2022 Midterms: Predicting 6 races that will decide control of the Senate

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A map depicting the 2022 midterm elections. This map leaves the final six seats up for grabs. Courtesy of the author/The Daily Campus

In just 12 days, millions of Americans will vote in the high-stakes 2022 midterm elections. Because these midterms are seen as a referendum on President Joe Biden’s unpopularity and the country is almost certainly heading deeper into recession, conventional wisdom would suggest that Republicans win back control of both the Senate and House of Representatives on Nov. 8. 

But in this crazy political year — which featured the reversal of Roe v. Wade by five GOP-appointed Supreme Court justices — some forecasters project that the Senate will remain narrowly in Democratic hands. While the so-called “red wave” should hold in the House, just how much will post-Roe political headwinds and a bizarre slate of candidates impede Republicans’ bid to retake our upper chamber? That’s the question I plan to answer today. 

This election, there are 35 Senate seats up for grabs, 14 of which are currently held by Democrats and 21 currently held by Republicans. Long story short, I’m calling 29 of these 35 races as “safe” for one party, and I have indicated my “safe” predictions on the 270toWin map here. (Sorry Colorado and North Carolina, your races aren’t that close.) 

My map projects 47 safe seats for each political party come January, leaving the final six up for grabs. Without stalling any further, I will now lock in my predictions for these six nationally significant Senate races: 

ARIZONA: Mark Kelly vs. Blake Masters 

In the Grand Canyon State, there have been two broad yet interrelated issues defining elections over the last 15-20 years: Border security/crime and the economy/housing market. These are largely favorable issues for Republicans this year, but the party jumped the gun by nominating Masters, a former Thiel Foundation executive endorsed by former President Donald Trump. With the fact that Masters has never before held office and keeps far-right Christian nationalists on his campaign payroll, even right-leaning independents have little reason to support him. 

Though current issues may align more with Masters’ views than Kelly’s, remember that Arizona rebuked Trump in 2020, and that anti-Trump Republican Gov. Doug Ducey remains popular across the state. Essentially, this means Arizona’s political landscape is much different than it was in 2016 and previously. 

As a senator, Kelly has crossed party lines several times, such as on border security measures and in blocking President Joe Biden’s legally bogus attempt to declare a climate emergency. Though most Arizonans do not think Kelly is the right man on every issue, there’s enough anti-Masters sentiment here propelling him to a double-digit lead in most polls. I don’t think the race will be this lopsided, but I’m confident putting it in the Kelly column. 

Prediction: Kelly wins by 6-7%, 48-47 Democrats 

GEORGIA: Raphael Warnock vs. Herschel Walker 

Warnock — with help from Trump’s politically tone-deaf electoral fraud claims — defeated GOP Sen. Kelly Loeffler in one of Georgia’s two 2020 runoff elections, and he now stares down the prospect of serving a full Senate term. 

Standing in Warnock’s way is Walker, the legendary University of Georgia running back and 1982 Heisman Trophy winner, whose trail of off-the-field controversies over the years would make Antonio Brown blush. In 1983, Walker was drafted by the USFL’s New Jersey Generals and played for the team’s then-owner Donald Trump, which kicked off a lifelong friendship between the two men. 

After riding the Trump wave to an easy primary victory, Walker was beset by two scandals earlier this month: (1) He allegedly paid for a mistress to have an abortion despite running a pro-life campaign and (2) he is or was, depending on who you ask, a police officer at some point in his life. While the abortion scandal has backed Walker into a corner, I actually think he did a nice job of responding to Warnock’s attack by pulling out his “honorary police badge” during their Oct. 14 debate. Debate rules aside, the badge gives Walker a nice moment to paint Warnock as an anti-police candidate, which could prove very valuable on Election Day. 

The bottom line here is that you don’t bet against the football player in SEC country, especially when that player is Herschel Walker and that SEC country is home to his Georgia Bulldogs. 

Prediction: Walker wins by <1%, 48-48 

NEVADA: Catherine Cortez-Masto vs. Adam Laxalt 

In many ways, the Nevada Senate race is the Walmart knock-off of Arizona’s. Vulnerable Democratic incumbent? Check. Republicans jumping the gun by nominating an election denier? Check. 

Over the past decade, the GOP has increasingly tried to make gains in the Silver State with some success. Trump’s gains among Hispanic voters in both 2016 and 2020 have party insiders hopeful that Nevada is the state that will give them a Senate majority. But I don’t see it happening for two reasons: Laxalt lacks both Cortez-Masto’s identity and name-recognition across the state. 

Although it may be superficial, Cortez-Masto’s Mexican ancestry is likely to help her avoid the increasing trend of Hispanic voters perceiving Democrats as academic elitists and defecting to the GOP. According to polling website FiveThirtyEight, Nevada’s primary exit polls indicated that Cortez-Masto is likely to maintain a similar level of Hispanic support to the state’s 2020 races, despite a less favorable national environment this year.  

While Cortez-Masto is stagnant, Laxalt is actively trending downward. Despite serving as Nevada’s attorney general from 2015 to 2019, Laxalt has increasingly thrown himself into party insider work, such as co-chairing Trump’s 2020 election campaign. This has caused him to fade from the minds of Nevada voters, and his close ties with Trump could hurt him in what has become a purple state. While I wouldn’t be surprised to see Laxalt take an early lead on Election Day, this race should be heading for recount territory, and Cortez-Masto should sneak by with a healthy supply of absentee/mail-in ballots in her favor. 

Prediction: Cortez-Masto wins by <1%, 49-48 Democrats 

OHIO: Tim Ryan vs. J.D. Vance 

Because the Buckeye State has shifted steadily to the right in recent years, this race isn’t getting the attention it deserves. But both candidates running for the retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s seat have pioneered some very interesting strategies that I think are worth discussing. 

 In Ohio, Biden’s unpopularity has backed Ryan — a moderate Democratic congressman for 20 years — into a serious corner. But somehow, he has found a simple approach to silence the haters: Don’t be seen with the president! Silly as it sounds, Ryan has shunned the national leader of his party several times; he even opted to campaign with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin last week. 

Speaking of candidates who definitely won’t be hanging out with Biden, Vance gutted out a close primary victory after receiving Trump’s endorsement this summer. When the self-described “venture capitalist” is not binging “The Wolf of Wall Street” for hours on end, he is campaigning against illegal immigration and Biden’s economic policies. And like “Wolf” protagonist Jordan Belfort, Vance has not been shy about putting his wife in front of the camera whenever necessary. In an August campaign ad, Vance’s wife told the candidate’s rags-to-riches story in an apparent attempt to soften his “finance bro” image and attract more women voters. 

Maybe I was a little harsh on Vance there, but even he has to know that Ohio is too red to elect an establishment Democrat to the Senate, no matter how moderate Ryan tries to be. Prepare to welcome “the hum” to Washington next year! 

Prediction: Vance wins by 4-5%, 49-49 

PENNSYLVANIA: John Fetterman vs. Mehmet Oz 

Ugh. As a Pennsylvania native, that’s all I can say about this race. Why couldn’t we have seen a showdown between moderates Conor Lamb and David McCormick? They would have inspired voters, and either winner would have felt like the natural successor to Sen. Pat Toomey, a well-respected Republican who is retiring in January.  

But no, instead my fellow primary voters opted for a carpetbagging Hollywood doctor and someone who should probably be visiting that doctor’s office for regular checkups. Everyone knows that Fetterman suffered a stroke and Oz moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey right before winning their respective primaries, and these issues have come to define this campaign. 

Essentially out of commission all summer, Fetterman has combined the best of Biden’s basement-style campaigning with Trump’s world-class Twitter trolling to somehow maintain the lead in this race. Oz and other Republicans have attacked Fetterman’s unusually progressive crime stances, but most polls still show the lieutenant governor ahead by several percentage points.  

However, I do not believe Oz is running as bad of a campaign as many people think. He has been everywhere across the state in recent weeks, including areas not typically frequented by Republican candidates. On Sept. 19, Oz visited the rough Philadelphia neighborhood of Kensington, which many have described as the center of America’s drug crisis. Although gaffes like “buying crudités at Wegner’s” have made Oz look out of touch with Pennsylvania voters, he is attracting more and more skeptical GOP supporters every day as the election approaches. 

While this race could enter Pennsylvania’s automatic recount territory (<0.5%), I expect Fetterman to hold on by less than most experts have predicted. 

Prediction: Fetterman wins by 1-2%, 50-49 Democrats 

WISCONSIN: Mandela Barnes vs. Ron Johnson 

For several years, Johnson indicated he would not seek re-election in 2022, but here I am writing about him. The media has given Oz and Walker plenty of attention as the GOP’s “worst” Senate candidates, but Johnson might be right up there with them. Seen as politically vulnerable after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Johnson aligned himself with Trump; he even has a former Trump lawyer on his campaign payroll

In Barnes, Johnson faces a challenge from the progressive left — and that just might be his greatest blessing. Barnes has backed anti-police movements, which might have helped him before the 2020 Kenosha riots but could now push independents toward the GOP. Furthermore, Barnes fancies himself an outsider who won’t accept corporate donations, yet his massive Q3 fundraising push came mostly from large, out-of-state sources. 

Barnes is a strong candidate for the Democrats of tomorrow, but he has not yet proven his ability to excel with campaign messaging. Though Johnson should be on the ropes, he will have at least a third Senate term before he (maybe) retires. 

Prediction: Johnson wins by 3-4%, 50-50 

If all of my predictions come true, the Senate will remain divided 50-50, which essentially puts Joe Manchin in charge for another two years. Oh joy!

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