The Senate 6: June Rankings
Analyzing the six 2022 Senate races that will determine party control.
Precisely five months from Election Day, I present my inaugural #2022 rankings of the most competitive Senate races in the country — and the SIX that will decide which party holds power in the upper chamber for the second half of Joe Biden’s presidency.
If you’re here you probably don’t need the reminder that the Senate is evenly deadlocked at 50-50, so every seat on the map holds the promise of a majority maker.
I also hold the slightly contrarian view that the Senate battleground map is stronger for Democrats than current conventional wisdom holds. Each of the six top Senate races are in states that Joe Biden carried in 2020, albeit narrowly. So there’s no room for error, especially when the party is battling headwinds. But Democrats are fielding Grade A candidates in at least half of the top tier races and there’s a scenario in which they could end up winning 5 of the 6.
Now the bad news for Dems.
It may shock (or appall) some of you not to see North Carolina on this initial listing. It’s true: I’m not yet convinced it is in play for Cheri Beasley and the Democrats. Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in the Tar Heel State since 2008 (that’s 14 years), the president failed to carry it (by 1.3%) in 2020 on his path to putting new states in the Democratic bucket and the top Democratic political entities are thus far not investing in fall advertising.
There’s also Ohio to consider; Tim Ryan is truly an above-grade candidate for Democrats, as I wrote in May, and early general election polling has showed him within the margin-of-error of J.D. Vance. But I’m also in wait-and-watch mode to see if the preliminary general election polling is the result of early unfamiliarity with Vance or a deeper systemic flaw that primary voters didn’t catch on to.
At this moment, I place both Ohio and North Carolina on the watch list, but not on the premiere list of Senate entrees. As always, I’m open to hearing your case, even if someone wants to pitch Florida, the state I’m most skeptical of when it comes to Democratic hopes. (Fool me once … you know the rest.)
And just some housekeeping on the ordering: These are listed in descending order of competitiveness — not necessarily which seats are most likely to flip — but the ones which will be the closest, perhaps even #TooCloseToCall on Election Night, starting at the top.
Oh and if you’re inside one of these prized states or working on one of these races, I’d love to hear from you directly on anything you’re hearing and what I’ve missed: firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s the #SenateSix, baby. At least for now.
The John Fetterman-Mehmet Oz (should we call him Dr. or nah?) clash will measure as the gold-plated centerpiece of the 2022 cycle, drawing national media attention that compares to the 2012 Elizabeth Warren vs. Scott Brown showdown — except holding even less certainty about the ultimate victor.
It’s No. 1 because it’s the only open seat race with no incumbent in a verified battleground state — the country’s largest battleground now that Florida has slid into the light red Republican column — and it features a pair of larger-than-life pseudo celebrities: Oz, the Oprah-made TV talk show host who either wowed audiences with charisma and compassion or scammed them into fishy medical schemes, depending on your perspective; and Fetterman, the hulking 6-foot-9 Bernie bro who delights progressives but benefits from looking like a rural Republican who you wouldn’t mess with at the biker bar.
An added irony: Oz is a heart surgeon and Fetterman is currently recovering from heart problems that caused him to suffer a stroke just before Pennsylvania’s primary election.
It’s left Fetterman off the campaign trail and Oz with a clean opportunity to unite Republicans following his 996-vote victory over Dave McCormick that continues to be recounted even as McCormick conceded.
Oz holds the distinction of having been able to eek out a primary win despite a majority of Republicans viewing him unfavorably. So his first appointment must be bringing all corners of the party on board.
The wrench in that plan is Doug Mastriano, the firebrand GOP nominee for governor who has fully embraced Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election. Oz campaign spokeswoman Brittany Yanick did not respond to my twice emailed questions of whether Oz has yet had a conversation with Mastriano and if they plan to campaign together.
Fetterman, first and foremost, has to demonstrate he’s healthy and weather the flurry of stories packed with doctors speculating how worrying his medical condition is and how long it could sideline him. Fetterman’s wife told CNN’s Jeff Zeleny this week that she hoped he could be back on the trail by July. “Maybe,” she’s quoted as saying.
That’s a long month for the campaign to fill time without a candidate. Fortunately for Fetterman it’s June, not October.
No recent public polling
Key dates: July 5, the Tuesday after the holiday in which observers will want to know if Fetterman is healthy enough to return to the campaign trail.
2020 presidential outcome: Biden +1.2% or 81,660 votes
Who’s Winning Today: Oz, simply because he’s healthy and quickly netted McCormick’s support even before the primary recount concludes on Friday. But only by a hair; this is a general election race that could end up as close as 900-vote primary difference.
Like Oz, Herschel Walker’s another bonafide star who secured his Republican primary win through the power of celebrity.
Unlike Oz, the former N.F.L. running back isn’t polished in front of the camera, and that’s led to some errors in the open field as he’s been questioned on television.
It probably explains why the candidate has been quiet since his primary night snafu, where he delivered an unintelligible answer to CNN’s Manu Raju about what gun reforms he’d consider supporting.
Still, Walker can’t be taken lightly in a state in which Sen. Raphael Warnock won his 2021 runoff race by 2%.
While Warnock and Walker haven’t engaged much directly yet, the outside groups have begun their air war, including a no-holds-barred television spot by the Democratic super PAC, Progress Action Fund, which labels Walker a “domestic abuser,” for a darker point in his life when he allegedly threatened to kill his ex-wife.
It’s the most vicious ad I’ve witnessed this cycle to date.
Watch this group. They proudly declare on their website that they are happy to do the dirty work traditional Democrats shy away from.
“Democrats are afraid to go on offense,” the Progress Action Fund website states. “The Progress Action Fund changes that. We tell it like it is with hard-hitting, effective and aggressive messaging about the opponents of the candidates we support in order to win campaigns and champion progressive values.”
A pro-Walker super PAC, dubbed 34N22, is hitting the Atlanta airwaves saddling Warnock for the surge of illegal border crossings and a rise in crime.
It’s a traditional R-on-D hit.
But the biggest test is whether Walker can withstand the scrutiny from running in the second most high profile race in the country, field policy questions and present himself to Georgians as senatorial.
“Herschel looks forward to debating Senator Warnock in the fall,” Walker spokeswoman Mallory Blount told me.
If Walker holds to that commitment, that’s where his campaign could shine or be sacked.
Latest best poll: Warnock 50% Walker 45%, SurveyUSA, 1,278 likely voters, April 22-April 27
Key dates: None immediate on the schedule
2020 presidential outcome: Biden +0.2% or 11,779 votes
Who’s Winning Today: Warnock. Even with the Biden baggage, he’s drawn a mistake-prone opponent who is struggled to concoct a message beyond talking points. This can certainly change and sometimes the rhetorically smoothest candidate doesn’t win. (I’m thinking of Mary Landrieu’s loss to Bill Cassidy in 2014). But Warnock is the superior candidate at this vantage point.
The only vulnerable Senate Republican incumbent on the ballot this year is two-term Sen. Ron Johnson, whose favorability ratings have been dwelling in the 30s as he’s constructed a more confrontational, archconservative profile in Washington.
Over the next two months, Democrats will sort through four candidates with disparate demographic profiles in choosing Johnson’s opponent: A 35-year-old African-American lieutenant governor, a 40-year-old female state treasurer, a wealthy 33-year-old white son of a billionaire scion or a progressive rural county executive.
Mandela Barnes, who has been endorsed by Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren as well as Congressman Jim Clyburn, has long been the establishment front-runner. But as primaries are prone to do, his advantage has closed in recent weeks as money piles onto the airwaves and voters pay more attention.
Alex Lasry, the wealthy kid and Milwaukee Bucks executive on leave, has ostensibly bought himself into a margin of error race with Barnes, fueled by $8 million in expenditures.
Sarah Godlewski, the state treasurer, has also pulled into double-digits while Tom Nelson, the county executive has trailed.
More than anything, Democrats want to nominate the candidate with the best chance to defeat Johnson, who pulled off a Houdini-like escape from defeat in 2016.
Barnes, Lasry and Godlewski haven’t gone at each other with force yet, but expect that to change as the contest stays tight crawling through summer.
Meanwhile, Washington Democrats have kept firing away at Johnson for using taxpayer dollars to travel to a family home has has in Florida.
Latest best poll (Democratic primary): Barnes 34%, Lasry 31%, Godlewski 18%, Nelson 5%, Undecided 12%, Normington Petts & Associates paid for by Lasry, 700 likely voters, May 18-22.
Key dates: July 17th Democratic U.S. Senate debate, Aug. 9th primary
2020 presidential outcome: Biden +0.6% or 20,682 votes
Who’s Winning Today: Johnson, at the moment. A muddled primary that isn’t decided until August bides time for the two-term incumbent.
The most consequential recent development in Arizona’s Senate skirmish is obviously Trump’s backing of Blake Masters — the venture capitalist protege of Peter Thiel — instantly crowning the 35-year-old as the most likely winner of the five-way Republican scrum to be settled on August 2nd.
Rival Jim Lamon, who founded a solar engineering company, took only a few days to retaliate to the blow. Lamon placed a scorching advertisement on the air this week stamping Masters as antisemitic for questioning the legitimacy of World War II and quoting an author accused of hawking conspiracy theories when Masters was just a teenager.
The missile at Masters demonstrated what will define the final two months of the primary campaign: Whether the Trump-backed Masters can be taken down.
An Arizona Republican closely tracking the contest posited that’s likely only possible if the remaining candidates consolidate to become a singular alternative.
Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who angered Trump for initially refusing to buy into his unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that Arizona’s electoral votes were stolen from him in 2020, is the only contender who has been tested statewide.
But “Ber-no”, as local pols call him, isn’t adored by the conservative base and given Lamont’s vast personal financial investment, it’s hard to see him exiting.
The primary now feels like an earlier Ohio-esque situation, where Trump swooped in to buoy J.D. Vance, leaving the Trumpy Josh Mandel with all the traits for the prom king but no date.
“I think J.D. winning was the real tipping point. If J.D. would’ve lost Ohio, I don’t think Blake gets the endorsement,” says a Republican familiar with Trump’s braintrust.
And unlike Ohioans who hold on to their ballots and vote in person, at least a portion of Republicans are expected to file their ballots early, which narrows the window to take down Masters.
Levitating over this all is the first-term Sen. Mark Kelly, who along with Warnock, looks like the strongest Democratic incumbent in a competitive race this cycle.
Kelly is sitting on a $23 million warchest and just registered a 50% approval rating, pacing him 7 points ahead of Biden and making him the most popular politician in the state.
The astronaut and husband to former Rep. Gabby Giffords is going to be tough to dislodge, barring an unforeseen scandal, but those who have interacted with Masters are high on his intellectual firepower and relatability.
Latest best poll (Republican primary): Lamon 20%, Brnovich 18%, Masters 15%, Undecided 36%, Data Orbital, Republican firm, 550 likely voters, June 1-3. Note that the poll was already in its second day when Trump announced his endorsement of Masters, so it doesn’t completely measure the Trump effect.
Key dates: June 23, Freedomworks Candidate Forum in Phoenix; July 6 early primary voting begins, Aug. 2 primary
2020 presidential outcome: Biden +0.3% or 10,457 votes
Who’s Winning Today: Kelly. Masters is the GOP front-runner in waiting but is untested and is about to earn a heap more scrutiny for his past writings and musings given Trump’s blessing. And Lamon isn’t inclined to go quietly over the next two months.
Adam Laxalt still has a Republican primary to clear next Tuesday, which explains why his latest advertisements are 30 full seconds of direct-to-camera endorsements from Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, the king and budding prince of GOP politics.
An NBC report recently raised a flare that Laxalt could be upset by Sam Brown, a retired Army captain who was maimed by an IED while serving in Afghanistan.
But bet on Laxalt to come through by at least a high single-digit margin or more.
“I think he’s solid, the challenger, but Laxalt’s going to win,” said Ted Papppageorge, the secretary-treasurer of the state’s powerful Culinary Union, which backs Democratic candidates, including first-term Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
Cortez Masto continues to build a financial warchest advantage over Laxalt, raising $3.6 million in just two months, compared to Laxalt’s $1.5 million total.
And she’s tried to use her pre-primary window to frame the general election debate around reproductive rights — suddenly threatened by a Supreme Court poised to strike down Roe v. Wade — and Laxalt’s ties to gun groups.
But there’s a sense that Hispanics are looking to bolt from the Democratic fold, prioritizing the high price of gas and groceries over cultural touchstones.
The siren on the Hispanic vote was delivered by Blueprint Polling, which found in March that Cortez Masto was at parity with Laxalt among Hispanic voters, which are projected to make up about 17% of the total vote in 2022.
The caveat: About a quarter were undecided, which explains Cortez Masto’s early Spanish-language media campaign boosting her Senate work and tarnishing Laxalt.
But this will be the key battleground that is the focus of both parties over the next five months.
The key number for Republicans: 37%.
“If we hit 37 with Latino voters, we win,” said a Republican source familiar with the contest.
Latest best poll (Republican primary): Laxalt 45%, Brown 30%, OHPredictive, 500 likely voters, May 10-12
Key dates: June 14 primary, when Laxalt needs to fend off Sam Brown.
2020 presidential outcome: Biden +2% or 33,596 votes
Who’s Winning Today: Cortez Masto, until Laxalt clears his primary and we get a fresh set of numbers on their head-to-head. A Nevada Independent poll showing Cortez Masto up 8 points with Laxalt capturing just 35% of the vote looked silly and unserious. Even the disastrous Sharron Angle only lost by 6% in 2010.
6. NEW HAMPSHIRE
For Republicans, New Hampshire could easily become the one that slips away. Having secured her first-term by only 1,017 votes, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan will struggle to survive if the political weather in the fall is as noxiously vicious for Democrats as it was in 2010, the last time the GOP won a Senate race in the Granite State.
But there’s a long runway for the GOP primary to be flipped over and smashed like a flimsy beer pong table outside of a Buffalo Bills game. It’s #LITN, meaning last in the nation, a primary that won’t be resolved until Sept. 13.
Chuck Morse, the state Senate president, looks like the establishment front-runner, which inherently makes him a potentially vulnerable one, depending on whether Don Bolduc can MAGAfy his following of hard core conservative activists and military veterans (“Bolduc is really the wild card — because he is unpredictably wild,” quips a rival campaign aide) or if Kevin Smith can broaden his appeal beyond a town manager with business community cred. But wait there’s more. A newer entrant is Bruce Fenton, who describes himself as a “Cypherpunk Stockbroker” and fan of Bitcoin. He also has millions of personal money he’s promising to toss around. Yet even I, who owns #Bitcoin, had to Google Cypherpunk, so I’m not sure how deeply that will resonate with the average voter who is over 50 and not a cryptocurrency junkie, especially given the recent market tumble. And then there’s Vikram Mansharamani, a Harvard lecturer and author who has released books on A.I. and financial bubbles. Like Vikram’s last name, it’s nearly impossible to get your arms around a primary that’s still germinating. But Morse is your grandfather’s Republican front-runner: gray-haired, been around forever and plainer than vanilla.
Will there be a surprise final entrant before Friday’s candidate filing deadline like Corey Lewandowksi’s been teasing for months?
For the moment, the muddle only benefits the incumbent in a state which still tilts blue in federal elections.
Latest best poll: Morse 46% Hassan 44%, University of New Hampshire, 868 likely voters, April 14-18
Key dates: June 10, the deadline to file a candidacy & Sept. 13, the GOP primary
2020 presidential outcome: Biden +7% or 59,277 votes
Who’s Winning Today: Hassan, mostly due to the fact that Republicans have a long unformed summer primary that won’t be resolved for another three months, which is an eternity in any political campaign. But also because last month’s leak of the #SCOTUS draft to overturn Roe handed Hassan an easy cudgel to use against a bunch of white men, who have cheered the opportunity to eliminate abortion access.