Midterms State of Play, Nov. 4, 2022
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Midterms State of Play, Nov. 4, 2022

Brownstein Client Alerts, Nov. 4, 2022

State of Play

Less than a week out from Election Day, Republicans appear to be in the driver’s seat, leading or narrowing deficits in many key House and Senate races. At present, FiveThirtyEight projects Republicans have an 85% chance to win the House and a 55% chance at earning a Senate majority. A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll released late last week found Republicans holding a four-point lead (49%-45%) in the congressional generic ballot (GCB)—a notable shift from the outlet’s previous July poll that found Democrats ahead, 44%-40%. Importantly, while the GCB poll found that while Democratic candidates have generally maintained their support since July, out of the 16% voters who were undecided in their July survey, 9% of them have since decided to support Republicans, with only 6% currently still unsure who they will vote for next week. The recent poll also found that 40% of Hispanic voters and 21% of African American voters support Republican candidates, both notable increases in Republican support from both blocs. As a point of reference, former President Donald Trump received 37% of the Hispanic vote and 10% of African American votes in the 2020 presidential elections.

With respect to critical issues, the survey found that more than one-third of voters (37%) said the economy or inflation were their most important issue, with abortion ranking a distant second (18%) and immigration third (5%). Such priorities were reinforced by an ABC News/Ipsos poll, which found that 50% of voters said economic issues were their top issue of concern, followed by abortion at 16% and gun violence at 7%. The survey also revealed that voters more concerned about the state of democracy in the nation largely backed Democrats (63%-27%) while those who prioritize a strong economy mostly back the GOP (70%-21%). Some polls, including a recent survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal, reflect how the fading importance of abortion may be negatively affecting Democrats: the poll found that “white women living in suburban areas, who make up 20% of the electorate, now favor Republicans for Congress by 15 percentage points, moving 27 percentage points away from Democrats” since their previous poll in August.

Campaign messaging by Democrats and Republicans have adjusted their approach in line with how voters are prioritizing key issues. While crime issues have been one of the main talking points for Republicans the length of the campaign cycle, reviews of recent GOP campaign ads find that the party is placing an increased emphasis on this message over the home stretch. Most of these ads accuse Democrats over failing to reign in rising crime as well as supporting efforts to end cash bail or to defund the police, while touting GOP candidates’ pledges to aggressively crack down on crime.

Across the aisle, while Democrats continue to highlight abortion issues in their rhetoric against Republicans, reports indicate that Democratic campaigns and committees have been reallocating resources toward greater emphases on what they claim are “extreme” GOP positions on cutting entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, among other benefits programs. To this point, a recent Axios report found that President Joe Biden used the phrase “Social Security and Medicare” 11 times in a speech he gave at a Democratic National Committee (DNC) event on Oct. 24. Another Axios study finds that Democrats have also sought to tout their legislative accomplishments that protect or bolster these programs. For example, Democrats have emphasized their passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, noting that it allows Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices. In addition, Democrats are ramping up claims that Republicans pose dire threats to democracy, focusing on former President Donald Trump, the Jan. 6, 2021, attacks on the U.S. Capitol, and claims made by Republican candidates questioning or dismissing the results of the 2020 elections. However,despite their recent recalibrations, some Democratic lawmakers and strategists are concerned these efforts may be too little and too late.

Early voting has continued to take place, with over 35 million having voted across 46 states so far, according to the University of Florida’s U.S. Elections Project. According to CNN, the current early vote rate is far outpacing the 2018 midterm elections. At present, Texas (over 4.6 million), Florida (over 3.8 million) and California (over 3.7 million) lead the country in ballots already cast. Looking at other key states, turnout has already surpassed 2.2 million in Georgia, 1.7 million in North Carolina, over 1.3 million in Arizona, and over 1 million in Pennsylvania. Early turnout amounts are lower in Wisconsin (nearly 600,000) and Nevada (about 485,000). However, as of Nov. 1, CNN reports that Wisconsin is currently seeing an increase of nearly 50% in returned absentee ballots compared to the same point in time leading up to the 2018 elections.

With respect to early voter trends witnessed so far, turnout in Texas appears to be at a lower trend compared to 2018 and 2020, with one analysis finding that the current rate of about 15% in the state’s 16 largest counties is considerably lower than the near 22% clip in 2018 and 27% in 2020. A similar tale is being told in Arizona, where a Data Orbital analysis finds a 6.5% decrease in early voting between the current cycle and 2018.

In Florida, registered Republicans appear to be decisively outpacing Democrats, with nearly 100,000 more Republicans having already voted. This is an ominous sign for Democrats, given that, historically, registered Democrats lead in early voting with Republican turnout surging on Election Day itself. Similarly, in Arizona, registered Republicans are outnumbering registered Democrats in early voting, with 37% of GOP voters having turned out already, an increase from 34% at this time prior to Election Day in 2020.

The early voting situations currently seem better for Democrats in Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In the Peach State, turnout is currently 36% higher when compared to the 2018 elections. The Georgia Secretary of State’s office issued an Oct. 29 press release saying it expects early votes to surpass 2 million. Meanwhile, in the Tar Heel State, data indicates that turnout is slightly higher this year than in the 2018 elections. In the Keystone State, as of Oct. 27, early ballot returns from registered Democrats outnumbered those submitted by Republicans by nearly a four-to-one ratio.


The Biden Administration and The Midterms

In the final days before the midterms, President Joe Biden is expected to make several appearances at campaign rallies across the country to support Democratic candidates, with visits announced for California, Florida, New Mexico and Pennsylvania. On Election Day eve, Biden will headline a get-out-the-vote rally in Maryland; some pundits have questioned this decision given the state’s deep-blue lean and lack of competitive federal races, compounded by the fact that Democrats are projected to safely capture the open governorship. Vice President Kamala Harris also recently appeared in Maryland over the last weekend, stumping for Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore.

On Nov. 5, President Biden will appear in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, alongside former President Barack Obama at a rally for Senate candidate John Fetterman (D-PA) and gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro (D-PA). Obama’s participation will follow up on several appearances the former president has made for Democrats in key races, and mark the latest example that Obama remains the party’s top communicator to rally and turn out the Democratic base to vote.


The Trump Factor

Over the final days before the midterms, former President Donald Trump will appear at several rallies to support GOP candidates. On Nov. 3, he appeared at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, to support Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA). On Nov. 5, he will stop in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to support Pennsylvania Senate nominee Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano. On Nov. 6, he will fly to Miami, Florida, to campaign alongside Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). However, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who is broadly rumored to pose the biggest challenge to Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries, is not slated to appear at the event. Finally, on Nov. 7, Trump will be in Vandalia, Ohio, to stump for GOP Senate nominee JD Vance.

Aside from rallies, Trump remains active in other manners vis-à-vis the midterms, including by endorsing the GOP’s Senate candidate in New Hampshire, Don Bolduc, on Oct. 31. However, in his endorsement announcement on Truth Social, Trump noted that Bolduc had previously “disavowed” his views doubting the results of the 2020 elections after winning the Republican primary, but adding that Bolduc had since “come back” in line with doubting the results, making him fit to receive Trump’s “complete and total” endorsement.


House Campaign Developments

On Oct. 27, The New York Times released polls of four battleground districts across the country (KS-3, NM-2, NV-1, and PA-8); in its words, the districts represented “an upscale suburb in Kansas, the old industrial heartland of Pennsylvania, a fast-growing part of Las Vegas and a sprawling district along New Mexico’s southern border.” The four polls found Democrats narrowly leading in three of the districts, with incumbent Rep. Sharice Davids (D-KS) holding a 14-point lead in the Kansas district. The results led The New York Times to hypothesize that the results reflect a continued Democratic resilience “in places where abortion is still high on the minds of voters” (referring to Davids) and “where popular incumbents are on the ballot”—likely in reference to long-time incumbent Matt Cartwright (D-PA), whose district voted for Trump by 4.4 points in 2020. However, the close margins in three of these races indicate that Democrats’ abilities to hold their House majority remain imperiled given Republican performances in this diverse array of districts.

Following last week’s news of investments by the GOP’s Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) in a slate of districts Biden won by double digits, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has made six-figure contributions in an additional three districts that Biden won by at least 20 points in 2020: CA-26, NY-25 and PA-12. Additionally, the CLF has placed a $5.6 million ad buy in five districts, including four Biden won by double digits: CA-49, IL-6, NY-4, NY-17 and NY-19. Within this tranche, the CLF’s investment of $1.2 million in NY-17 targets Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), the leader of House Democrats’ campaign efforts via his role chairing the Democratic Congressional Committee (DCCC). In NY-25, the House Democrats’ top super PAC—the House Majority PAC (HMP)—has responded by placing a $275,000 ad buy to bolster incumbent Rep. Joe Morelle (D-NY). The attention toward the latter race centers around a unique circumstance: Republican candidate Mike Doyle, a local legislator, holds the same name as the retiring, incumbent Democrat. As a result, several observers and Democratic strategists have said that the name confusion has led some Democratic voters to mistakenly vote for the Republican Doyle, believing he’s the same person as the incumbent.

In another sign of the GOP-favoring trendlines, Democratic groups have moved to prop up incumbents in what were initially viewed as safely blue seats. For example, HMP has allocated over $2 million to bolster moderate Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), who represents a district Biden won by 12 points. Elsewhere in the Garden State, the Democratic-aligned outside group, VoteVets, spent $2 million on behalf of Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), who represents a district Biden won by 17 points and has not been viewed as a competitive race by most observers.

Another example highlighting Democrats’ difficulties is yet again apparent in New Jersey, where DCCC has pulled out most of its funding on behalf of Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ). This so-called “triage” of an incumbent is likely to become apparent in other races over the final days as Democratic campaign committees make difficult decisions to allocate funding for some vulnerable members to shore up other colleagues who they believe stand a greater chance to win. Media reports indicate that Malinowski’s last two internal polls have shown him tied—and at under the critical 50% threshold—against his opponent, Tom Kean Jr. (48% and 47% apiece).


Senate Campaign Developments

On Oct. 27, a hot mic caught Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) telling President Biden that he believed the recent Pennsylvania Senate debate between Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA) and Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz did not hurt Fetterman despite him struggling to answer questions at times. Instead, he felt Oz’s answers to abortion-related questions “lost” him the debate. Schumer also said the outlook was improving for Democrats in Nevada. However, Schumer expressed concern that the race in Georgia is “going downhill,” in part due to concerns over early turnout numbers.

As Election Day nears, an emboldened Republican Party has taken steps to support several GOP Senate candidates that some elements of the party previously thought were deeply flawed, if not wholly unable to win in November. One example, as noted by the Associated Press, is in New Hampshire, where GOP nominee Don Bolduc had appeared to be written off by the national party. However, as the political outlook has improved for Republicans, Bolduc has received vows of support and campaign appearances from National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chair Rick Scott (R-FL) and incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH). Moreover, a conservative super PAC, the Sentinel Action Fund, announced on Oct. 28 a $1 million ad buy in the Granite State to support Bolduc. The pivot in Republicans’ approach toward this race is motivated by recent polling that shows a narrowing race, with the latest AmGreatness/InsiderAdvantage poll finding Hassan ahead by one point (48%-47%), while a recent Data for Progress poll finds Hassan leading by a larger six-point margin (50%-44%). However, Hassan’s continued lead and favorability—50% in the latter poll—mean she remains in a better position to win next week compared other Democrats in close races. Still, Hassan is by no means guaranteed to win reelection, and the latest poll out of the state by Saint Anselm College finds Bolduc leading by one point (48%-47%).

Much as it analyzed four key House races, The New York Times polled four of the most competitive Senate races: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. The polls found Democrats leading in Arizona (Kelly, 51%-45%), Georgia (Warnock, 49%-46%) and Pennsylvania (Fetterman (49%-44%), while the Nevada race was tied between incumbent Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) and former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R-NV).

While The New York Times’ surveys paint a positive picture for Democrats, other recent polls tell another story in Pennsylvania and Georgia. In the first public poll taken of the Keystone State following the Fetterman-Oz debate, a survey by InsiderAdvantage found Oz ahead, 48%-45%. It is possible this poll may be an outlier, but it may project a transformative shift following the debate that has thrust Oz into the lead. It has also been reinforced by another recent survey by Muhlenberg College that finds the candidates tied at 47% apiece. Oz’s closing of the gap is particularly notable that he has been able to do so despite maintaining high unfavorability ratings—the Muhlenberg poll found 31% view him favorably while 55% view him unfavorably. This may indicate voters are willing to back him due to increased concerns over Fetterman (who stands at 45% favorable and 46% unfavorable) or toward Democrats writ large. In the Peach State, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll found Republican nominee Herschel Walker leading incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), 46%-45%. However, more recent polls find Warnock ahead, yet below the critical 50% threshold to avoid a December runoff election, including a poll by Monmouth (49%-44%). Altogether, it appears Warnock remains a slight favorite, and that this race will likely go to a runoff in December.

The New York Times poll finding incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) ahead in Arizona looks to be supported by other recent polls, including a survey by OH Predictive Insights finding Kelly ahead of Republican nominee Blake Masters, 48%-46%, as well as a FOX News poll showing Kelly ahead, 47%-46%. While a poll two weeks ago by Data for Progress found the candidates tied at 47%, it also found Kelly leading among Independents, 50%-40%. It is also important to note that Masters has yet to lead in any public polling. Altogether, these two points keep Kelly as a slight favorite in the Grand Canyon state. However, on Nov. 1, Libertarian candidate Marc Victor suspended his Senate campaign and endorsed Masters. Even though Victor was polling in the low single digits, and his name will remain on the ballot, it eliminates Democrats’ hopes for Victor to serve as a spoiler, taking votes that would have otherwise gone to Masters.

Rounding out these four states with Nevada, two other recent polls find Laxalt with narrow leads: one poll by Echelon Insights showing a 48%-46% Laxalt advantage, and another survey by Data for Progress finding Laxalt ahead, 49%-48%. Moreover, the latest poll from Emerson College gives Laxalt a larger lead, 50%-45%. While still narrow, Laxalt’s enduring lead in polls over the last month make it clear that momentum is on his side.

In Wisconsin and Florida, it appears as if Republican incumbents may be pulling away from their Democratic challengers. In the Badger State, incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has grown his lead over Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes (D-WI), with a Data for Progress poll finding Johnson ahead, 51%-46% and a Fox News survey showing Johnson leading, 48%-46%. While the Data for Progress poll gives Barnes a narrow advantage among Independents, 50%-45%, he has almost exclusively trailed or tied Johnson in public polling over the last two months, meaning it is likely that GOP barrages against Barnes over crime issues have worked in changing the outlook of the race. However, while Barnes may be down, the latest poll indicates he is not out. A Clarity Campaign poll showed Barnes leading Johnson by two points, 48%-46%.

In the Sunshine State, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) appears well-positioned to win a third term, with a Data for Progress poll finding him leading Rep. Val Demings (D-FL) by seven points, 51%-44%. Another poll by the University of North Florida found Rubio ahead by an even larger margin, 54%-43%. In Ohio, Republican nominee JD Vance appears to be pulling away from his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH). In the latest poll by Cygnal, Vance was ahead, 48%-44%. However, Ryan is receiving some last-minute help in the form of a cross-party endorsement by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), largely due to Vance’s prior embraces of Trump’s allegations of fraud in the 2020 elections. Nevertheless, given Ohio’s increasingly rightward trend and brightening outlook for Republicans writ large, it is expected that Vance will emerge victorious, albeit in a race that may have a narrower result than initially envisioned.

As a reflection of Senate Republicans’ improved electoral outlook, the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) dropped over $20 million in funds to five races to give their candidates one final push: Georgia (over $5 million), Pennsylvania (over $4.2 million), North Carolina (over $4 million), Ohio (over $3.7 million) and Nevada (over $3.4 million).

In Washington state, recent polls suggest an upset may be brewing in a race previously thought to be safely Democratic. Three recent polls show Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) holding a narrow lead over her Republican challenger, former triage nurse Tiffany Smiley. A recent Trafalgar poll finds Murray ahead by only one point, 49%-48%, while a GOP-sponsored survey by the Moore Information Group has the candidates tied at 46% apiece. A third poll by KHQ-TV gives Murray a five-point lead, 51%-46%. In recent weeks, Smiley has received plaudits for displaying herself as an energetic and optimistic alternative to the entrenched Murray. Such an upset would be a stunning blow to Democrats in a liberal stronghold that Biden won by nearly 20 points in 2020—as well as for Murray, who is slated to assume the top Democratic role on the Senate Appropriations Committee in the next Congress. However, despite the narrowing gap, there is precedent that Democrats are being undercounted. In her 2010 Senate race, polls leading up to Election Day had Murray running within the margin of error, or trailing GOP candidate Dino Rossi, but ultimately winning the race in a GOP-favored year, 52%-47%.


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