Political handicappers are naming Senate Democrats as favorites to retain their majority, but Democratic senators themselves fear the polls could be flawed in their favor, as they were in 2016 and 2020.
Lawmakers recognize that the political environment for their chances looks much better than it did on Memorial Day before the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade and put down abortion rights.
While President Biden’s approval rating is still in the low 40s and a president’s party typically loses seats in midterm elections, many Democrats feel confident about their chances of winning the Senate — if those pesky polls are right.
“When have the polls been in our favor historically?” asked Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) when asked about a projection from political modeling site FiveThirtyEight.com that gave Democrats a nearly 7 to 10 to retain the Senate majority.
Murphy said he has “very little” confidence in polls after former President Trump and other GOP candidates topped the polls on Election Day in 2016 and 2020.
The biggest polling blunder in recent years came in the 2016 presidential election, when pundits failed to gauge the intensity of Trump’s support in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, where he stunned even other Republicans by beating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
But there were also major voting errors in the recent high-profile Senate election.
In 2020, Democratic nominee Sara Gideon led Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a top Democrat target, in several pre-Election Day polls but ended up losing nearly 10 percentage points.
In 2018, just before Election Day, polls showed that then-Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) was leading Republican nominee Josh Hawley in the Missouri Senate race. FiveThirtyEight.com gave McCaskill a 57 percent chance of winning the race. Haley won.
Likewise then-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) led Republican challenger Mike Braun in 8 of 10 Indiana public polls leading up to the 2018 halftime, earning a 72 percent chance of winning.
Like McCaskill, Donnelly lost almost 6 percentage points.
In 2016, a Democratic nominee, Katie McGinty, appeared to have a solid lead over Republican Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who entered the election, leading him in 10 out of 10 public polls in the last two weeks of the race were carried out. She had a 61 percent chance of winning, but instead lost by a point and a half.
“We have a lot of historical headwinds coming our way, but also some really good news that we have to talk about and sell,” Murphy said, referring to the passage of last year’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and the package of corporate tax reform and climate spending and prescription drug reform that happened last month.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she had a “good” feeling about the Democrats’ chances, but also acknowledged that polling in the weeks leading up to Election Day cannot be relied on.
“You never know,” she replied when asked how much faith she had in the polls, noting that polls are “everywhere” in Michigan’s gubernatorial campaign.
“If the elections were held today, I think we would win seats,” she said, but cautioned that spending by conservative groups outside of the final weeks of the campaign could change the picture.
Democrats are rocked by news of electronics maker Barre Seid’s $1.6 billion donation to a conservative group controlled by Leonard Leo, the strategist who led efforts to push the federal judiciary further to the right.
“What’s going to happen, they’re dumping disclosed and secret money [for] Attack indicators and it will definitely make a difference. They are attacking our people from the right and left,” said Stabenow.
OpenSecrets.org, a nonpartisan website that tracks political spending, estimates total spending for the midterm election at over $9.3 billion. More than half of the $4.8 billion already spent comes from Republican candidates and allied groups, according to the website.
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.
“That’s definitely a huge factor,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said of the huge cash flows coming from Republican-aligned dark money groups and super PACs. “Republican candidates don’t really feel like they have to fundraise anymore. If you see our candidates are outperforming 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 Republican campaign arm has spent heavily since May promoting GOP candidates and defining Democrats.
“With the addition of increased spending from our campaigns and the addition of spending from outside groups beginning in early September, the result is a unified Republican effort that we are very confident will result in a Republican Senate majority,” he said.
Recent polls showed Democratic Senate incumbents leading their Republican challengers in several battleground states.
In Georgia, polls conducted in September by Beacon Research and Shaw & Company Research and Marist College showed Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) leading Republican Herschel Walker by 5 points. A Quinnipiac poll found Warnock up 6 points.
In Nevada, polls show Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and former Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt essentially the same, with a poll by the Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group in late September showing Laxalt by 4 points and a poll by Suffolk University in mid-August showing Cortez Masto along 6 points ahead.
“Confident wouldn’t be a word, optimistic is the word,” said Kaine, who predicted Senate control in a handful of races would be decided by just a few points. “I think it’s going to be late election night.”
“What polls don’t necessarily tell you is who says, ‘By God, I’m going to vote,'” he said, explaining why polls aren’t always reliable.
But Kaine, like many Democrats, is hoping that the Supreme Court’s repeal of abortion rights will give Democratic voters a stronger-than-usual boost in midterm elections, when turnout is much lower than in presidential years.
David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial campaign, said Republicans “are firmly on the defense across the Senate map.”
He said the Democratic “incumbents remain well positioned in their races and we have several pickup opportunities that remain strong in the game,” alluding to Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida.
But he conceded the races are likely to get closer.
“We have prepared throughout the cycle for our racing to be extremely competitive on the battlefield and over the past month we will continue to take nothing for granted,” he said.