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Key Senate races tighten with a flood of GOP ad spending

Celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, left, has benefited from millions of dollars spent on TV ads from outside groups to help him close the gap with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in the Pennsylvania Senate race.
Nate Smallwood
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, left, has benefited from millions of dollars spent on TV ads from outside groups to help him close the gap with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in the Pennsylvania Senate race.

With exactly four weeks left for ballots to be cast in the 2022 midterm elections, the landscape for control of the Senate is shifting again.

The field has moved slightly back in Republicans' direction, in part because of a natural tightening closer to November as the races come into focus for more people, but also because of a deluge of television advertising in key races supporting GOP candidates.

The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, has spent $52 million on TV ads in just the past two weeks, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

A new outside group, MAGA Inc., aligned with and sanctioned by former President Trump has now popped up and starting to spend significantly. They have poured in about $2 million in two states — Pennsylvania and Ohio, places where Trump-endorsed Senate candidates are struggling.

Partisan control of the Senate is currently tied at 50-50, with Democrats in charge of the agenda because they have the White House. So Republicans need a net gain of one seat to wrest control of the chamber.

The field of the top 10 most likely to flip continues to be the same group of races with Republicans making serious runs at five Democratic-controlled seats and Democrats contending in the other five. But control will likely be decided in just five of those — with Democratic targets in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Republicans making a real push in Nevada, Georgia and Arizona.

From our previous top 10, we moved Nevada and North Carolina up a spot each, while Arizona and New Hampshire moved down a place each.

Here's a look at the field:

1. Pennsylvania (R-Open)

It may be a natural and expected tightening, but following a month of millions of dollars in TV ads spent in the past month by Republican outside groups, the significant lead once held by Democrat John Fetterman over Republican celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz has shrunk considerably.

At issue are Fetterman's health — he had a stroke that took him off the campaign trailfor a considerable amount of time — and Oz's struggles with swing voters and his base. Oz has made several stumbles that Fetterman's deft social media team has capitalized on — from crudité to Oz's fundraiser in front of "Hitler's limo." All eyes will be on the Oct. 25 debate between the two.

This is still Democrats' top target and the most likely Senate seat to change hands. Previous: 1

2. Georgia (D-Warnock)

Republican Herschel Walker, left, is challenging incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. Walker is facing allegations he paid an ex to have an abortion despite his hard-right stance on the issue.
/ Megan Varner/Getty Images; Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Megan Varner/Getty Images; Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Republican Herschel Walker, left, is challenging incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga. Walker is facing allegations he paid an ex to have an abortion despite his hard-right stance on the issue.

If ever there was a test of whether scandals still matter in this era of hyper-partisanship, this is it. Republican Herschel Walker's problems continue with the allegation that he paid for an ex-girlfriend, who says she's the mother of one of his other children, to have an abortion. He denies the allegation. The Daily Beast presented a receipt for the abortion, a check Walker paid his ex days later and a get-well card he signed. The outlet also reported that a friend of the ex-girlfriend, who was not named but was told the story at the time, also corroborated the report.

The New York Times reportedthat the same woman said Walker urged her to have another abortion two years later. She refused, which she says ended their relationship. Walker denies this allegation as well. NPR has not confirmed the details of the stories. Walker is staunchly anti-abortion rights, not believing in any exceptions, and his responses to the scandal have been muddled at best.

Republicans are warily watching what happens here. Walker raised lots of money after the news came out, but even Republicans contend that any momentum Walker had has stalled for now. Still, Republicans in the state don't have any other GOP options, Brian Kemp is expected to do well in his gubernatorial election, which could help Walker in the end, and this is still a place that at least leans toward Republicans despite its swing-state status. But this is the kind of allegation that would have sunk previous campaigns. The result will say a lot about our politics — although Republicans already voted for a candidate who was accused of sexual misconduct by almost two dozen women and who bragged about assaulting women. Previous: 2

3. Nevada (D-Cortez Masto)

Democrats continue to say incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto is running a good campaign, but she's started to slip behind Trump-backed challenger Adam Laxalt, who denies the result of the 2020 presidential election. The bottom line is Cortez Masto is the most vulnerable incumbent senator in the country right now.

This is a state that has leaned Democratic in recent years, but their victories have been really close, and both sides expect another tight finish. Democrats say Laxalt has been vulnerable to attacks over his ties to Trump, and his lies that inspired the Jan. 6 insurrection, as well as on abortion rights.

A big reason for the Republican opportunity here, though, is the economy. And some Democrats are concerned the party is focusing too heavily on abortion and not addressing the economy in a focused way. The state has a high population of working-class whites, Latinos and Asian Americans still trying to recover from the economic effects of the pandemic.

Latinos are a key group to watch. They have helped tip the balance toward Democrats in previous years, but Republicans contend they have been able to appeal to the group — here and in other states — over the pandemic's economic effects, crime and their frustration with progressive Democratic positions.

Democrats have traditionally done well in Nevada by turning out their base voters, and they say Cortez Masto has been up on the air with Spanish-language ads for months and is well-liked in the Latino community. But there are questions about the party's ability to get out the vote locally. Democrats believe they have the resources and organization to do it well, but this election will be a big test of whether they can keep the Nevada turnout machine going.

If Democrats take Pennsylvania, Republicans would need to pick up two seats to win control. That makes Nevada critical to the GOP's chances. If they aren't able to take Georgia or Nevada, they'd likely need to sweep both Arizona (next on our list) and New Hampshire, which is tougher for them and has slipped down the list to No. 7 because of a weaker Republican candidate. Previous: 4

4. Arizona (D-Kelly)

Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, left, is holding up well against Trump-backed Republican Blake Masters, right, in the Arizona Senate race, but it's shaping up to be a tight finish.
/ Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg via Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly, left, is holding up well against Trump-backed Republican Blake Masters, right, in the Arizona Senate race, but it's shaping up to be a tight finish.

As operatives in both parties have expected, this race has tightened. Arizona is a place where Republicans outnumber Democrats and where independents really matter. That's the hurdle for both incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly and Trump-backed challenger Blake Masters.

Masters ran an ad earlier in the cycle, when he was trying to win the primary, saying that Trump won the 2020 election. In a general-election debate against Kelly last week, he called President Biden the "legitimate president." It's quite the shift, and not the only one he's made.

Masters also backtracked on his hardline stance on abortion. He had called himself "100% pro-life" and advocated for a federal "personhood" law "that recognizes that unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed." Both of those were scrubbed from his website in the general election and now describes his position in ads as "common sense," while trying to describe Kelly as an "extremist" on the issue.

The Senate Leadership Fund, the well-heeled super PAC tied to McConnell, has pulled out of the state. That makes it even more challenging for Masters without that air support. Kelly, meanwhile, in this border state where Republicans outnumber Democrats, distanced himself from Biden in the recent debate, saying he criticized the president when he "decided he was going to do something dumb" on immigration. Previous: 3

5. Wisconsin (R-Johnson)

Incumbent Ron Johnson hasn't backed down from controversial positions, and his favorability ratings have struggled. That said, he's well aware of how he's viewed and has run a hard-nosed campaign. Republicans are more confident about this race now than a month ago, though, as they've run a deluge of ads attacking Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes on crime-- and Johnson has seen a boost in the polls as a result.

Barnes was slow to respond, but has now gone on the air with an ad featuring a retired police sergeant. "Mandela doesn't want to defund the police; he's very supportive of law enforcement," the retired sergeant says in the ad. Barnes is also going after Johnson on abortion now and Democrats expect this race to tighten and be a 1-to-2 point race, as so many statewide races in Wisconsin have been.

If Johnson holds on, Pennsylvania might be the only Democratic flip. And, as we noted, that race is tightening as well. Previous: 5

6. North Carolina (R-Open)

That said, North Carolina, a Republican-controlled seat, has trended up the top 10, and both sides expect a close finish between Democrat Cheri Beasley and Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd. Some Democrats have complained that there haven't been enough resources poured into this race, which they see as winnable, to push Beasley over the finish line in this state that has leaned toward Republicans in recent presidential and Senate elections. So lately, there's been a bit of an uptick in Democratic spending. We'll see if it makes a difference.

Beasley, first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, has run a fairly nonantagonistic campaign in this state with a high number of right-leaning independents. She's focused not just on cities, but also Black voters in rural counties as well abortion rights, like other Democrats across the country.

Budd's campaign, on the other hand, has confounded many Republicans. A former Republican governor called his campaign too "risk averse," and Budd doesn't appear to be doing much to court independent voters. He has hugged Trump, talked of immigration, calling every county a "border county" and accused Beasley of being "deceptive" in painting herself as a moderate.

His campaign says he will be focusing more on retail politics and inflation in coming day, and Republicans are hoping tens of millions spent by Republican outside groups in the final weeks can nudge Budd past Beasley. Budd is expected to have the advantage in the end, but this one has remained close so far. Previous: 7

7. New Hampshire (D-Hassan)

Republicans got their candidate — and it's not the one the establishment wanted. Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan looks to have an easier path than before the Republican primary, as she faces off against controversial Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc. He's aligned himself with Trump, denies the 2020 election results and has boosted vaccine conspiracies.

That's going to be a tough sell in this state, where about 40% of people identify as independents — and even Republicans acknowledge abortion is effective as an issue. And on Friday, it was reported that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has canceled their advertising for the state and redirecting the funds elsewhere. Previous: 6

8. Ohio (R-Open)

Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan held eyebrow-raising leads in this right-leaning state for quite a while. That is until the cavalry came to Republican J.D. Vance's aid here. The Senate Leadership Fund poured in $28 million to boost Vance, and it has paid off. This is a state both parties expected to tighten — and never really believed polls would hold — because of the rightward tilt of the state. Plus, as voting nears, people naturally start to turn their attention to these races — and late deciders in these races tend to move toward the bend of the state.

Because it's right-leaning Ohio, Ryan has deemphasized party and is focusing on a message of finding "common ground," like in this ad with his wife. Vance has been trying to soften his image in ads with his wife — and hitting Ryan on crime — after coming across as a firebrand who won Trump's endorsement and made controversial statements about women. Previous: 8

9. Florida (R-Rubio)

Incumbent Marco Rubio has continued to hold a consistent lead in this race against the Democratic challenger, Rep. Val Demings, despite Demings raising a significant amount of money. Something else to watch in this race, though, is what effect Hurricane Ian will have, which is unclear at this point as the cleanup continues.

Lee and Collier counties, which took direct hits from the hurricane, are heavily Republican areas, but lots of other places, like Orlando, where Demings was police chief, up to Jacksonville are also reeling and dealing with the aftereffects of devastating flooding. The campaigns and committees are still trying to adjust with just a month to go in the election. Previous: 9

10. Colorado (D-Bennet)

Republican challenger Joe O'Dea, who has struck a moderate chord, particularly on abortion rights and partisanship, is making this a race against incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. The race could be decided in single digits, though Bennet is still favored.

Democrats started to spend more money in the state to help shore it up. They are hitting O'Dea particularly on gun safety and accusing him of "talking out of both sides of his mouth" on abortion. Resources, however, are finite and Republicans are happy to see Democrats have to use some in this Democratic-leaning state. Previous: 10

Worth keeping an eye on: The Senate race in Washington state, between incumbent Democrat Patty Murray and Republican veterans advocate Tiffany Smiley, has been in single digits in the last several polls. Murray has led in all of them and touted her tenure and items in recent Democratic-passed legislation, even as Smiley has tried to use those very things against her, saying they've led to inflation. Republicans are even running an ad showing Murray morphing into Biden. Murray has focused on tangible items included in legislation she fought for, like lowering prices for prescription drugs and insulin.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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