How Many US Senate Races Will Be Close Calls On Election Day?
The safe bet might be five – though which five?
The nation’s most well-known prognosticators currently have identified eight U.S. Senate contests as ‘toss-ups’ at this point in the election cycle, though it is highly unlikely each of those will be narrowly decided when all the votes are counted in November.
Outlets and analysts (e.g. 538, Cook Political, The Economist, POLITICO, Real Clear Politics) have each designated at least two of the following eight states as ‘toss-ups’ within the last two weeks: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
While definitions may vary, toss-up races are usually characterized as ‘very competitive’ while contests with a partisan “lean” or “tilt” are viewed as ‘somewhat competitive.’
Looking at electoral results, Smart Politics characterizes very competitive races as those decided by less than five percentage points and somewhat competitive races as those decided by less than 10 points.
Examining the last 30 years of U.S. Senate elections, an average of 5.3 contests across the last 16 cycles resulted in victory margins of less than five points (with an average of 9.9 races per cycle coming in at less than 10 points).
In fact, in each of the last four cycles, there have been exactly five U.S. Senate races decided within this narrow range:
- 2014: Virginia (won by Mark Warner, 0.8 points), North Carolina (Thom Tillis, 1.6), Colorado (Cory Gardner, 1.9), Alaska (Dan Sullivan, 2.1), and New Hampshire (Jeanne Shaheen, 3.2)
- 2016: New Hampshire (Maggie Hassan, 0.1), Pennsylvania (Pat Toomey, 1.4), Nevada (Catherine Cortez Masto, 2.4), Missouri (Roy Blunt, 2.8), and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson, 3.4)
- 2018: Florida (Rick Scott, 0.1), Arizona (Kyrsten Sinema, 2.3), Texas (Ted Cruz, 2.6), West Virginia (Joe Manchin, 3.3), and Montana (Jon Tester, 3.6)
- 2020: Georgia (Jon Ossoff, 1.2), Michigan (Gary Peters, 1.7), North Carolina (Thom Tillis, 1.8), Georgia – special (Raphael Warnock, 2.1), and Arizona (Mark Kelly, 2.4)
The last time as many as eight U.S. Senate elections resulted in victory margins of less than five points was in 2000: Washington (Maria Cantwell, 0.1), Michigan (Debbie Stabenow, 1.6), Missouri (the deceased Mel Carnahan, 2.1), Nebraska (Ben Nelson, 2.2), New Jersey (Jon Corzine, 3.0), Montana (Conrad Burns, 3.3), Virginia (George Allen, 4.6), and Florida (Bill Nelson, 4.9).
State electorates will almost assuredly begin to break for one party’s nominee in some of the aforementioned 2022 ‘toss-up’ states, ultimately placing them in the ‘somewhat competitive’ category after the fact.
So which states are likely to host true nail-biters on November 8th?
While the contest has not garnered as much national attention as those in Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, it’s a good bet the election in North Carolina (Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd vs. former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley) will end up being decided by just a few points.
The average victory margin in North Carolina U.S. Senate contests over the last 30 years has been the smallest in the nation at just 5.7 points with only Colorado (8.6), Missouri (8.8), Nevada (9.1), and Pennsylvania (9.3) also coming in at single digits.
In fact, during the 2020 election cycle, all 10 elections for North Carolina executive offices plus its presidential and U.S. Senate contests were each decided by single digits including 10 of these 12 by less than five points and seven by fewer than three points.
The average victory margin in general and special U.S. Senate elections across the 50 states has been 21.9 points since 1990.
Just seven states have not hosted a single U.S. Senate contest decided by less than 10 points during this span: Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.
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2014: Even had the Democrats prevailed in AK, CO, and NC the chamber still would have switched control. Conversely, had the Republicans won in NH or VA they might be in the uninterrupted majority to the present!
Of other venues, FL could have a “close call”, with the incumbent under pressure both for his supposed lack of enthusiasm for the job, and Hurricane Ian not providing any sort of boost that it might for his ticketmate, the incumbent governor with national aspirations for 2024. Diagonally across the landscape, AK seems sure to have at least a “somewhat competitive” election – namely between TWO REPUBLICANS, the 4-term incumbent and a former commissioner of the state Department of Administration.