representative Tim Ryan. Republicans have spent tens of millions on defense to prop up a struggling candidate. That’s money they don’t have to go on offense in states like Arizona or New Hampshire, swing states where GOP hopes against incumbents have been fading.

Democrats Keep Bare Majority

The mix of battleground states could also easily lead to a status quo outcome — with another two years of a 50-50 Senate where Vice President Kamala Harris continues to hold the tie-breaking vote.

Source: Bloomberg

Two Democrats are most endangered: Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto and Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock. Democrats can lose one of those seats and still keep the majority provided Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman beats television doctor Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania. They can lose both if Mandela Barnes, another lieutenant governor, beats Republican Senator Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, Beasley beats Budd or Ryan upsets Vance.

Democrats have spent or booked about $458 million in ads across Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. That’s about $54 million more than Republicans, according to AdImpact data.

The total for Democrats includes $2.1 million from Everytown for Gun Safety, which advocates gun-safety measures and is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, parent of Bloomberg News.

“All of this money, all of this effort and I could see Democrats flipping Pennsylvania and Republicans flipping Nevada or Georgia,” said Jessica Taylor, an editor at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. There could even be a repeat of the last cycle where a high-stakes runoff in Georgia decides the majority, she said.

Republicans Take the Majority

Nevada and Georgia are key in Republicans’ path to victory. In Nevada, Republican Adam Laxalt has narrowly led most recent polls, capitalizing on Biden’s unpopularity, as well as the border and crime.

Source: Bloomberg

Warnock, meanwhile, has been a star fundraiser as the Democrats’ majority-maker in 2021 but is in a virtual tie against political neophyte Herschel Walker, the Trump-backed Heisman Trophy winner whose personal life is quickly becoming the main story in that race.

If Republicans can win both seats and hold onto Wisconsin, they’d likely be in the majority. And if Oz or the GOP candidates in Arizona or New Hampshire can pull off comeback wins, the party would net multiple seats.

A GOP takeover of both chambers of Congress would give the party strong momentum heading into the 2024 presidential election.


Arizona

The Arizona Senate race was supposed to be one of the marquee races in the country this year. Biden edged Trump there by just 0.3 percentage points in 2020, becoming the first Democrat to win the state since Bill Clinton. And Democrat Mark Kelly is coming off a special election for the Senate just two years ago, making him more vulnerable than Democratic colleagues with longer tenures.

Arizona Election Indicators

Sources: RealClearPolitics Senate election polls, AdImpact data compiled by Bloomberg; Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for Aug. 2022; National Association of Realtors existing home prices, AAA regular gas prices

But Kelly, the former astronaut married to the popular former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, outperformed Biden and has cast himself as an independent-minded senator who pays attention to local issues. His Republican opponent, Blake Masters, had Trump’s endorsement and the backing of billionaire tech mogul Peter Thiel. But support dried up after Masters won a contentious Republican primary and Kelly has held a consistent lead in polls. A super PAC controlled by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has also pulled money out of the state, redirecting it to more competitive Senate battles.

Democrats also enjoy their widest financial advantage — some $45 million in ad spending — in that race.

Pennsylvania

Fetterman — a Rust Belt Democrat who cuts an imposing 6-foot-8-inch image clad in a hoodie and gym shorts — opened a large lead against Oz over the summer, as the Trump-backed candidate was still regrouping from a bruising Republican primary.

Pennsylvania Election Indicators

Sources: RealClearPolitics Senate election polls, AdImpact data compiled by Bloomberg; Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for Aug. 2022; National Association of Realtors existing home prices, AAA regular gas prices

Fetterman’s adept use of social media capitalized on Oz’s wealth and out-of-state roots in the fight for the seat now held by retiring Republican Senator Patrick Toomey. But the race has been tightening as Republicans have marshaled resources into the state, and Fetterman — having agreed to only one debate on Oct. 25 — will face a high-stakes test of whether his recovery from a stroke will affect his performance.

Wisconsin

Johnson, the most vulnerable Republican incumbent, is facing off against Barnes in a race that offers Democrats one of their few chances to flip a seat. Johnson very narrowly won his first two terms in years that favored the GOP, but it’s hard to say which party will have the wind at its back on Nov. 8.

Wisconsin Election Indicators

Sources: RealClearPolitics Senate election polls, AdImpact data compiled by Bloomberg; Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for Aug. 2022; National Association of Realtors existing home prices, AAA regular gas prices

Johnson’s favorability ratings are dismal, and Barnes very narrowly led the senator in polling in the summer and early fall. The Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe v. Wade also quashed Johnson’s hopes of keeping the election focused tightly on inflation and the economy, reverting Wisconsin’s abortion policy to an 1849 state ban on the procedure except to save the life of the mother.

But polls in recent weeks have Johnson slightly ahead of Barnes, with public opinion bending away from the Democrat after a cascade of negative ads against him funded by Johnson’s campaign, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and outside GOP-allied super-PACs. Republicans have spent $61.7 million in ads to help Johnson, a rare instance in which the party has outspent Democrats.

Barnes is being hammered as an “extreme” candidate who favors defunding the police, promoting “sanctuary cities” that harbor undocumented immigrants and giving early parole to convicts.

Georgia

Warnock narrowly won a runoff in January 2021 that gave Democrats control of both chambers of Congress, paving the way for Biden to notch his biggest legislative victories.

Georgia Election Indicators

Sources: RealClearPolitics Senate election polls, AdImpact data compiled by Bloomberg; Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for Aug. 2022; National Association of Realtors existing home prices, AAA regular gas prices

But polls show Warnock in a close race with Walker as he seeks a full six-year term. He’s campaigned on kitchen table issues like Medicaid expansion and reducing prescription drug costs, but Walker has found an effective cudgel in tying Warnock to the unpopular Biden, high inflation and the post-pandemic increase in crime.

Still, Walker’s campaign has been plagued by a series of gaffes and explosive allegations ranging from past domestic abuse to last week’s report that he paid for an abortion over a decade ago even as he has campaigned on banning the procedure.

Nevada

Nevada has emerged as the Republicans’ best pickup opportunity, with unhappiness on prices, immigration and crime. Republican Adam Laxalt has trailed Senator Catherine Cortez Masto badly in fundraising but has swung past her in most recent polls.

Nevada Election Indicators

Sources: RealClearPolitics Senate election polls, AdImpact data compiled by Bloomberg; Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment for Aug. 2022; National Association of Realtors existing home prices, AAA regular gas prices

The tourism-dependent state was hit harder than any other during the pandemic, and while it now has more people employed than when Covid-19 hit in 2020, it has a higher unemployment rate than nearly every other state and gasoline prices well above the national average. But the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe stands to feature prominently in a state where a strong majority supports access to the procedure.

Cortez Masto has also made an issue of Laxalt’s role as a co-chair of Trump’s campaign in 2020, when he helped lead efforts to overturn Biden’s win in Nevada. A key factor is whether Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate, will be able to stem an erosion of support for Democrats from Hispanic voters.


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