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Tipsheet

Is It Panic Time for Senate Republicans?

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

In short: No, it's far too early for panic. It's the August doldrums, many "normal" voters don't dial in on elections until September and October, and a large chunk of Senate polling at this stage has been strikingly unrepresentative in the recent past. Republican consultants should take a breath and temper their "bed-wetting." For now. But things are not exactly going gangbusters, particularly on the Senate side, for a party that not long ago was looking to be on the brink of a wave election of Biblical proportions. This tweet made the rounds a few days ago, stirring anxiety on the right and premature celebration on the left: 

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Let's start with the point that I do not believe any of these margins will hold up in the coming months. In Ohio, Trump-backed JD Vance has been running what some Republican operatives have warned is a flawed campaign, and he's getting massively outspent by fake "moderate" Tim Ryan. The Democrat has been running a very well-funded general election campaign for weeks, largely unopposed. Donald Trump won this state fairly handily (by seven-plus points) each time. This is still a red-tinted year. Yes, Ohioans have been sending progressive Sherrod Brown to the Senate every six years, but the rest of the state has become something of a GOP stronghold. I'd still call Vance a favorite to hold the seat, albeit by a margin that likely won't come close to the 21-point blowout achieved by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman in 2016.

Pennsylvania is a tightly-contested state, so a double-digit win for either candidate in this race seems rather far-fetched. Democrat John Fetterman has been largely off the campaign trail after suffering a stroke, struggling a bit in his first major public appearance since the incident. He is also far to the left of the Pennsylvania electorate. But despite being MIA and out of step, he's still been leading big, and Trump-backed celebrity physician Dr. Oz has been doing...basically nothing. He's effectively ceded the playing field and has taken zero advantage while making some weird choices. A bruising GOP primary hasn't helped matters, with Republican voters still looking reluctant to rally around the party's nominee. I'd be shocked if things didn't consolidate quite a bit, with Oz tightening matters in the coming weeks. At least in theory, the race should be close. But this seat is Democrats' best chance for a Democratic gain, as the seat currently occupied by retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey very much looks in serious jeopardy.

Out in Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly (D) is a generic Democrat who votes with Chuck Schumer every single time it counts. He is not an independent thinker or a maverick. His voting record is virtually indistinguishable from Democratic senators representing dark blue states. Given President Biden's unpopularity, horrid right/wrong track numbers, and widespread economic anxiety, this potential pick-up should be extremely viable for the opposition party. But Kelly, riding a giant wave of money, is the favorite at the moment. Democrats are spending big bucks to paint Trump-backed Republican Blake Masters as too conservative on abortion and a threat to Social Security. As is happening elsewhere, the attacks are mostly going unanswered, as Republicans are getting crushed in fundraising (a turn-key response on abortion would be that Kelly supports nine-month abortion-on-demand, a deeply unpopular and radical position). Masters is a smart but untested candidate running in a high-stakes race. My guess is this one probably becomes a margin-of-error nail-biter at some point. Right now, there's at least as good a chance that Democrats gain the governorship in Arizona as there is that Republicans take back the Senate seat. We'll see.

Another critical pick-up chance for Senate Republicans is in Georgia, where both Senate seats were lost in January 2021 runoffs, thanks to depressed GOP turnout (tens of thousands of red voters believed Trump's claims that the voting was rigged and therefore decided it was not worth showing up). Each GOP senator led in balloting on election night 2020; each lost the run-off. The party has nominated Trump-backed UGA superstar and legend Herschel Walker to try to take down incumbent Raphael Warnock. The Democrat has a huge war chest and strong political skills, while his challenger is running something of a silent campaign. But the environment is generally favorable for Republicans, and Walker is beloved in the state, so the contest is relatively close. Walker has been running well behind Gov. Brian Kemp, who's held a steady mid-single-digit advantage over Stacey Abrams, raising the question of whether there will be enough ticket splitters to create a result like a somewhat-comfortable Kemp win plus a Warnock re-election. For what it's worth, this new poll (from a pollster I don't know anything about) points to a sizable Kemp lead and a thin Walker edge. A ton of money is going to be spent on this race: 

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What about the other big races? North Carolina should be a Republican hold, but, again, money has been an issue, and polling is showing a very competitive battle. Ditto Wisconsin, in terms of competitiveness and expected outcome. In Nevada, Adam Laxalt may be the best recruit for Republicans in a cycle of high-profile misses (on this front, if Republicans win, Trump will have a lot to crow about – if they under-perform, he'll shoulder some serious criticism), and incumbent Catherine Cortez-Masto is on the ropes. These trends keep cutting against the Democrats, too: 


And while a very late primary means that there is still no opponent for Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, the incumbent Democrat is in a precarious position heading toward the big final stretch: 

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Rough news for Hassan and great news for Generic Republicans. But as we're learning, candidates aren't generic. Statewide candidate quality matters. A lot. Finally, do we have to talk about Florida? There hadn't been a general election poll of the Sunshine State's gubernatorial race in many months, and one finally dropped yesterday. It shows Ron DeSantis up 7-8 points over his would-be Democratic rivals, which sounds about right to me. But the same survey showed Marco Rubio trailing by four points in the Senate race. I honestly assumed it was a typo. In no universe is Rubio under-performing DeSantis by double digits. Similarly, in no universe are people rushing out to re-elect DeSantis en masse, then turning around to pull the lever for Democrat Val Demings for Senate. Another recent poll of that race had Rubio ahead comfortably. Yet another one showed a tie. The numbers are all over the map. I'm pretty confident Rubio will win by a decent margin (by Florida standards), but hey – it's "bed-wetting season." Nothing looks certain. (Update: Here's a brand new poll with Rubio up 11 points, which seems high but less ridiculous than him trailing by four). I'll leave you with this observation from a sharp GOP analyst: 

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Fair enough. On the other hand, this analysis points to a good, not great, GOP year – under circumstances that should be devastating to the ruling party. Meanwhile, the NRSC is denying media reports about financial woes leading to early attrition-minded moves. We'll see. 

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