Control of the Senate rests on a knife’s edge, according to new polls by The New York Times and Siena College, with Republican challengers in Nevada and Georgia neck-and-neck with Democratic incumbents, and the Democratic candidate in Pennsylvania clinging to what appears to be a tenuous advantage.
The bright spot for Democrats in the four key states polled was in Arizona, where Senator Mark Kelly is holding a small but steady lead over his Republican challenger, Blake Masters.
The results indicate a deeply volatile and unpredictable Senate contest: More people across three of the states surveyed said they wanted Republicans to gain control of the Senate, but they preferred the individual Democratic candidates in their states — a sign that Republicans may be hampered by the shortcomings of their nominees.
Midterm elections are typically referendums on the party in power, and Democrats must defy decades of that political history to win control of the Senate, an outcome that has not completely slipped out of the party’s grasp according to the findings of the Times/Siena surveys. Democrats control the 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaking vote. To gain the majority, Republicans need to gain just one seat.
The polls surveyed likely voters across four key Senate races: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. Mr. Kelly, the Democratic incumbent in Arizona, holds the biggest lead, ahead of Mr. Masters by a 51 percent to 45 percent margin. Nevada is the tightest of the races, with the Democratic incumbent, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, and her Republican challenger, Adam Laxalt, locked in a dead-heat at 47 percent. In Georgia, Senator Raphael Warnock leads narrowly in a tight race over his Republican opponent, Herschel Walker, at 49 to 46 percent.
In Pennsylvania, voters were about evenly divided on which party they wanted to control the Senate. But Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, is up slightly against Mehmet Oz, the former television host, by a 49 percent to 44 percent margin for an open seat held by a retiring Republican.
Mr. Fetterman’s performance last week, however, in the race’s sole debate — the first opportunity for many voters to see and hear the candidate after he had a stroke five months ago — may have affected his support.
The Pennsylvania poll was largely conducted before the debate, with only one night of interviews made afterward. In calls made on Wednesday, the night after the matchup, a plurality of voters said Mr. Fetterman was not healthy enough to do the job — though Mr. Fetterman still maintained a slight lead over Dr. Oz among all Wednesday respondents. That was a shift from the previous two evenings, when majorities rated him as sufficiently well to serve in the Senate.
Overall, a little over one-third say he is not healthy enough to perform the duties of the job. Among Republicans, a majority — 71 percent — have concerns about his health while a majority of Democrats — 83 percent — say he is healthy enough to do the job.
Teresa Harry, an independent voter from York, Pa., said she was planning to support Mr. Fetterman, but said the debate had raised some questions for her.
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“Because he had a stroke he really couldn’t get his answers completely out the way he wanted to, so it makes me a little bit concerned to see if he’s going to be able to do the job,” she said.
But Ms. Harry, who is disabled and lives with her 80-year-old mother, is worried that Dr. Oz could cut Medicare and Social Security benefits: “It’s just scary out there, and I think Oz would be against us.”
Gregory Wagner, 65, a Republican project engineer from Quakertown, Pa., said he was crossing partisan lines to support Mr. Fetterman because he dislikes Dr. Oz. He disagrees with the Republican candidate’s stance on abortion rights and his support for former President Donald J. Trump. And he said he was not concerned about Mr. Fetterman’s health.
“My best friend had a stroke and is now perfectly fine,” Mr. Wagner said. “Everybody needs a chance to heal, and him just having it during his campaign, he’s come back pretty quick.”
The midterms are unfolding in an unprecedented political climate, representing the first national assessment since the pandemic subsided, after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and in a post-Roe environment. While Republicans benefit from a host of factors — a jittery economy, high inflation, worries about crime — the debate over abortion rights and concerns about gun violence have allowed Democrats to cling to some advantage in the Senate race.
With the House appearing to be slipping out of Democrats’ reach, a central question for the party is whether the extraordinary environment can help it maintain some hold on congressional control. The president’s party has lost seats in every midterm since the Bush administration in 2002.
For Democrats, much of their success will depend on whether their Senate candidates can continue to rise above President Biden’s low approval ratings and the national environment. Mr. Biden’s standing is at or below his national average in the four states, with the president at 36 percent in Arizona, 38 percent in Nevada, 39 percent in Georgia and 42 percent in Pennsylvania.
In all the races surveyed, the candidates outpace the president, with Mr. Kelly beating Mr. Biden’s approval rating by 15 points and winning nearly one-quarter of the people who disapprove of Mr. Biden’s job performance in the state. Mr. Fetterman is the closest to the president, but still ahead of him by eight points.
Andrew Swanson, an independent voter from Glendale, Ariz., said he was disappointed with Mr. Biden’s performance, describing the administration’s message on difficult problems as inadequate.
“He’s supposed to be the nation’s biggest problem solver, and he has yet to solve any of the nation’s biggest problems,” said Mr. Swanson, who manages a gym.
Still, Mr. Swanson plans to cast his ballot for Mr. Kelly. “Blake Masters has got all these wild ideas that he’s putting out there and talking about all these extremes,” he said.
In Georgia, where Mr. Warnock is up against Mr. Walker by a narrow three-point lead, Mr. Walker has faced accusations from two ex-girlfriends that he pressured them to get abortions. The former football star denies the claims.
On the question of character, voters side with Mr. Warnock, bolstering the Democrat’s strength in a politically divided state.
Nearly half of all Georgia voters view Mr. Warnock as more honest and trustworthy, while 37 percent of voters rate Mr. Walker the same. About a quarter of Mr. Walker’s voters view his opponent as more trustworthy or are not sure which candidate is more trustworthy, yet still plan to support him. Roughly one-in-10 Georgia voters view both candidates unfavorably. Mr. Walker is winning among that group.
Peter Strangis, 41, an independent voter from Atlanta, said he did not really trust either candidate, but added that he was planning to vote for Mr. Walker.
“Herschel is a former college football player and I don’t know if he’s ever read a book before, and Raphael Warnock doesn’t have any of his own original thoughts — I don’t know what to say,” said Mr. Strangis, who works in sales. “Voting for them is like choosing between broccoli and cauliflower.”
Another possible indicator of a Republican edge centers on the 2020 presidential election.
Even though Mr. Biden won all four states in 2020, a slight majority of voters said they would prefer to vote for a candidate who believes Mr. Trump won the election or said they thought a candidate’s views on who won the 2020 election did not matter. The outcome of the last election remains a key issue for Mr. Trump, who still falsely disputes the results at campaign events for Republican candidates that draw thousands of supporters across the country.
As surveys have shown for several weeks, voters remain more focused on problems like inflation and jobs than social issues. In three of the four states, about half of voters said economic issues were more important to deciding their vote for Congress, compared with about a third who pointed to social issues. Voters who are more focused on the economy are flocking toward Republicans, while Democrats take a majority of voters who are mainly voting on social issues.
Yared Assefa, a trucker from Las Vegas, voted for Mr. Biden two years ago, largely because he disliked Mr. Trump. This year, he plans to cast his ballot for Mr. Laxalt, the Republican Senate candidate and a former state attorney general, citing economic concerns and gas prices.
“I voted for him because of the behaviors and actions of the previous president — since then, everything is going up,” Mr. Assefa, a Democrat, said of Mr. Biden. “The fuel price is at a position where it’s about to run us out of business. It has gone up so high, and that needs to stop. I believe it’s only the Republicans that can help do that.”
Yet, there are signs that some social issues have traction, too.
Less than 20 percent of voters in each state say a candidate’s position on abortion does not influence their thinking about the candidate. And of those that take the issue into account when voting, voters prefer candidates who support legal abortion by a wide margin.
In Arizona, where the two parties have been fighting in court over a near-total ban on abortion, the survey showed that the issue had particular resonance. While voters in the three other states surveyed were voting primarily on economic issues, voters in Arizona were roughly split on what issues are most important to their vote, with 44 percent saying economic issues and 40 percent stating social issues.
The electorate remains deeply divided along the demographic fault lines of the last election. Democrats are winning college-educated voters across all four states. And Republicans are largely winning voters without a college degree, the exception being in Arizona, where Mr. Kelly is up by two points among that group.
Polls are a snapshot in time, and voters can and will change their minds in the week before the election. But for some voters, particularly in Arizona, their choice has already been decided. Nearly-one quarter of likely voters in Arizona have already cast a ballot, the highest across the four states surveyed.
Kristen Bayrakdarian and Sadiba Hasan contributed reporting.
Cross-tabs and methodology are available here.