It’s pretty clear from the polls that Senate control will likely boil down to four races: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
The calculation is simple. Democrats must win three of those four races to retain control of the Senate. For the Republicans, it’s a slightly easier climb because they only need to win two of those four races.
But despite the ease of the equation, solving it is anything but easy. All of these races are well within the margin of error. Also, the states aren’t that similar demographically, which means it’s plausible that any late move or polling error could affect the states in different ways. Each state also has unique issues that affect them.
Arizona, is the easiest breed to understand. Democrats have won the last two Senate races in the state, having won none since 1988. They are fueled by increasingly strong showings in suburban Phoenix among white college-educated voters and a reliable Hispanic base. They are also aided by one of the largest Native American populations in the country.
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has not trailed in any publicly released polls. Her edge has dwindled in some recent surveys, though many of them come from outfits that don’t meet CNN’s publishing standards.
On average, Kelly gained about 3 points over Republican Blake Masters. A New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday gave Kelly a 6-point lead over Masters.
The problem for the masters is quite simple: his net preference rating (favorable – unfavorable) is underwater. Unpopular Republican candidates are an issue that has plagued Republicans at all levels. Meanwhile, Kelly’s net preference (and approval rating) was positive.
This allowed Kelly to overcome President Joe Biden’s own unpopularity in the state.
Nevada, is most favorable to the Republicans. The Times poll and the average have the race tied between Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Republican Adam Laxalt.
Nevada seemed to be leaning towards the Democrats 10 years ago, after Barack Obama easily won it in two consecutive elections. Republicans have lost the last two state presidential elections by shrinking margins, including a 2.4-point loss in 2020.
The Republicans were helped by a move toward them among Hispanics, as well as a large base of white voters without a college degree. The state’s tourism economic base was hit during the Covid-19 pandemic, when National Democrats were much more likely to push for Covid precautions.
Cortez Masto, unlike Kelly, hasn’t carved out a popularity base, according to the polls.
The last two states of Senate mathematics are the most difficult to understand. Georgia and Pennsylvania couldn’t be more different when it comes to demographic calculations.
Pennsylvania is a swinging Great Lakes state in which Democrats must win over a good share of white voters without a college degree. It’s a group that shuns Democrats, which is why Hillary Clinton in 2016 became the first Democratic presidential candidate to lose the state since Michael Dukakis in 1988.
If border issues play an outsized role in a state like Arizona and a recovering gambling industry is key in Nevada, the big non-inflation story in Pennsylvania is the crime. Philadelphia, the most populous city in the state, has seen its crime rate rise in recent years.
Republican Mehmet Oz has used the crime issue to shut down what was once a big advantage for Democrat John Fetterman in the Senate race.
Fetterman, however, seemed to persevere, despite a stroke that left him off the track for a while. He continues to keep a small lead of around 2 to 3 points. The Times gave Fetterman 6 points, though much of that poll was taken before a debate last week that many saw as weak for him.
Additionally, Republicans have tended to outperform their final poll in recent cycles.
Oz, for his part, had a negative net preference rating throughout the campaign, as he had to fight accusations of being a baggage handler.
Georgia is unique among the four races in that the candidate with the most votes needs a majority to win. Otherwise, there will be a second round in December.
At this point, a runoff seems quite plausible. Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker are in a close race. None of them come close to 50% in the polls average, with libertarian Chase Oliver getting around 3% of the vote.
Runoff potential isn’t the only thing that makes Georgia unique. Peach State has, by far, the largest black population of any of these pivotal races. Democrats have made a comeback in this Deep South state due to a growing black population and the move toward Democrats among white college-educated voters in the Atlanta area.
In the end, Georgia could come down to the same thing that’s been happening in most swing states this year: a Republican nominee in Walker sporting a negative net preference rating against the backdrop of a deeply unpopular president.
Whichever matters most to the rare swing voter will likely decide who wins in Georgia and who takes control of the Senate.