|Dear Readers: Crystal Ball editors Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman, along with our Center for Politics colleague Carah Ong Whaley, will be hosting a Twitter Spaces at noon eastern on Thursday to discuss the looming midterm elections. You can tune in here; if you cannot make it, we will also be releasing the discussion as an episode of our Politics is Everything podcast. The podcast is available on all major podcast platforms. If you have a question you would like us to answer during our discussion, feel free to email us at [email protected].
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— The race for the Senate continues to lack a clear favorite, but the majority remains within reach for Republicans despite a headache-plagued campaign year.
— Republicans hope to cut into the Leans or Likely Democratic gubernatorial races as they seek to net seats despite the likely losses of Maryland and Massachusetts.
— A handful of House rating changes serve as a small taste of our final update Monday, when we’ll offer our final picks for the midterm.
Table 1: House rating changes
What we’re watching with days to go
We still have a few days left before Monday’s biennial Crystal Ball Toss-up fire sale — EVERYTHING must go! — in which we’ll push the Toss-ups to the leaning columns and give our final picks for Tuesday’s election.
In the meantime, we wanted to provide a quick update about what we’re watching for in the coming days in Senate, gubernatorial, and House races (we also have a few House rating changes to make).
It’s now been a little more than a week since the Pennsylvania Senate debate between Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) and television doctor Mehmet Oz (R). Caught on a hot mic speaking to President Biden on a tarmac late last week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told the president that the debate “didn’t hurt us too much.” We don’t think Schumer was inaccurate here; as best we can ascertain from our own conversations with sources and from publicly-available data, it’s hard to say that the debate caused a big shift in the race. However, it’s also fair to say that the longer-term trajectory in this race has been that Fetterman’s lead has been eroding over time, to the point where, if he has a lead, it is almost certainly minuscule. Honestly, we think a Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll released Tuesday showing the race deadlocked at 47% apiece is a pretty good approximation of where the race is now. The same pollster’s numbers from mid-September had Fetterman up 49%-44%.
Painstakingly, Oz has gotten this race back to where he needed it to be — close enough that the environment can carry him across the finish line. Needless to say, our Leans Democratic rating in this race is awfully shaky, and we’ll be continually assessing it over the coming days. Pennsylvania, unlike some other key states, is a predominantly Election Day-voting state, so the electorate may be especially sensitive to any late, pro-Oz momentum. There have been about 960,000 mail ballots submitted so far, according to Pennsylvania’s secretary of the commonwealth. That’s only a relative sliver of the expected electorate (there were 5 million votes cast in Pennsylvania in the last midterm, so maybe this is something like 20% of the total votes). This will be a very Democratic-leaning group of ballots, and they will be counted more slowly than Election Day ballots because they can only be processed starting the morning of Election Day. So expect Pennsylvania to look redder on Election Night — as was the case in 2020 — than it will when all the votes are tabulated (hopefully within a couple of days after Election Day).
Nevada remains the Republicans’ best Senate pickup chance, but that race is nowhere near put away. Georgia is second, although a runoff may loom based on what we know now.
Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) retain tenuous leads in their respective races, based on our best information. Former venture capital executive Blake Masters (R) helped nudge Libertarian Marc Victor out of the race earlier this week, perhaps giving himself a little bit better of a chance to more fully consolidate the Republican vote with the help of Victor’s exit and endorsement (though it’s so late that Victor’s name will of course remain on the ballot, meaning his exit may not matter much for voters who are voting for him merely as a protest). Back in 2018, a Green Party candidate dropped out and endorsed Kyrsten Sinema (D), who ended up winning by a little under 2.5 points; the Green still ended up getting a share of the vote about equal to Sinema’s margin of victory.
Republicans still look OK in their other major defensive states, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. As we noted last week, Democrats seem to be on shakier ground in their Leans states than Republicans are in theirs.
There have been some close polls, generally from Republican-leaning sources, in Washington state, where Sen. Patty Murray (D) is seeking another term; we do not really buy the hype but the state merits watching as a sleeper, which we noted in a piece on potential upsets a couple of weeks ago.
The bottom line: We’re not ready to declare a clear favorite in the race for the Senate, but despite a bumpy road and lots of headaches, the majority is there for the Republicans’ taking, if they have the ability to grab it.
Our gubernatorial Toss-ups are divided into 2 groups: Those that are in presidential swing states (Arizona, Nevada, and Wisconsin) and those that are not (Kansas and Oregon). Unsurprisingly, there’s much more public polling data about the former group compared to the latter: On balance, those numbers have been slightly better for Republicans than Democrats in those swing state races.
As the Republican lean of this election cycle reasserts itself, we’re curious to see if Republicans can cut into the Leans or even Likely Democratic-rated races. Of those, Republicans seem most interested in New Mexico, where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) appears to retain a lead, although perhaps just a small one, over 2020 Senate nominee Mark Ronchetti (R). There has also been some recent buzz about Republican upset potential against Govs. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), Tim Walz (D-MN), and Kathy Hochul (D-NY), with Whitmer probably the most realistic prospect, if only because Michigan is the most competitive of those states. We have heard Whitmer’s lead is smaller than polls showing her up high single digits — but also that the race isn’t tied, either. We have not written much about Maine, where Gov. Janet Mills (D) faces her predecessor, Paul LePage (R), largely because it just seems like Mills has remained decently positioned the whole time, though in a GOP wave environment this could be another upset possibility to monitor.
Our overall House assessment, a GOP gain in the high teens or low 20s, remains unchanged. When we roll out our final picks, we can more easily imagine being on the higher end of that range than the lower end. We’ll see what more we learn over the next few days.
We do have a few rating changes we wanted to make now in advance of our larger tranche of moves looming on Monday.
Rep. Sharice Davids (D, KS-3) in suburban Kansas City seemed like she was in decent position in her rematch with 2020 nominee Amanda Adkins (R) even before a Siena College/New York Times poll released last week put her up by an unrealistically large 55%-41% margin. This probably overstates her strength quite significantly in a gerrymandered Biden +4.5 seat, but even if the poll is way off, she’d still be ahead. In the state’s recent abortion referendum, the pro-abortion rights side cleaned up in Davids’s district, and Gov. Laura Kelly (D-KS) — win or lose — should also do very well in this district in the gubernatorial race. Davids moves from Toss-up to Leans Democratic.
Moving in the other direction, from Toss-up to Leans Republican, is the newly-drawn and open CO-8. We’ve ping-ponged this district around a bit, moving it to Leans Republican before the Democrats’ seeming improvements in the late summer, back to Toss-up more recently, and now back to Leans Republican. At the end of the day, this is just a seat Republicans should pick up in a year like this. State Rep. Yadira Caraveo (D) has released internal polls showing her narrowly trailing state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer (R), including one recently, a move we never see as suggestive of strength.
One of the big stories in recent days has been the emergence of new targets of outside House spending. What has been happening is that some more longshot Democratic districts have come into play, which is the kind of thing one might expect in a midterm year like this one. An example is Chicago-area Rep. Sean Casten (D, IL-6), who moves from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic in today’s update as both Republican and Democratic outside groups have started advertising in his Biden +11 district. There has been some recent concern from Democrats about their prospects in some blue state House seats in places like New York and Oregon. Illinois is another state to watch in this regard, as Democrats are defending a Toss-up in the open IL-17 and are only modestly favored in a few other districts that state Democrats drew to be Democratic seats as part of their gerrymander.
Speaking of Democrats in blue states, we had previously moved Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D, NJ-11) to Safe Democratic under the belief that her seat (Biden +17) is just too Democratic to flip. But she was recently the beneficiary of $2 million in spending from billionaire Democrat Michael Bloomberg (through the group VoteVets, as reported by Politico). Maybe Bloomberg is just looking after an ally who endorsed him during his 2020 presidential run, but we thought the activity merited moving her back to Likely Democratic.
In some states, coattails may matter. Earlier this week, for example, we noted how Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) appears on a glide path to reelection, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is in a strong position too.
If the statewide Republicans win going away and produce big coattails, could they surprisingly shake loose 1 of the 8 solidly Democratic House seats? We doubt it, but just as a way of noting the possibility, we’re moving the currently vacant FL-23 from Safe Democratic to Likely Democratic. This is the most marginal of the seats left for Democrats following the state’s GOP gerrymander, and it still went for Joe Biden by 13 points, so it’s not really a swing seat. Former Rep. Ted Deutch (D) used to hold the predecessor to this district (FL-22); he resigned recently to become president of the American Jewish Committee. The Democrats have a strong nominee: Jared Moskowitz (D), a former state legislator who served for a time in DeSantis’s administration as director of the state’s Division of Emergency Management. He has significantly outraised his opponent, wealth manager Joe Budd (R), who has run for Congress in the past. This change really has little to do with the race itself; it’s just about wave potential, particularly in Florida.
This week’s rating changes leave us with 219 seats at least leaning Republican. 196 at least leaning Democratic, and 20 Toss-ups. Splitting those would lead to a 229-206 Republican House, or a net gain of 16 for Republicans. However, as we wrote above, that represents the low end of what we’re expecting, and we think our final handicap will be better for Republicans.