Let’s Talk About the Senate

WILKES-BARRE, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 03: Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate and former TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz is greeted by former president Donald Trump at a rally to support local candidates at the Mohegan S... WILKES-BARRE, PENNSYLVANIA - SEPTEMBER 03: Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate and former TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz is greeted by former president Donald Trump at a rally to support local candidates at the Mohegan Sun Arena on September 03, 2022 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Trump still denies that he lost the election against President Joe Biden and has encouraged his supporters to doubt the election process. Trump has backed Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) MORE LESS

Yesterday I noticed the irrepressible Josh Kraushaar’s report on the Senate campaign. He’s one of the most notorious of DC reporters, now predictably working for Axios. He was positively giddy at newly good news for Republicans hoping to retake control of the Senate. But he’s not altogether wrong. Kraushaar focuses on two races — Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Democrats’ Mandela Barnes is now running behind Ron Johnson and John Fetterman’s once huge margin over Mehmet Oz has shrunk to mid- or low single digits. Kraushaar says Republicans are making gains by switching the discussion to crime. (Generally, he goes with his perennial hobbyhorse: Democrats are too liberal to win elections.) But I don’t think crime politics is precisely it.

In Wisconsin, there’s real truth in it. Ron Johnson, the wiliest of political hucksters, has shifted to an increasingly ugly campaign portraying Barnes as a young, Black pro-crime militant who’s going to let the bad guys break into your house and kill your family. For these candidates and that state it’s entirely predictable. Fetterman’s challenges look pretty different to me. Yes, Oz’s campaign and GOP campaign committee’s are making the crime arguments. But when you look at how the campaign has unfolded something else is driving this: Fetterman’s stroke. Oz’s campaign has been zeroing in on this for months. Another campaign might find this attack awkward or delicate. They haven’t. This has hurt Fetterman for at least two reasons.

First, Fetterman is not 100%. His campaign admits as much. He’s still recovering. His speeches are clearer than they were a month ago. But if you set aside strong ideological commitments, which is where in-play voters by definition are, one candidate recently having a stroke and still having some level of impairment isn’t a strange reason to have some second thoughts. Let’s be real: it’s not. For me and probably you Fetterman still having some road to full recovery is basically irrelevant. But if you’re swayable it’s not. This has played out in Fetterman’s resistance to doing multiple debates, which is an effective cudgel for Oz to hit on again and again.

The other problem for Fetterman is that his recovery from his stroke has hampered his ability to engage publicly with Oz — not just about his stroke but on every other issue. He’s out on the campaign trail. He’s not hiding. But he can’t engage in the same way. That to me is the story in Pennsylvania.

For some time Pennsylvania seemed like a sure thing, one all-but-locked-in pick-up which created a path for Democrats to get to a 51 or 52 seat majority and provided some insurance if they lost a seat in Georgia or Arizona. With that seat more clearly in play, things start to look different.

Meanwhile there’s another seat that hasn’t gotten that much attention. That’s Catherine Cortez Masto’s reelection campaign in Nevada. Just as I assume Republicans will win races in Ohio and North Carolina even though they’re tied or even a tiny bit behind, Nevada is a state where Democrats consistently pull out victories. But Adam Laxalt has been steadily catching up on Cortez Masto. If you go by the polls that race is now tied.

In most cases the differences we’re talking about are very very small — matters of averages moving a couple percentage points. But over the last couple weeks in key races those have all been in the GOP direction.

Perhaps the best way to look at the battle for the Senate right now is to say that according to the 538 averages there are five races within two percentage points — NC, NV, OH, GA and WI. That gives you a sense of the full range of possible outcomes and how big an impact the last four weeks of the campaign can have.

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