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The battle for the Senate looks really, really close

Mitch McConnell
Majority Leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Hillary Clinton goes into the presidential election as the favorite to win — but the outcome of the battle for the Senate looks much less certain.

As the campaign winds down, seven races still appear to remain up for grabs. And polls are all over the place in many of them, leaving us unclear how strong Democrats’ prospects of retaking the chamber truly are.

Democrats would need a net gain of four seats to retake the Senate if Clinton wins the White House (and five if Trump wins). Right now, they’re near certain to win one Republican-held seat, they’re favored to win another, and five more look like toss-ups. Then there is just one Democratic seat that appears to be up for grabs.

So depending on how those races go, Democrats seem likely to end up with a net gain of anywhere between zero and seven seats. And the difference between 46 Democratic senators and 53 could be enormously consequential for a Clinton administration’s agenda and the balance of power on the Supreme Court.

With Republican incumbent Mark Kirk in Illinois already viewed as highly likely to lose, both parties have concentrated their attention and financial resources on these seven competitive contests:

  • Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson (R) is the underdog to keep his seat against former Sen. Russ Feingold
  • New Hampshire, where Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) is running against Gov. Maggie Hassan (D)
  • Pennsylvania, where Sen. Pat Toomey (R) is being challenged by Katie McGinty (D)
  • Nevada, a Democratic open-seat contest where Rep. Joe Heck (R) is running against former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto (D)
  • Indiana, another (Republican this time) open-seat contest where Rep. Todd Young (R) is pitted against former Sen. Evan Bayh (D)
  • North Carolina, where Sen. Richard Burr (R) is facing a challenge from former state Rep. Deborah Ross (D)
  • Missouri, where Sen. Roy Blunt (R) is being challenged by Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (D)

According to RealClearPolitics poll averages, the leading candidate’s margin in each of these races is 3 points or less — so they’re all quite close.

And forecasters are split on just how likely Democrats are to take the chamber. As of Monday night, FiveThirtyEight placed them as the narrowest of favorites, with a 50.1 percent shot. The Upshot, Predictwise, and Daily Kos Elections also say Democrats are narrow favorites to win the Senate, while Princeton Election Consortium and HuffPost Pollster call them heavy favorites (albeit with a 50- or 51-seat total as the most likely outcome).

In four swing races, Republican nominees have struggled to finesse the Trump issue

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) first said she supported Trump but didn’t endorse him. Then she unsupported him.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

Five of these seven swing Senate races are united by a common thread — they’re also presidential swing states where Hillary Clinton appears to have gained an advantage, and where Democratic candidates are trying to tie their Republican challengers to Donald Trump.

Republicans facing competitive races all across the country have struggled over how to how handle Trump’s nomination. And these GOP nominees have all taken different approaches:

In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson has for the most part stood by Trump, at one point joking the two could be called “Ronald and the Donald.” The Wisconsin race looked to be a near-certain loss for Republicans until polls tightened recently. Still, Democratic challenger Russ Feingold leads by an average of 2.7 percentage points, and most observers expect him to hold on.

In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte bizarrely said for months that she’d support but wouldn’t endorse Trump. Earlier this month, she made an amusing gaffe by saying Trump would be a good role model for children and then walking it back. And after Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape leaked, she finally ditched Trump altogether. Polls in her race against Gov. Maggie Hassan have been very tight, though Ayotte has led in more recent ones (as Trump, too, has surged in New Hampshire).

In Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey has simply refused to say whether he’d vote for Trump, saying that he hasn’t yet made up his mind. He seems to have run into trouble, with challenger Katie McGinty leading him in a string of recent polls (though he got some good news of late with one poll showing him ahead and another showing a tied race).

In Nevada, Joe Heck backed Trump until the tape leaked. Then he announced he’d no longer support the GOP nominee, and got booed. He was later recorded at a fundraiser saying that he was very conflicted and that he wanted to support Trump. Experts think the early voting numbers in Nevada look terrible for Republicans, and Las Vegas–based journalist Jon Ralston thinks Heck will likely lose to Catherine Cortez Masto.

And in North Carolina, Richard Burr has long supported Trump, serves on a campaign committee advising Trump on national security, and recently reiterated that he still supports the nominee, saying, “The choice is not close for me.” Burr has led his challenger, Deborah Ross, in most recent polls, but it’s close.

Of course, these races are about more than just Trump — candidates and outside groups are spending on millions of ads trying to deem their opponents specifically unfit for office. (Deborah Ross “defends flag-burning!” Catherine Cortez Masto is soft on crime! Pat Toomey supported NAFTA! Kelly Ayotte skipped half her Senate Homeland Security hearings!)

Still, these GOP candidates are no longer very far apart from Trump in the polls, so their fortunes could well rise or fall with him, depending on how the presidential race goes in these swing states.

Meanwhile, Evan Bayh and Jason Kander are running in red states on reputation

Democrats are excited about Jason Kander, their candidate in Missouri.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty

But though there’s been so much conversation about Trump this year, two of the races that might help determine Senate control are occurring in red states that he’s extremely likely to win — in Indiana and Missouri.

When former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh unexpectedly entered the race for his old seat in July, Democrats were thrilled. Bayh had more than $9 million in his campaign account already and started off with a double-digit poll lead over the Republican candidate for the open seat, Rep. Todd Young.

But the race now may be slipping away from him, with one recent poll showing Bayh down by 5 (though in the RCP average he’s down by just 0.7 points). This tightening is likely in part because he’s been hammered about his decision to cash out by joining a lobbying firm, in part because he’s been dogged by questions about whether he’s really been living in Indiana, and in part because Republicans seem to have a natural edge in the Hoosier State (Trump still looks likely to win there). Democrats, meanwhile, have fired back with ethics attacks on Young, who’s run afoul of tax laws a few times, according to CNN.

In Missouri, meanwhile, Democrats have been thrilled with the performance of their candidate, Secretary of State Jason Kander, though it’s not yet clear whether his strong campaign will be enough to carry him over the finish line in this red state.

Kander is a young, good-looking Afghanistan veteran who’s running as a fresh face (while also being a powerhouse fundraiser). He’s gotten a lot of attention for this ad in which he assembles an AR-15 while blindfolded:

Kander is challenging Sen. Roy Blunt (R) and arguing that Blunt, who’s been in Congress since the ’90s, is the consummate Washington insider — he’s run ads pointing out that Blunt’s wife and three of his children are lobbyists.

Now, there hasn’t been much public polling of the Missouri race, and what little there is has tended to show Blunt ahead. The New York Times did report in October that both parties’ internal polling now showed Kander ahead, but the presidential race has tightened since then, which could hurt Democrats’ chances to pull off an upset in this red state. Still, the party hasn’t given up hope that Kander’s personal appeal might power him to victory.

Other races haven’t gone as well as Democrats once hoped

National Democrats cut off their ads in the Florida Senate race against Marco Rubio.
Alex Holt for The Washington Post via Getty

Still, not everything has been going so well for Democrats. Races in three states that the party once hoped to make competitive — Florida, Ohio, and Arizona — appear to have slipped away.

Florida is the one of these three that still looks the closest in public polls, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R) leading his challenger, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), by an average of 5 points. Yet the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has gradually canceled all the ads it had planned to run in the state, which some have interpreted as an admission that Murphy is likely headed to defeat. (Murphy hasn’t led any poll tracked by RCP for months.)

In an interview a few weeks ago, a national Democratic source characterized the decision to pull out of Florida as driven partly by money and partly by Rubio’s fame. Simply put, Florida is a big state where ad time is expensive, so money used to pay for a statewide buy for that race could instead be used to fund ads in several other less expensive but also competitive states. Furthermore, since Rubio ran for president and is already very well-known, Democrats think ads would be less useful in defining his image to his state’s voters than they would be for lesser-known figures in other states. “It’s a really expensive state if you think about the cost per vote,” the source says.

Ohio had also once seemed likely to be a marquee race this year, since incumbent Sen. Rob Portman (R) was being challenged by the state’s former governor, Ted Strickland (D). But Portman has, by all accounts, crushed Strickland — he’s now taken a massive 16-point lead in the swing state, in part due to ads reminding voters that Strickland was governor during the start of the state’s particularly painful Great Recession years.

National Democrats long ago abandoned Strickland, and some have bitterly complained about what they view as an underwhelming campaign effort from the 75-year-old ex-governor. In September, the Columbus Dispatch reported that the DSCC’s executive director told a trade group that the state was no longer competitive, explaining it by saying, “Portman has run a damn fine race. The rest, I’ll have to tell you over a drink.”

Finally, in Arizona, Sen. John McCain (R) was recorded earlier this year saying that “if Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket,” this “may be the race of my life,” because he’d generate such a backlash among Hispanic voters. Democrats were hoping he was right, since Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) was there to challenge him. And now Hillary Clinton’s campaign is making a surprising late push in the state.

McCain still appears to be doing fine, though — even the recent polls showing Clinton ahead in Arizona have tended to give him a comfortable lead. On average, he’s up by 9 points, according to HuffPost Pollster.

Overall then, the battleground that will determine control of the Senate is small. Depending on how those seven key races — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Indiana, and Missouri — turn out, Democrats will either regain control of the chamber or fall a bit short.