(The Hill) — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is signaling more sharply than ever that Republicans’ performance in the midterm elections may not be as strong as the party had hoped, dampening GOP hopes for a Senate takeover.
During a stop in Kentucky on Thursday, McConnell conceded that the House has a better chance of flipping red than the Senate — a statement that, while in line with election forecasts, shows just how concerned Republicans are becoming about races in the upper chamber less than three months before the midterm elections.
“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell told reporters when asked about his midterm expectations, according to NBC News.
“Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” he added.
McConnell’s remarks were a clear reference to candidates endorsed by former President Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona and Georgia who are trailing their Democratic opponents in at least some recent polls.
On Thursday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating for the Pennsylvania Senate race from “toss up” to “lean Democrat,” signaling headwinds for Republican Mehmet Oz in his race against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D).
The shift came amid the crudité controversy in the Keystone State. Oz came under fire after Fetterman’s campaign recirculated a video the TV doctor posted in April showcasing him grocery shopping for crudité in an effort to show the effects of inflation.
The Democratic campaign seized on the video, with the candidate writing on Twitter “In PA we call this a … veggie tray,” the most recent move in his attempt to paint Oz as a carpetbagger from New Jersey.
Fetterman’s team said it had raised more than $500,000 in the 24 hours after the video went viral. The lieutenant governor remains comfortably ahead of Oz in FiveThirtyEight’s average average, 49.1% to 37.7%.
Republican worries in Ohio’s Senate race also became clearer this week when the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund was dumping $28 million into the state for television and radio ads boosting “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, the Republican Senate candidate battling with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio).
The investment marked a large jump from the roughly $5 million national Republicans had previously funneled into the race. Ryan has a slight edge on Vance, 43.9% to 42.7%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s average of polls.
In Georgia, GOP nominee Hershel Walker has struggled to pull ahead of incumbent Sen. Raphael Warnock (D). Walker, a former college football Heisman Trophy winner, was forced into the spotlight for various falsehoods and amid revelations that he has more children than was publicly known.
In Arizona, Sen. Mark Kelly (D) has a polling lead on Republican Blake Masters, who is backed by Trump. Kelly is up 50.3% to 42% in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls.
McConnell — who in November said he was “optimistic” that the 2022 midterm elections would be “very good” for Republicans — has been managing expectations for months. In April, he said it was “actually possible” for Republicans to “screw up” in November, despite a perfect storm brewing for the GOP, including low approval ratings for President Joe Biden and elevated inflation.
Earlier this month, he predicted during a television interview that the Senate race in November would be “very tight.”
“I think when this Senate race smoke clears, we’re likely to have a very, very close Senate still, with us up slightly or the Democrats up slightly,” he said.
Since then, the outlook has worsened for Republicans, with more candidate controversies and concerning polls plaguing the party.
And McConnell’s latest prognosis shows that he is taking note.
“Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly,” McConnell said in Kentucky on Thursday.
Democrats are favored to win the Senate 64% to 36%, according to FiveThirtyEight.
“I think what McConnell said is objectively true, but it has been objectively true,” Scott Jennings, who previously worked for the Kentucky Republican, told The Hill in an interview.
“Going back several months, it was pretty obvious that everybody, including the forecasters, said that it was gonna be a much easier and expected thing for the Republicans to take over the House,” he added.
The Senate map makes things tougher for Republicans in this cycle, despite positive national headwinds.
The handful of states that will ultimately determine control of the Senate are mostly contests in places where Biden won in 2020 over Trump. Republicans are also defending open seats in Pennsylvania and Ohio, while trying to take out Democratic incumbents in other swing states.
“The Senate map just wasn’t as good,” Jennings said. “Obviously the environment is good, but the Senate map just isn’t as hospitable to a takeover as it is in the House.”
“The midterms were always going to be challenging under the best of circumstances because of the nature of the map and how many of these competitive races were taking place, purple and blue states, like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have historically gone Democrat more often than Republican in the last 30 years,” Republican strategist Colin Reed told The Hill.
Strategists also noted that a number of these GOP nominees emerged from fierce primaries bruised, and are still reeling from the competition.
“It’s pretty apparent in the polling that they’re still suffering some hangover from the brutality of these primaries,” Jennings said, pointing to the fierce intraparty races won by Vance and Oz in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Zeroing in on Oz — who bested former hedge fund CEO David McCormick — Jennings said the primary race “took a real toll on his image.”
“It’s just gonna take some time to repair that, and get him back to a place where he can fundamentally operate,” he added.
Candidates also need to “tailor [their] message accordingly” following the GOP primaries, according to Reed. He emphasized the need for Republicans to move away from re-litigating the 2020 presidential election.
“Those folks who are unable to kind of make that pivot and make those adjustments are the ones that struggle,” the strategist said.
With just over 80 days to go until the elections, strategists noted that there is plenty of time for GOP candidates to course-correct and gain steam in the polls.
But Republicans are still prepared for the fate of the Senate to come down to the wire.
“It’s very easy to see that the Republican majority in the Senate next year is a coin flip, at best, and far from a sure thing,” Reed said.