The month of May brought the first Senate primaries of the year. Ohio voted first, followed by a near weekly stream of contests that are shaping the midterm campaign for control of the chamber. At the close of the month, the general election matchups in almost half of this year’s most competitive races are nearly set, with the exception of Pennsylvania, where the Republican primary has gone to a recount.
Republicans only need a net gain of one seat this fall to win the Senate, and much of the intrigue about primaries has so far been on the GOP side. Former President Donald Trump endorsed in all four Senate contests that were on the ballot in May that are expected to be competitive in the fall – Ohio, where his chosen candidate won on May 3; North Carolina, where his chosen candidate won on May 17; Georgia, where his chosen candidate won on May 24, and in Pennsylvania, where his chosen candidate leads by roughly 900 votes. Those primaries cemented his hold on the party because of the way so many GOP candidates, even those without his endorsement, tried to appeal to him – in some cases, twisting themselves into almost unrecognizable versions of their former selves.
Trump’s support played differently in each state. In Ohio, it helped “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance win the primary, likely blunting the biggest attack attack on him – the candidate’s past criticism of Trump.
The former President’s backing of Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania did not have as clear of an immediate impact, especially considering voters might have already associated the two celebrity Republicans together. Near the end of the race, the millions of dollars spent attacking Oz and former hedge fund executive David McCormick seemed to open a lane for conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, but she’s in a distant third place behind Oz and McCormick.
Trump weighed in on the North Carolina primary nearly a year ago, but his backing of US Rep. Ted Budd didn’t clear the GOP field immediately. In Georgia, however, his commitment to Herschel Walker likely kept other top-name Republicans out of the race, leaving the former NFL star gliding to the GOP nomination.
Democrats argue that messy and expensive GOP primaries will leave Republican nominees bruised heading into the general election. (Democrats also had a crowded primary in Pennsylvania, but it didn’t attract anywhere near the level of spending or vitriol as the GOP contest.)
After watching Republican candidates run to the right to try to win their party nods, Democrats are hoping to make general election matchups a contrast in candidates. But that gets harder to do if the national environment continues to work against the party. President Joe Biden’s approval rating was at 41%, with 59% disapproving, according to a CNN poll, conducted by SSRS from April 28-May 1. Democrats know Republicans will tie them to him, which is one reason why a number of them broke with the White House on lifting Title 42, a Trump-era public health authority that allows border authorities to turn migrants back to Mexico or their home countries.
Senate contests are increasingly becoming nationalized affairs, so while candidate quality does matter (see No. 10 on this list), Democrats face a tough challenge in holding their razor-thin Senate majority, regardless of which Republicans they’re facing.
CNN’s ranking of the Senate seats most likely to flip saw a few changes in May, all in Republicans’ favor. But the states that held May primaries remain in the same positions for now, with uncertainty still reigning in Pennsylvania. The ranking, which will be updated in June, is based on CNN’s reporting and fundraising and advertising data, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed.
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
Pennsylvania – a state Biden won in 2020 – has long been the seat most likely to flip, but the May 17 GOP primary hasn’t yet given us an answer to what the general election matchup to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey will look like in November. Celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, who has Trump’s backing, and former hedge fund executive David McCormick finished in a near tie – with a margin close enough to trigger the state’s automatic recount process.
Counties need to finish recounting – which they must do using a different device than the one used in the initial tabulation – by noon on June 7 and submit their results by noon on June 8. CNN has not made a projection in the race.
The winner will face Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who easily won the Democratic nomination on May 17.
Oz has declared himself the “presumptive” nominee, following the lead of Trump, who urged him to declare victory while counting was still underway. While Oz had tried to capitalize on the former President’s support after receiving his endorsement in early April, McCormick and his allies argued that McCormick is the real conservative. “I like Trump … but not his Senate pick,” voters said in one McCormick ad ahead of the primary.
Political commentator Kathy Barnette emerged as a late electoral threat to both men, with the political arm of the Club for Growth announcing a nearly $2 million investment to boost her candidacy, as well as the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and CatholicVote backing her. That late surge wasn’t enough, though. Barnette trailing Oz and McCormick.
The lingering question in the Keystone State is whether Trump’s backing of Oz will have made a difference if he holds on to his narrow lead after the recount – and what that means for the general election. Oz’s negatives were notably high compared with his opponents in a Fox poll ahead of the primary. Forty-six percent had an unfavorable view of Oz, while 27% and 12% had unfavorable views of McCormick and Barnette, respectively.
Fetterman already debuted a general election message in one of his ads ahead of the primary, in which he vowed to “take on Washington,” coming across as a progressive trying to run as a populist outsider. His primary opponents had trained their attacks on him in debates, especially over a 2013 incident in which he brought along his shotgun to confront someone who later turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger. And the primary had been rocked in the final days by news that Fetterman had suffered a stroke, leaving him in the hospital on election night.
The former Braddock mayor finished with about 59% of the vote to 26% for US Rep. Conor Lamb, who’s also from western Pennsylvania, but ran as more of a moderate and highlighted his success defeating “Trump Republicans” in his Pittsburgh-area House seat.
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
Despite enduring attacks from GOP opponents, former NFL player Herschel Walker, who has the backing of both Trump and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, easily won the GOP nomination to take on Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock.
Having won a special election runoff in January 2021, Warnock is now seeking a full six-year term. He raised an astounding $13.6 million in the first three months of the year, which follows impressive earlier quarterly hauls, and is running direct-to-camera ads on issues with bipartisan appeal such as jobs, infrastructure and health care. Meanwhile, Democrats hope that Warnock and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams will generate the base turnout they desperately need in a midterm year.
But Warnock is in serious jeopardy, even against a wildcard candidate like Walker, who faces a myriad of questions about his business background and allegations of threats he made against women. Much of the GOP establishment viewed Walker as a liability at the beginning of the cycle but have, publicly at least, come around, while his team has worked to keep him relatively on script. Democrats’ road to Senate control ran through Georgia last cycle, but it’s still challenging political terrain for them, especially in a midterm year with an unpopular Democratic President.
One unknown wrinkle, however, is how the loss of Trump’s endorsed candidates for other statewide offices in the Peach State’s GOP primaries could shape turnout in the fall. Georgia proved that Republican voters, even committed Trump supporters, won’t necessarily follow his lead at the ballot box. They chose to stick with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, for example, despite the former President railing against him for refusing to help him overturn the 2020 election. But some GOP strategists are still afraid of a repeat of the January 2021 Senate runoffs, when Trump’s outspoken criticism of the election system may have kept some of his voters home, allowing Democrats to pick up both of the state’s Senate seats.
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
The Silver State moved up two slots in May’s ranking. Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto faces a tough race in a transient state that Biden won by 2 points in 2020. The President’s approval rating has sunk since then, and Nevada has some of the highest gas prices in the nation, which could play into the GOP messaging that’s trying to pin steep daily living costs on the party in power. Even if Cortez Masto manages to differentiate herself from generic Democrats, that effort could be overtaken by a bad national environment, especially if Republicans are able to make more inroads with Latino voters. It doesn’t help that the state Democratic Party is fractured.
Cortez Masto, the former chair of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, outraised likely GOP nominee Adam Laxalt in the first quarter of the year – $4.4 million to $1.6 million. But money isn’t expected to be an issue for Laxalt, a former state attorney general – he succeeded Cortez Masto in that role – and grandson of a former senator and governor, who will benefit from GOP outside spending. Democrats argue that Laxalt, who co-chaired Trump’s 2020 campaign in the state, has gone too far down the election conspiracy road and that his anti-abortion positions will alienate voters. But that may not matter as much if voters decide it’s time for a change in Washington.
Laxalt first faces a primary on June 14. Club for Growth Action, which is backing him, is on the air attacking Army veteran Sam Brown, who’s proven to be a competitive fundraiser. Laxalt is touting Trump’s backing in his own recent spot.
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
Holding steady in fourth position is Arizona, where Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is running for a full six-year term after winning a special election in 2020. He’s one of the best-positioned Democratic incumbents when it comes to his personal story and campaign coffers. But the former astronaut has a voting record now and is running in a purple border state that only narrowly backed Biden. Kelly is trying to stake out differences from the White House – such as his opposition to lifting Title 42. But regardless of any real separation between him and Biden, messaging those nuances is an arguably tougher job than it is for Republicans to blanketly tie him to an unpopular President.
Luckily for Kelly, the messy Republican primary field won’t be sorted until August. So while he’s facing attacks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he doesn’t yet have a well-defined opponent. Trump has teased that an endorsement is coming. It’s unlikely to be for state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who’s been a target of the former President’s wrath for not doing more to investigate the 2020 election. Venture capitalist Blake Masters is backed by Peter Thiel, who was also behind Trump’s chosen candidate in Ohio. But Masters also has the endorsement of the Club for Growth, which may not sit well with Trump given his differences with the group over the Ohio Senate primary.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
GOP Sen. Ron Johnson finally stepped up his fundraising – he brought in about $6 million in the first three months of the year after announcing in January that he was breaking his pledge to only serve two terms. He’s been running positive spots, featuring families who say their terminally ill loved ones benefited from Johnson’s support for so-called Right to Try legislation.
That’s not why Wisconsin slides down two spots on this list. The senator remains unpopular – 36% of registered voters viewed Johnson favorably while 46% viewed him unfavorably, according to a Marquette University Law School poll released Wednesday. (In February, the same poll found him underwater by a slightly worse 12 points.) Half of voters in the April Marquette survey said the phrase “cares about people like me” did not describe Johnson. That explains why Democrats continue to believe this seat is a better pickup opportunity with Johnson running than had it been an open seat.
But Biden is also unpopular in Wisconsin. After winning the state with about 49% in 2020, his approval rating has hovered at about 43%, with some 53% disapproving, since last fall. The winner of the Democratic primary in August will likely be tied to Biden, especially with inflation emerging as a top concern, according to the Marquette poll, and worries over the coronavirus (about which Johnson has said plenty of controversial things) reaching a new low.
The Democratic field is still uncertain. Support for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who has been seen as the front-runner, declined slightly among likely primary voters in the Marquette poll, while support for Milwaukee Bucks basketball team executive Alex Lasry ticked up. State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson remained in the single digits. Nearly half of those likely primary voters, however, said they hadn’t picked a candidate. Lasry and Godlewski are pouring their own resources into the race to go up on TV. Barnes, who raised $1.7 million in the first quarter of the year, went up with his first TV ad in mid-May. But none of the candidates has emerged as a fundraising powerhouse the way other Democrats challenging unpopular Republicans (think Sens. Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham) have in cycles past.
6. New Hampshire
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
New Hampshire remains at No. 6 as the Republican field – upended late last year by Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision not to seek the nomination – develops. Republicans looking to challenge Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan include state Senate President Chuck Morse, former Londonderry town manager Kevin Smith and retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who unsuccessfully sought the nomination for the state’s other Senate seat in 2020. And other Republicans have been throwing their hats in the ring ahead of New Hampshire’s late primary in September.
Hassan, a former two-term governor, is seeking a second Senate term in a state that, on paper, should be more favorable to Democrats than any other state on this list. Biden carried New Hampshire by 7 points in 2020. An unfavorable national environment, however, could hurt her reelection chances, even without an opponent of Sununu’s caliber. Hassan has come out against the Biden administration’s plan to lift Title 42, making her own trip to the border last month that angered several Latino leaders back home.
7. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
One of Trump’s earliest Senate primary endorsements – for US Rep. Ted Budd last June – resulted in victory here on May 17, with Budd easily dispatching former Gov. Pat McCrory and former US Rep. Mark Walker for the GOP nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Burr.
The Trump endorsement didn’t clear the field for Budd, but heavy spending from the conservative Club for Growth Action helped boost him. One spot ahead of the primary featured Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson praising Budd and knocking McCrory. “Pat’s a nice guy, but he’s no conservative,” Robinson says, admitting that he’d voted for McCrory in the past “but not this time.” McCrory and his allies touted his record on immigration and argued that Budd is “weak” on a host of issues.
On the Democratic side, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who won 81% of the vote in the primary, had essentially already cleared the primary field and pivoted to the general election. “Looking at Washington, I think both parties are doing the job wrong,” she said in an ad ahead of the primary. Beasley had outraised all the Republicans in the first quarter of this year, but money won’t be enough in a state Trump won twice, especially in a midterm year, when Democratic turnout has often waned. Senate Leadership Fund, the GOP super PAC aligned with McConnell, made ad reservations in the state ahead of the primary to help the GOP nominee. The Democratic equivalent, Senate Majority PAC, announced an ad buy defending Beasley after the primary, despite leaving North Carolina off its list of initial reservations earlier this spring.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio