A look at the closest midterm races that could decide control of the Senate

Midterm campaigns are in full swing and both parties are vying for control over what is now an evenly-divided Senate. The 35 midterm contests this year could sway that balance of power. Jessica Taylor of the Cook Political Report with Amy Walter joined Judy Woodruff to discuss the closest Senate races ahead of the November election.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The midterm election season is now in full swing, and both parties are vying for control over what is currently an evenly divided Senate.

    Right now, Democrats hold 48 seats, plus the two independent senators who caucus with the Democratic Party, while Republicans hold 50 seats. This year's 36 Senate midterm contests could change that balance of power.

    Following this all so closely is Jessica Taylor of The Cook Political Report With Amy Walter.

    Jessica, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Yesterday, we looked at the House. We're going to look at the Senate now.

    So, here we are two months out. What does the Senate look like?

  • Jessica Taylor, The Cook Political Report:

    It looks much better for Democrats than many Democrats that I talk to ever thought that it would.

    We see historically, in a president's first midterm election, the their party loses about an average of two seats — two seats each midterm cycle. And what we have seen, though, I would have put Republican chances that taking back the Senate, because, again, they only need one seat…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    … at about 60 to 65 percent chance this spring, when you had rising gas prices, inflation, when you had Biden's approval ratings that were in the mid-30s. I mean, all of this felt like it was just going to be a tsunami, perhaps.

    The question was, how high could Republicans go? Could they pick up four or five seats even? But now what we have seen is a tightening overall of the national landscape that is reflected in the House, but especially in the Senate, with — again, gas prices have gotten better. The Biden White House and congressional Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, semiconductor bill, and also that key decision that came down at the end of June that sent Roe v. Wade back to the states.

    That has animated a lot of women voters that are especially registering right now. It's — we have seen this enthusiasm gap that Republicans have been able to capitalize on early in the cycle, but now Democrats are closing it. And, in the Senate, candidates matter more.

    I was a skeptic. I was skeptical to at the beginning of the cycle, because we have seen Senate races become so parliamentary almost, where voters are voting for a party, not necessarily a candidate. And that's, again, how I — all things considered, when we look at historical midterms, that's what I would expected to have happen.

    But you have Republicans that have nominated really some weak, problematic candidates.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

    So, energy — so the abortion decision by the Supreme Court has energized Democrats, you're seeing. But, as you say, these candidates, specifically the ones endorsed by former President Trump, you're seeing having — that that is having an impact on some of these races?

  • Jessica Taylor:

    I mean, I have talked with Republicans over the past month that have been working in some of these Senate races for years, and they are just so worried, because they're like: We're going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, really, because had we nominated more traditional-type candidates, and not had — and not the Trump-endorsed candidate that he sort of got in and meddled with, really, often throwing his weight behind the more controversial candidate, these races could have looked a lot different.

    So, will Republicans on election night be thinking woulda, coulda, shoulda?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're talking about states like Pennsylvania, like Ohio, like Arizona?

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Yes, so Pennsylvania is one actually where we had this in toss-up and we moved it a few weeks ago to lean Democrat. So this is an open seat the Republicans hold.

    So Republicans aren't even — they're having to play defense right now. And that's the number one seat that we see could possibly flip.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Looking at Mehmet Oz, who is the Trump-endorsed Republican.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Yes, I mean, he came out of a very brutal primary. He had Trump's endorsement, but his approval ratings in the state are underwater. And he's someone who's pretty well known.

    He — and you had John Fetterman, who, despite — I mean, he faces real questions about his health after…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Democrat.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Right, the lieutenant governor — after he suffered a stroke on the eve of the election. He's just now getting back out to campaigning and things.

    But he has very — people — I have even heard Republicans say he seems more authentic to a lot of people, because, remember, Dr. Oz even had been living in New Jersey and moved to Pennsylvania for this race.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So there are four states in particular you had singled out to us that you're particularly paying close attention to, closely contested.

    These are Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Yes, so three of those are Democratic-held, and these should be the top targets for Republicans, really. These are all states that Biden won by under five — under really three points in all of them.

    And Arizona, Mark Kelly is outpacing where Biden's numbers are in the state. We would see, typically, a good run would be three to five points ahead of where your party's president would be. But Kelly's outperforming by seven points. Fetterman is outperforming by nine points.

    And you have a really controversial candidate here in Blake Masters. He worked for Peter Thiel, the former PayPal billionaire. And he has a lot of baggage, things that he wrote him college sympathizing with the Unabomber and favorably quoting a Nazi leader. So these are all things.

    You're also seeing McConnell super PAC cut money from this race. So this is a race that could Democrats — could Republicans be…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That's Arizona.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then Georgia with Herschel Walker?

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Yes.

    So, also like Mark Kelly, he's — Herschel Walker just won in a special election, having to run again. He's raising a ton of money, but, actually, so is Herschel Walker. Walker, of course, the former Heisman Trophy winner for the University of Georgia, Trump really got him into this race. He won in the primary, I think, many reasons, not Trump being alone. I mean, he's a football hero in the state.

    But there — he's lagging behind and could — we could actually see, though, in the governor's race there, Brian Kemp is running ahead. Could he sort of help Herschel Walker against the goal — over the goal line, if you will?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we should clarify, it was Raphael Warnock who won in that special election.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But just very quickly, only a minute.

    You have got Nevada, with another Trump-endorsed candidate.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Yes. Adam Laxalt, though, is not as problematic as some of these. He's more of a generic Republican. He was former attorney general.

    And then, in Wisconsin, Ron Johnson is the most endangered Senate Republican. He's behind in polling, with the lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes there, having just won the nomination.

    Johnson's approval ratings are very low for an incumbent as well. And he's someone that's managed to hang on in tough election cycles before. So could we see this one tighten? I mean, these could all go either way. We still see the Senate overall as a toss-up, but it's a much better environment for Democrats with two months to go than many of them had anticipated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just fascinating, one really interesting race, closely fought, in state after state.

    Jessica Taylor with The Cook Political Report, thank you very much.

  • Jessica Taylor:

    Thanks, Judy.

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