With more than half of this year’s competitive Senate matchups set, the overall electoral environment remains consistent: President Joe Biden’s poor approval numbers, combined with a pervasive sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction, are weighing down Democrats looking to maintain control of Congress.
Any big Supreme Court-related development can raise the stakes of Senate races because of the chamber’s role in confirming future justices. But last month’s ruling that found there was no longer a federal constitutional right to an abortion could drive even more attention to the Senate since it’s Congress that would set any future nationwide abortion policies.
Pressed on how to respond to the ruling in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash last month, Vice President Kamala Harris repeatedly said, “There’s an election happening.”
For Democrats or Democratic-leaning voters, especially those feeling uninspired by Biden’s first term so far, the ruling could motivate them to vote this fall. It remains to be seen, however, how much of that energy is sustainable and to what degree the ruling also persuades independents or moderate Republicans to vote Democratic. In the immediate term, the elimination of federal abortion rights has resulted in Democratic outside groups such as Planned Parenthood Votes and Women Vote!, the super PAC arm of EMILY’s List, going up on the air attacking Republicans.
Another bright spot for Democrats, underscored by the abortion issue, is that the Senate playing field includes states such as Nevada, New Hampshire and Colorado that have recently voted blue. In fact, seven of the 10 races on this list of seats most likely to flip are in states Biden won in 2020.
The addition of Colorado at No. 10 on this latest ranking, however, speaks to the challenging national environment for Democrats. Economic issues – high inflation and gas prices this summer travel season – are still weighing on voters and are often cited as their most pressing concern. Republicans have also tried tapping into Americans’ post-pandemic anxieties about safety, with ads suggesting Democrats are soft on crime. Some Democratic candidates have worked to get ahead of those attacks early by featuring uniformed police in their own spots and directly refuting the idea of “defunding the police.”
Besides Colorado’s appearance on the list, the biggest change to this month’s ranking is Nevada and Georgia trading places. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, especially in this era of hyper-nationalized elections and considering Nevada is a more Democratic state than Georgia. But the change was driven by the candidate matchups in the two states, as things stand now. The ranking is based on CNN’s reporting, fundraising and advertising data, and polling, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed.
Just a handful of important Senate primaries that will shape the November midterms remain. They key ones to watch in August and September: The Republican primaries in Arizona, Missouri and New Hampshire and the Democratic primary in Wisconsin.
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
The start of the general election in the Keystone State was a mixed bag for Democrats trying to flip the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. Their nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, was sidelined by a stroke just before he won the primary and has been off the trail recuperating. But then they got the Republican opponent they wanted in celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz.
The Donald Trump-backed candidate narrowly won the GOP nomination after a recount, but not without his image taking a serious hit – weeks of attack ads from Republican rival Dave McCormick and his allies had driven up Oz’s negatives. (In a Fox survey ahead of the primary, for example, 46% of GOP voters had an unfavorable view of Oz.) The race is expected to tighten as some of those Republican voters get behind Oz now that he’s the party nominee.
But Democrats’ message is picking up where the primary left off. Fetterman’s TV spots, which lean into an “us vs. Washington” theme that never mentions the candidate’s party ID, repeat that he’s “from Pennsylvania, for Pennsylvania” – an implicit knock on Oz, who has said he moved from New Jersey in late 2020. Republicans are equally happy to be running against Fetterman, a former Bernie Sanders supporter who handily defeated his more moderate primary challenger. But in a state that Biden carried and with the GOP primary forcing Oz to the right, this seat is still the most likely to flip in the fall.
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
Nevada moves up one spot, trading places with Georgia, where the fundamentals of the state (for example, past presidential performance) would seem to give Republicans a better chance of unseating a Democratic incumbent. But the Republican Senate nominee in the Silver State, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, is a more tested candidate than the GOP nominee in Georgia, ex-NFL star Herschel Walker.
That may not be saying much considering Walker, a political neophyte, is widely seen as the biggest wild-card candidate of the cycle and Laxalt lost his last bid for statewide office (the 2018 gubernatorial race). Laxalt, however, has held statewide office before and is the grandson of the former governor and senator with the same last name. Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, who was on the ballot just last year, also started the cycle as a better defined (and funded) Democratic incumbent than Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, who hasn’t faced voters in this transient state in six years. Masto has a tough road ahead, to be sure – and fissures in the state Democratic Party aren’t helping – but the Supreme Court ruling on abortion could work in Democrats’ favor in a state where even the most recent GOP governor supported abortion rights.
Laxalt sought to downplay the political impact of the court’s decision last month, saying in a statement that abortion rights were “settled law” in the state. But that likely won’t stop Democrats from pointing to his praise for the decision and arguing that he’d be another Republican vote in the Senate should Congress attempt to pass an abortion ban.
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
Even Democrats are somewhat skeptical about a recent Quinnipiac University poll that showed Warnock, who’s running for a full six-year term after winning a special election last year, ahead of GOP challenger Walker by 10 points among registered voters. But even if that margin was too big to be true – there aren’t yet many other public surveys for comparison – it was notably wider than Georgia’s gubernatorial matchup, suggesting there’s something specific to this race, rather than the poll itself, going on here.
The margin was also a departure from Warnock’s and Walker’s neck-and-neck standing in Quinnipiac’s January poll, which could reflect recent troublesome headlines for Walker, who received negative ratings for honesty in the June survey. His campaign recently acknowledged, for example, that he has three children by women he was not married to, in addition to his son by his former wife. That’s opened him up to charges of hypocrisy given his public criticism of absentee fathers, especially in Black families. (Walker just went up with his first ad of the general election, and the positive spot – a hybrid ad paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee – doesn’t offer more than bland platitudes about him wanting to serve Georgia.)
What’s most encouraging for Democrats facing a tough national environment may be that Warnock is still viewed more positively than Biden. The senator’s job approval rating was at 49% in the Quinnipiac poll, compared with 33% for the President. That’s some impressive separation the first-term senator has been able to create from the White House in a state not predisposed to vote Democratic. The poll was mostly conducted after the Supreme Court’s abortion decision on June 24, so Warnock’s advantage over Walker may also reflect some of the immediate backlash to that ruling, which won’t necessarily be sustained through the fall.
The good news for Republicans? A plurality of Georgians said inflation was the most urgent issue facing the state, which means the GOP still has four months to double down on messages like this one, from One Nation, accusing Warnock of voting for “reckless spending” that, the ad contends, has led to higher costs for Georgians.
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
Arizona is hosting one of the few outstanding GOP primaries that will help shape how competitive things are in the fall. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is running for a full six-year term after winning a special election in 2020. He’s used his fundraising advantage to go on the air while his would-be GOP opponents duke it out amongst themselves.
Trump-backed Blake Masters has the support of billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel and the Club for Growth. Solar energy entrepreneur Jim Lamon is largely self-funding his campaign, which has spent nearly $8 million on TV, including future reservations, according to AdImpact data from the beginning of July. State Attorney General Mark Brnovich – a frequent Trump target for having helped certify Biden’s win in the state – was once thought to have been the front-runner because he holds statewide elected office, but there’s little sign he’s put together a competitive campaign.
The Trump backing should position Masters well in a GOP primary, but he’s embraced the former President’s election lies and downplayed the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol – a potential vulnerability in a purple state in the fall. More worrisome for some Republicans may be Masters’ suggestion, as reported by CNN’s Kyung Lah, that the US could privatize Social Security, which isn’t likely to go over well in retiree-heavy Arizona. While he doesn’t yet have an opponent, Kelly hasn’t escaped scrutiny. GOP-aligned groups are trying to tie the freshman senator, who now has a voting record, to Biden and the party in power in Washington.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
Sen. Ron Johnson is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent of 2022. And with his favorability numbers mired in the 30s, it’s no surprise his campaign has been rolling out a series of positive ads featuring constituents testifying directly to the camera about what a good senator he’s been. In a June Marquette Law School poll, 37% of Wisconsin voters viewed Johnson favorably. The two-term senator, who broke a term limit pledge to run again, has been known to generate controversy. Revelations that his office was involved in an effort to send then-Vice President Mike Pence a slate of fake electors prompted several of his Democratic challengers to call on him to resign. (Johnson has dismissed the story, saying they were staff-level discussions.)
But Democrats have discounted him before. His 41% favorability rating in October 2016 – just before he won a second term – isn’t much better than his numbers now. And even if their incumbent isn’t in as strong a position as they’d like, the good news for Republicans is that Biden’s job approval in the Badger State is at 40% – the lowest mark in Marquette’s polling since he took office. GOP enthusiasm to vote also outpaced Democratic enthusiasm – 67% to 58% – in the Marquette survey.
The task for Democrats, who pick their nominee on August 9, is to show that Johnson has changed and is no longer the senator Wisconsinites elected twice. The primary is the last truly unsettled Democratic contest in a competitive general election state. Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes continues to lead the primary field with 25% in the Marquette poll, but his lead over Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry (21%) is within the margin of error. State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski was at 9%, while Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson was at 7%. Marquette tested hypothetical general election matchups for the first time this cycle, finding a margin-of-error contest regardless of the pairing.
6. New Hampshire
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
A recent 30-second, direct-to-camera spot from Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan says a lot about the contours of this race. “The Supreme Court has taken away a woman’s most fundamental freedom,” the first-year senator says, before raising the specter of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and a GOP-controlled Senate trying to ban abortion nationwide.
Hassan is running for reelection in a state that increasingly votes blue in federal elections and has a GOP governor who supports abortion rights. Still, a bad national environment for Democrats, combined with the Granite State’s swingy nature, has Hassan on notice. Even if most of her would-be GOP challengers aren’t very well known ahead of the September 13 primary, it may not take much more than a generic Republican to unseat her if that’s the way the winds are blowing in November.
That explains why Hassan, whose campaign announced it had raised more than $5 million in the second quarter, is using the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling to try to shift the conversation toward a hypothetical Republican-controlled Washington that New Hampshire voters may not like. The great unknown, however, is whether frustrations with the economy and dissatisfaction with the direction of the country will outweigh other concerns in November.
7. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
Republican Rep. Ted Budd enters the general election with a built-in advantage in the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr given that Trump twice carried the state. And while the conservative congressman’s fundraising hasn’t impressed, outside GOP groups are carrying the weight on TV, attacking Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley’s judicial record. Local TV stations took down one of those ads, but the soft-on-crime attack line is a central message Republicans are deploying against the first Black woman elected as chief justice to the state Supreme Court.
Beasley has responded by touting her law enforcement support, including with a spot that features sheriffs and police captains. “Cheri’s always had our backs, and we know she always will,” Richmond County Sheriff Mark Gulledge says. Another recent Beasley ad tries to distance the candidate from Democratic control of Washington, as she says, “Neither political party is getting it right” while promising to hold Washington accountable.
Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to portray Budd, who was boosted by the campaign arm of the Club for Growth in the primary, as too extreme for the state. Senate Majority PAC, a major Democratic super PAC, invested in this race after initially leaving it off its early reservations – a sign that Democrats haven’t counted this one out even if it’s less of a priority than other GOP-held seats in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio
GOP Sen. Marco Rubio still has the advantage in this race, but Democratic Rep. Val Demings, who’s heavily favored to win the Senate nomination on August 23, is keeping the race interesting by raising impressive money.
While Rubio has the backing of some major law enforcement groups in the state, Demings is leaning into her background as the former Orlando police chief to try to refute his attempts to tie her to the national party. “In the Senate, I’ll protect Florida from bad ideas like defunding the police. That’s just crazy,” she says in her first ad.
But in a state that has grown incrementally Republican in recent elections, Demings would face a difficult general election against Rubio, who has built a national profile over his two terms in the Senate and should benefit from political tailwinds this fall.
Incumbent: Republican Rob Portman (retiring)
Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democrat running an uphill campaign to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman, is also trying to show his support for law enforcement. “Tim Ryan knows defunding the police is ridiculous,” the Stark County sheriff says in a recent ad for the Democratic nominee.
Ryan, a 10-term congressman who easily won his May primary, is up against “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance, who emerged from one of the ugliest GOP contests of the cycle helped by Trump’s backing. The former President has twice won Ohio, which hasn’t been very hospitable of late to Democrats running for federal statewide office – US Sen. Sherrod Brown being the notable exception.
That’s why Ryan, who once challenged Nancy Pelosi for House Democratic leader, is being vocal about distancing himself from his party. “When (President Barack) Obama’s trade deal threatened jobs here, I voted against it,” he says in another ad as he walks through Youngstown sporting a gray hoodie. “And I voted with Trump on trade,” he adds, trying to project an image of Buckeye State authenticity. It’s not clear that’ll be enough against a Trump-backed candidate in a nationalized election, but it may be Ryan’s best shot. And with his campaign announcing that he raised $9 million in the second quarter that ended June 30, it looks like he’ll at least have the resources to carry that message.
Incumbent: Democrat Michael Bennet
Colorado steals the 10th spot on this list from Missouri. What’s going on in the Centennial State? Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is running for a third full term against businessman Joe O’Dea, whose emergence from last month’s GOP primary makes this race competitive. (Democrats had spent millions trying to help his primary opponent win because they thought he’d be a weaker general election candidate.)
As a Republican who supports abortion rights in the early stages of pregnancy, O’Dea brings a unique profile to the race. Colorado has trended blue in recent federal elections – Biden won it by more than 13 points in 2020, the same year GOP Sen. Cory Gardner was unseated by 9 points. But Bennet’s previous elections have been close. In 2016, for example, he prevailed by only about 6 points against an underwhelming opponent whom the national GOP had abandoned. Against a more formidable Republican challenger in a tough year for Democrats, Bennet could be vulnerable.
In Missouri, meanwhile, the Republican field is still unsettled ahead of the August 2 primary. Looming over the party is the possibility of disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens winning the nomination, which is the only way this seat would be competitive for Democrats.
The entrance of independent candidate John Wood could potentially complicate the race. Wood, a former senior investigator for the House January 6 committee, describes himself as a “lifelong Republican” and has said he would back McConnell for Senate leader, if elected. But if Greitens is the GOP nominee, Wood’s candidacy could end up splitting the anti-Greitens vote in the general election, making it more likely the controversial Republican keeps this seat in party hands. We’ll revisit Missouri’s spot on the list after the crucial GOP primary.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Adam Laxalt’s relationship to the former Nevada governor and senator with the same last name.