Political handicappers are labeling Senate Democrats as the favorites to keep their majority, but Democratic senators themselves are worried the polls may be flawed in their favor just as they were in 2016 and 2020.
The lawmakers acknowledge the political environment looks much better for their chances than it did on Memorial Day before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and the right to an abortion.
While President Biden’s approval rating is still in the low 40s and a president’s party usually loses seats in the midterm elections, many Democrats feel good about their chances of winning the Senate — if those pesky polls are correct.
“When have the polls been right in our favor in the past?” asked Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) when asked about a projection by FiveThirtyEight.com, the political modeling website, that gives Democrats nearly a 7 in 10 chance of keeping the Senate majority.
Murphy said he had “very little” confidence in polls after former President Trump and other GOP candidates outperformed polls on Election Day in 2016 and 2020.
The biggest polling failure in recent years came in the 2016 presidential election, when experts completed failed to gauge the intensity of Trump’s support in battle ground states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, where he stunned even fellow Republicans by beating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
But there were also major polling failures in recent high-profile Senate races.
In 2020, Democratic candidate Sara Gideon led Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a top Democratic target, in multiple polls leading up to Election Day but wound up losing by nearly 10 percentage points.
In 2018, polls shortly before Election Day showed then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) leading Republican candidate Josh Hawley in the Missouri Senate race. FiveThirtyEight.com gave McCaskill a 57 percent chance of winning the race. Hawley won.
Likewise, then-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) led his Republican challenger Mike Braun in 8 out of 10 public polls in Indiana in the run-up to the 2018 midterm and was given a 72 percent chance of victory.
Like McCaskill, Donnelly wound up losing by nearly 6 percentage points.
In 2016, a Democratic candidate Katie McGinty appeared to have a solid lead over Republican Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) heading into the election, leading him in 10 out of 10 public polls conducted in the final two weeks of the race. She was given a 61 percent chance of victory but instead lost by a point and a half.
“There’s a lot of historical headwinds coming at us but also some really good news we have to talk about and sell,” Murphy said, referring to the enactment of last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law and the package of corporate tax reform, climate spending and prescription drug reform that passed last month.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she feels “good” about Democrats’ chances but also acknowledged that polls in the weeks before Election Day can’t be counted on.
“You never know,” she answered when asked how much confidence she had in the polls, noting that polls in Michigan’s gubernatorial race “are all over the place.”
“If the election were held today, I believe we would pick up seats,” she said, but cautioned that spending by outside conservative groups in the final weeks of the campaign could change the picture.
Democrats are feeling rattled by the news of the $1.6 billion donation electronics manufacturing magnate Barre Seid gave to a conservative group controlled by Leonard Leo, the strategist who masterminded the effort to push the federal judiciary further to the right.
“What’s going to happen, they’re dumping in disclosed and secret money [for] attack ads and it’s bound to make a difference. They’re attacking our people right and left,” Stabenow said.
OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks political spending, projects total spending on the midterm elections to exceed $9.3 billion. More than half of the $4.8 billion already spent has come from Republican candidates and allied groups, according to the site.
Democratic candidates and party committees have raised more money than their Republican counterparts but Democratic senators expect a wave of dark-money funded ads to help GOP candidates close the gap in October and the first week of November.
“It’s definitely a huge factor,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said of the huge flows of cash coming from Republican-allied dark-money groups and super PACs. “Republican candidates don’t really feel like they have to fundraise anymore. If you look, our candidates are outraising them but they don’t care because they have the dark money and it’s so massive.”
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm has spent heavily since May to boost GOP candidates and define Democrats.
“With the addition of increased spending by our campaigns and the addition of outside group spending starting in early September, the result is a unified Republican effort that we’re very confident will result in a Republican Senate majority,” he said.
Recent polls showed Senate Democratic incumbents leading their Republican challengers in several battleground states.
In Georgia, surveys conducted in September by Beacon Research and Shaw & Company Research and by Marist College showed Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) leading Republican Herschel Walker by 5 points. A Quinnipiac poll showed Warnock up 6 points.
In Nevada, polls show Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and former Republican state Attorney General Adam Laxalt essentially tied, with a late September poll from the Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group showing Laxalt ahead by 4 points and a mid-August Suffolk University poll showing Cortez Masto leading by 6 points.
“Confident would not be word, optimistic is the word,” said Kaine, who predicted that control of the Senate will be decided by only a few points in a handful of races. “I think it’s going to be a late Election Night.”
“What polling does not necessarily show you is who is like, ‘By God, I’m turning out to vote,’” he said, explaining why polls are not always reliable.
But Kaine, like many Democrats, is hoping that the Supreme Court’s reversal of abortion rights in will rev up Democratic voters more than they usually are in midterm election, when turnout is much lower than in presidential years.
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign, said Republicans “are firmly on defense across the Senate map.”
He said Democratic “incumbents remain well positioned in their races and we have multiple pickup opportunities that remain strongly in play,” alluding to Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.
But he acknowledged the races will likely tighten.
“All cycle long we’ve been preparing for our battleground races to be extremely competitive, and in the final month we’re going to continue taking nothing for granted,” he said.