Two weeks ago, we noted early signs that Republicans were making gains in the race for the Senate.
Now it’s clear the race has shifted toward Republicans in important ways. Democrats might still lead enough races to hold the chamber, but their position is starting to look quite vulnerable.
On average, Republicans have gained three points across 19 post-Labor Day polls of the key Senate battleground states, compared with pre-Labor Day polls of the same states by the same pollsters.
The shift is similar to what we observed a few weeks ago. What’s changed with more data: We can be sure that the polling shift is real, and we have more clarity about where Republicans are making their biggest gains — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
We focused on Wisconsin last time we talked about Republican gains, so today we’ll focus on Pennsylvania.
If you’re a Democrat, there’s still one very important thing you can cling to in Pennsylvania: the lead.
John Fetterman still leads Dr. Mehmet Oz in the polls taken since Labor Day. In fact, he basically leads in every one of them, by an average of around 4 percentage points.
But Oz has nonetheless made significant gains. On average, he has closed by a net of 6 percentage points in post-Labor Day polling, compared with surveys by the same pollsters taken before Labor Day.
Why has Oz surged back into the race? There are two ways to tell the story — one might leave Democrats feeling OK; the other might leave Republicans giddy. This is one of those cases where the best interpretation draws on both cases.
If you’re a Democrat, the optimistic interpretation is that Oz is merely and belatedly consolidating Republican support after a damaging primary. In this view, Oz’s gains were inevitable and there’s not much for Democrats to worry about. With Fetterman still enjoying a lead, Democrats can tell themselves that Oz has mainly won over folks who were going to come around to him eventually.
There’s truth to this interpretation: Oz came out of the primary with terrible favorability ratings. Many would-be Republican voters were not prepared to say they would support him. Back in a July poll from Fox News, Oz had just 73% support among Republicans. Now, it’s 83%. Realistically, many of those Republicans were going to rally behind Oz once the general election campaign got underway and once Republicans started judging him compared with a Democrat, rather than against Republicans.
But there’s another interpretation that might be more encouraging for Republicans: Fetterman has endured forceful attacks related to his health — he had a stroke in May — as well as his views about crime and the economy. There’s reason to think those attacks are taking a toll.
A Franklin and Marshall poll last week found Fetterman’s favorability ratings under water, with 46% saying they have an unfavorable view of him compared with 40% with a favorable view. Back in August, the numbers were nearly reversed: Just 36% had an unfavorable view of him, compared with 43% with a favorable view.
Oz’s favorability ratings are still worse than Fetterman’s. And so far, most voters say they’re not concerned about Fetterman’s health. But there’s no doubt that Fetterman, rather than Oz, has become the focal point of the race over the last month. With Fetterman still struggling — by his own admission — to recover fully from the stroke, there’s no reason to assume that the spotlight will relent. As long as that’s true, Republicans can hope that Oz might continue to gain.
Wisconsin and Pennsylvania aren’t necessarily the only places where the GOP is gaining in the polls.
Republicans have picked up about 1.4 points in post-Labor Day Senate surveys in states other than Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The story isn’t always so clear in these other states — there are either fewer polls than in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, or the polls are a little less consistent about the size of Republican gains.
Of the other states, it’s Nevada where the Republicans seem closest to assembling convincing evidence of a breakthrough. The recent polling there is fragmentary, but all of the recent polls show the Republican Adam Laxalt leading the Democratic Senate incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto. In the (only two) post-Labor Day surveys with a pre-Labor Day counterpart, Laxalt has gained nearly three points.
Although it’s still too soon to say whether Laxalt has inched into a lead, Nevada has loomed as an obvious weak point for the Democrats this cycle.
President Joe Biden won the state by only 2 percentage points in 2020, and it’s not a state where Democrats can draw on their demographic strengths. College-educated voters represent a smaller share of the electorate here than in any other battleground state.
Instead, Democrats depend on the state’s large and heavily Democratic Hispanic population. But Hispanics may be trending toward Republicans, and they would also probably be expected to turn out at relatively low numbers in a midterm, even if Democrats retained their margin of victory with the group.
The big picture is … murky
The scope of Republican gains isn’t just murky in the Senate races outside Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. It’s murkier beyond the Senate as well.
Over the last few weeks, there haven’t been a lot of generic ballot polls, which ask voters whether they prefer Democrats or Republicans for Congress. But there are mounting signs of a rightward shift on this measure.
On Monday, a new Monmouth poll added to the pile. Republicans led by two points among registered voters, a pretty sizable shift from its last poll, when Democrats led by three points. Looking back over the last two weeks, there are a lot more Republican leads on the generic ballot than there used to be.
There are still a few dissenting data points, so it’s still too soon to be too confident about whether or to what extent Republicans have picked up ground nationwide, but it would be no surprise if Republicans were pulling back into the lead. With economic concerns on the rise and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade moving farther into the rearview mirror, the opportunity for Republicans to reclaim lost ground might be at hand.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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