Oct 2, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Democrats' new Senate struggles

Photo illustration of Democratic Senate candidates Mandela Barnes and John Fetterman

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Scott Olson and Nate Smallwood/Getty Images

Democrats are facing fresh problems in two pivotal Senate battlegrounds in which their nominees are facing attacks for being too progressive.

What's happening: In Wisconsin, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson has pulled ahead of Democrat Mandela Barnes in the latest wave of public polls. In Pennsylvania, recent polling suggests Democrat John Fetterman's double-digit advantage over Republican Mehmet Oz has shrunk to a statistical tie. They are vying for the seat held by retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey.

Why it matters: The Republican momentum in both states, acknowledged by strategists on both sides, means the pathway for Republicans to win back the Senate majority looks clearer.

  • If they hold Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — along with all the states Trump carried — Republicans would need to unseat just one Democratic incumbent.

By the numbers: In Wisconsin, Barnes trails Johnson by five points in a new poll conducted for the AARP by Biden pollster John Anzalone and Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio.

  • A Fox News poll released this week, which showed Johnson ahead by four points, found 44% of Wisconsin voters believing Barnes' views are "too extreme" — a point higher than those who viewed Johnson the same way. The share of voters who now view Barnes as too extreme spiked 14 points in the last month.
  • Johnson's supporters are much more committed to supporting their candidate than Barnes backers, according to the Fox News poll. Only half of Barnes votes said they supported their candidate "enthusiastically."

In Pennsylvania, Fetterman's commanding August lead over Oz has shrunk to low single-digits in three new public polls this week — from Emerson College (Fetterman +2), Fox News (Fetterman +4) and Franklin & Marshall College (Fetterman +3).

  • "This will be a 50-50 race, and it will determine control of the U.S. Senate," one Democratic congressman told Axios.

Between the lines: Both Democrats are getting hammered for their progressive positions on criminal justice issues.

The latest: The Fetterman campaign is now defending the candidate's criminal justice views. Montgomery County police officer Sean Kilkenny explains in a new ad: "John gave a second chance to those who deserve it: nonviolent offenders, marijuana users. ... John Fetterman has the courage to do what's right."

  • The new Fetterman ad defends his record on the Board of Pardons, saying he "voted with law enforcement efforts nearly 90% of the time."
  • A Factcheck.org fact check concluded: "Reviewing just commutation cases for inmates serving life sentences, we found that Fetterman and the board’s corrections expert voted the same 69% of the time."

What they're saying: "Compared to other Democrats, we’re taking this head on and not backing down on this issue. Certainly not to Dr. Oz," said Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello. "We’re not backing down from this fight on crime because we’re particularly proud of John’s record."

  • "This race is neck and neck despite Ron Johnson and his dark-money donors spending millions on a smear campaign against Mandela Barnes," said Barnes spokesman Maddy McDaniel. "The GOP’s fear-mongering playbook failed them last cycle and it will fail again this cycle."
  • "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," said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein.

The bottom line: The range of likely Senate outcomes is narrowing: It's hard to see Republicans winning more than 52 Senate seats (R+2), and it's difficult to see Democrats winning more than 51 (D+1).

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