Democrats are pinning their hopes for holding the Senate majority on the ultra-competitive contests in Pennsylvania and Georgia, two battlegrounds that both parties believe will be pivotal in determining control of the upper chamber on Election Day.
Despite a burst of momentum for Republicans over the past month, the Senate races in the two states remain stubbornly close. In Pennsylvania, Republican nominee Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman are deadlocked. The same is true in Georgia, where a slew of recent polling has shown Republican Herschel Walker taking a slim lead over Sen. Raphael Warnock (D).
The tightening races have prompted a late-breaking flurry of political activity. Both Democrats and Republicans have poured millions of dollars into the states in the closing phase of the campaigns. And over the weekend, President Biden and former President Obama reunited in Pennsylvania in a last-minute bid to boost Fetterman.
“Democrats are drawing great crowds,” said T.J. Rooney, a former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm that seems to have manifested itself in the early vote, so all signals point in a very, very positive direction.”
The eleventh-hour efforts in Georgia and Pennsylvania amount to an acknowledgment of the outsize role the two states have taken on in the battle for control of the Senate. Democrats are defending the narrowest possible majority, and a net gain of even one seat for Republicans would mean a GOP-controlled Senate for at least the next two years.
“Pennsylvania represents the traditional sort of old Democratic blue wall, whereas Georgia is looked at as the future of where swing state politics is heading,” Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist, said. “Add on the fact that they could decide who controls the Senate, and I think it’s easy to see why they mean so much for Democrats right now.”
Both Republicans and Democrats have spent massively on the two Senate races. According to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, more than $260 million has been spent or reserved on the airwaves in Pennsylvania, while the spending in Georgia has topped $240 million.
To be sure, the Senate battleground this year is much larger than just Georgia and Pennsylvania. Republicans are targeting Democratic senators in states like Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire, while Democrats are hoping to oust Sen. Ron Johnson (R) in Wisconsin.
But the races in Georgia and Pennsylvania have proven particularly volatile. Earlier this year, Fetterman appeared favored to defeat Oz and flip a Republican-held seat for Democrats. But the outlook began to change over the fall as Oz sharpened his attacks against Fetterman, accusing Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor of being soft on crime.
Fetterman also ran up against questions about his health and fitness to serve in the Senate after he suffered a stroke earlier this year.
Likewise, Walker has managed to close a once distinct polling gap with Warnock, prompting speculation that the race could head into overtime. If neither candidate manages to clear the 50 percent threshold needed to win the election outright, they’ll advance to a Dec. 6 runoff, potentially leaving party control of the Senate hanging in the balance for another month.
“At this point, I think it’s less of a question of if there’s a runoff. It’s something that I’m expecting,” one Georgia Democratic strategist said. “I think we’re going to be hearing about Georgia for a while longer.”
Democrats are also preparing for a drawn-out battle in Pennsylvania, where votes could take days to count, leaving the race unresolved until well after Election Day. In a memo released on Monday, Fetterman’s campaign set the stage for a “red-to-blue shift” once Democratic-leaning mail-in ballots begin to be tabulated.
In one of the latest signs that control of the Senate could come down to Pennsylvania and Georgia, Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics shifted the two Senate races toward the GOP on Monday, rating them both as favoring Republicans.
Republicans argue that the Democratic enthusiasm in both states is “misplaced.” However, one national GOP strategist told The Hill that Republicans are not declaring victory in the Senate just yet.
“Nobody wants to be too excited,” the strategist said. “There’s a quiet optimism among Republicans, but no one’s thumping their chest and taking a victory lap yet.”
However, Democrats in Pennsylvania are pushing back against grouping Fetterman in with the party’s other candidates in political forecasts.
“Anyone who tries to make a case about John’s chances using the generic ballot is not going to be successful,” one Pennsylvania-based Democratic operative told The Hill. “He’s not a generic Democrat.”
“In a cycle like this, that’s really valuable. He does run on his own,” the operative added.
But Fetterman and Walker are not the only candidates on the ballot in Pennsylvania and Georgia. Both states are also home to high-profile gubernatorial races. Incumbent Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) lead in their respective races.
Democrats argue that Fetterman is more likely to benefit from riding Shapiro’s coattails than Walker with Kemp’s. Some of the party’s strategists are also betting that voters in Pennsylvania and Georgia could be willing to split their tickets.
“I think it’s possible that there can be a kind of divided message that is sent,” Rooney said. “I think at the end of the day people can understand the benefit of having a Democratic control in the Senate and they might take out their frustrations down-ballot.”
“There [are] these kinds of unique variables that at the end of the day could very, very well mean that Pennsylvania helps keep the Senate in Democratic control, while the pain in the House might be more widespread,” he added.
Other Democrats in Pennsylvania say that while they expect a close race, the energy on the ground plays in their favor.
“As unscientific as it is, the vibes are good,” the Democratic operative based in Pennsylvania said.