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There are a lot of ways to describe Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Gaffe-prone is not one of them.
So when the top Republican in the Senate told reporters that it’s more likely that his party takes the House than his chamber in November’s elections, much of Washington paid attention to his classically understated warning. “Senate races are just different. They’re statewide. Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” McConnell said ominously on Aug. 18.
Well, as The D.C. Brief continues our tour of the 15 midterm races that could explain U.S. politics, these five Senate races lay bare in spectacular fashion how contests that once looked ripe for Republican successes may instead turn rotten for the GOP, due in large measure to the party’s inability to block problematic candidates endorsed by ex-President Donald Trump. In fact, in each of the five races below, Trump’s support helped get the nominees onto November’s ballots—your latest reminder both of Trump’s power inside the party and his destructive influence on the Establishment’s best-laid plans. Just look at the headlines coming out of Georgia. (More on that below.) And while McConnell does not flub his words, it seems he did err in not derailing certain nominees that put his return to Majority Leader at risk.
Democrats currently enjoy the narrowest possible majority in the Senate, which is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie. So any one of these five races may be the one that decides power in Washington for the last two years of President Joe Biden’s first term. And given the national mood—and political quirks in each of these states—Republicans may yet prevail and win a majority, one that could bring some unpredictable, truly Trumpian characters to the upper chamber.
Ohio: The Trump Convert
In the bitterly competitive contest among Ohio GOP Senate hopefuls for Trump’s endorsement, the 45th President eventually chose an ex-NeverTrumper—a choice that will test the thesis that the former Apprentice host is an all-powerful kingmaker inside the party. As J.D. Vance told TIME’s Molly Ball: “I’m not just a flip-flopper, I’m a flip-flop-flipper on Trump.” He trashed Trump for years, but when it looked like Trump’s support could be helpful, he toned it down and praised Trump’s version of the truth. And in an early test of his potency post-White House, Trump helped Vance emerge victorious with the Republican nomination.
Now, the Hillbilly Elegy author and venture capitalist is locked in a tight race against Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan for the seat being vacated early next year by Sen. Rob Portman.
Vance has the advantage in the polls, although in fundraising Ryan has been lapping him. While the official campaigns give Ryan a 7-to-1 money advantage, much of the Vance operation has been outsourced; while both candidates have had about $13 million in attack ads run against them, Ryan has had just a little under $1 million in supportive ads at his back, while Vance has seen $13 million in outside ad spending to prop him up, according to fundraising reports. Having mega-donor Peter Thiel as a pal certainly has its perks for Vance in a race that already has seen more than $100 million in outside spending, according to ad agencies. Having McConnell-aligned groups book $28 million helps, too.
The Vance-Ryan race is a curious one to watch, as Ryan is testing a theory that a version of Bidenism can still have resonance in the Midwest. His first ad can only be described as anti-China. He’s leaning heavily on unions, which still have sway in the state. And his populism is along the lines of Ohio’s incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has proven successful at winning campaigns as a happy warrior fighting for workers.
Then there’s this reality: Ohioans may have twice voted for Trump, but many did so more on a feeling than any actual policies. In a way, Ryan shares workers’ frustration and grievance of being left behind, but he’s not angry about it. That posture was the thesis of Hillbilly Elegy, which is why so many—including McConnell—thought Vance would have been an attractive candidate. But then he did the full-pivot to Trumpism, which may end up costing him support among independents and traditional Republicans. Just ask former Portman chief of staff John Bridgeland and legislative director Jonathan Petuchowski; they’re both working to elect Ryan.
Pennsylvania: The TV Doc
It’s hard to imagine a Trumpier move than nominating a celebrity TV doctor who may or may not even live in the state. Yet that is exactly what Pennsylvania Republicans did when they picked Dr. Mehmet Oz, who prevailed in the primary by fewer than 1,000 votes over a former top official in the George W. Bush-era Treasury Department.
It was another early indicator of the power of Trump’s thumb on the scale of this cycle’s electorate. Too few Republicans took it as a warning that they could be fielding first-time nominees who haven’t been through the grind of a campaign. As the campaign hits its final march toward Election Day, plenty of consultants are second-guessing that decision.
Oz struggled, even with his Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, away from the trail to recover from a stroke in May. Oz and his campaign have preferred to question Fetterman’s health rather than keeping the focus on Fetterman’s progressive policies like reducing prison populations. Conservative pundits have seemed obsessed with Fetterman’s tattoos and preference for hooded sweatshirts, yet again a dismissive detour from substance.
For his part, Fetterman successfully leveraged his social media footprint to hit back at Oz. His campaign was merciless in mocking Oz’s trip to a grocery store for crudité. This week, his campaign tossed on its social channels a video comparing a quack doctor on The Simpsons with Oz, who has faced serious questions about his credentials. Meanwhile, Fetterman’s campaign has touted the Lieutenant Governor’s record on criminal justice.
The race has tightened as Election Day has gotten closer. Polls show Fetterman’s lead shrinking; some are within the margin of error. Since 1992, a Republican nominee for president has carried the state just once—Trump in 2016 over Hillary Clinton. But Pennsylvania is a complicated state: seven times in that window, have voters elected or re-elected Republicans to the Senate. Smart strategists in both parties are calling this one a coin toss, an outcome that could well come down to dumb luck more than either candidates’ promises or airtime.
Arizona: The Moviegoer
The official story behind Trump’s endorsement of Blake Masters is that he is the strongest believer that the ex-President actually won Arizona in 2020. Unofficially, the truth is probably closer to this: Masters showed up at Mar-a-Lago in May for a screening of a conspiracy theory-based film about election fraud that has been widely debunked.
As TIME’s Eric Cortellessa reports, Arizona was seen as a prime pick-up opportunity for Republicans, who had counted on Sen. Mark Kelly to be an easy candidate to cast as out-of-touch with the proudly quirky state with decidedly Trumpy tendencies. Immigration was supposed to be the issue that tanked Kelly. But the former astronaut proved a killer fundraiser, raising $52 million and banking almost $25 million, according to his July report. Masters, a venture capitalist, raised $5 million and had $1.5 million on hand, according to his September report.
Masters, meanwhile, also has a spotty record that includes calling the gender pay gap a liberal fantasy, opposing the United States’ involvement in World War II while in college at Stanford, and more recently calling for a national abortion ban, before walking it back. Republicans fret that these were exactly the kinds of errors that should have been part of Trump’s vetting of candidates, but were secondary to the ex-reality star’s own gut or ego. Already, McConnell’s super PAC abandoned the state and withdrew millions of dollars in ads as Kelly has maintained a persistent lead.
The candidates are set to meet on Thursday for their debate. It’s a safe bet plenty of staffers here in Washington will be watching closely—with their media buyers ready to boost or pull whatever reserved ad time is left on the books.
Nevada: The Golden Boy
On paper, Nevada GOP Senate nominee Adam Laxalt matched all of Trump’s criteria: an election denier who led the effort in Nevada to overturn the state’s 2020 election results. He thinks prosecutors are too aggressive in chasing members of the Jan. 6, 2021, mob at the Capitol. He comes from a long line of politicians, had won a statewide race before, and served as the state’s attorney general.
Plus, he was way ahead in the polls, and Trump doesn’t mess with losers.
These days, the polls are much closer, though even the Senate Democrats’ chairman of their official election arm has warned Nevada is one of two very real risks for loss. (The other, Georgia, comes next, so keep reading.)
There remains, however, an obvious problem for Laxalt: money. The Democratic incumbent, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, had raised close to $30 million through the end of July, according to her last public filing, while Laxalt’s updated filing showed he had raised more than $7 million in early September. Laxalt’s $2 million cash on hand doesn’t buy many ads, which explains why outside groups have spent at least $26 million to promote him or to oppose Cortez Masto.
The Latino vote in Nevada will play a key role in this race. Democrats have a broader problem with Latino and Hispanic voters, but Cortez Masto, the first and only Latina elected to the Senate, has a built-in affinity and ground game with the community. During a recent visit to a seafood restaurant in Las Vegas, we watched as she was greeted in a Latino-owned business as an old friend. And, in a surprising deviation among Latino voters, polling suggests a community long-assumed to be conservative on abortion doesn’t much care for the recent moves against abortion rights.
Still, immigration and the economy are areas where Republicans think they can make inroads, especially among Latino voters. Also, some $2 million in Spanish-language ads are heading to Nevada airwaves from an anti-spending outside group, an outlay the Club For Growth claims is the biggest bucket of advertising aimed at Hispanics from any GOP group this cycle.
Republicans now see Nevada and Georgia as their path to the majority. But Democrats aren’t ready to write off Nevada’s seat that’s been in their party’s hands since former Sen. Paul Laxalt—grandfather of the current nominee—retired in 1987, and is the former foothold of former Majority Leader Harry Reid, who died last year. For veterans of Reid’s orbit, this one is personal.
Georgia: The Predicted Problem
For months, Republicans in Washington have groaned that their path back to a majority may hinge on a former football star-turned-first-time candidate avoiding a fumble. They were not optimistic, even as Herschel Walker rocketed in polls, cleared the field of potential rivals, and in May roared to a primary victory by 55 points.
Trump is a big Walker booster—after all, Walker was a contestant on Trump’s reality show, The Apprentice. Most Republican leaders, including McConnell, fell in line despite their doubts in pursuit of a majority.
But Walker and his campaign committed a cardinal sin in politics: knowing there’s a bad story that can break at any time and betting it doesn’t. The latest was a Daily Beast report that Walker impregnated a woman and then paid for her abortion—which could be an issue even without Walker’s near-absolute opposition to abortion rights. As proof, The Daily Beast examined a get-well card and a check deposit, interviewed the woman and protected her anonymity, and corroborated the story with a friend who was told about the events contemporaneously. Walker’s campaign has denied the report, and the Republican Party and its organs have rallied around him.
The Daily Beast abortion story is hardly the only damaging story to come out about Walker. There were reports of business shadiness, falsified biographies, bogus charities, secret kids, allegations of assault, stalking, pointing a gun at a woman… At this point, anything seems plausible for a candidate who misled his own campaign about his past.
It’s too soon to know if or how the news might reshape the Senate race in Georgia, where Walker faces incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock. Despite a constant drumbeat of bad stories about Walker, his support appears to have a floor that correlates to partisan identity. So far, no dodgy comment or eye-raising history seems to shake Republicans’ affinity for their party’s choice. Georgia may be changing, but it’s still a Southern state.
Republicans and their allies have dumped $66 million on ads, McConnell’s super PAC has another $20 million teed up, and the official campaign arm of Senate Republicans released a statement sticking with Walker after The Daily Beast’s abortion story. (Democrats and their allies have already spent $76 million on the race.)
GOP consultants still think the race is winnable. After all, Georgia is a runoff state; any candidate needs more than 50% to win, meaning this could well be heading to a Dec. 6 runoff. Once again, control of the Senate may be decided by the winner of an exceedingly close race in Georgia.
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