Senate races in Iowa, Utah and Washington, briefly explained
Each cycle, there are the obvious senate races that could decide the majority. In this year’s terms, Georgia, Pennsylvaniaand Nevada are closely watched competitions that fall into this category. Beyond that, however, there are a few states where unique dynamics have made the races more competitive — and more interesting — than previously expected.
In Iowa, Utah and Washington, DC, Senate races are likely to continue to favor incumbents, who retain large partisan advantages. But voting in these seats was tighter than expected as challengers mounted surprisingly strong campaigns.
In each of these races, the political affiliations of the states and the strengths of the incumbents make it an uphill battle for those seeking to unseat them. Still, the closeness of recent research has been surprising, leaving the door open to potential upsets.
“Every cycle, especially in the Senate, there’s a who-thinks race. I think any of those races could be options for that who-is-thinking race,” said J. Miles Coleman, an election expert at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
In Iowa, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) faces one of the most competitive re-election races of his career against retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken (D). Grassley, 89, would become one of the oldest lawmakers ever to serve in Congress if he wins. Franken argued that it would provide a more independent – and fresher – alternative.
A Senate race seeking his eighth term, Grassley has easily won most of his previous races, though his margin could be much smaller this time around. According to the FiveThirtyEight polling average, Grassley leads Franken by roughly seven percentage points. In 2016, he beat his Democratic challenger by more than 20.
“It tells me that Franken is running a competent campaign and has a chance to defeat the seemingly invincible Chuck Grassley,” pollster J. Ann Selzer he told the Des Moines Register in October, after a poll she commissioned for the publication showed the two candidates within three percentage points of each other among likely voters.
Grassley’s candidacy has been weakened in 2022 by several factors, including higher disapproval ratings fueled by his kinship with Trump and scrutiny of his age, which 60 percent of voters believed concerns in a Des Moines Register poll.
“I think there are some Iowans who think he’s just too old for the job and they’re not sure he’s going to be effective in doing the job for the next six years,” said Iowa State political scientist Dave Peterson. Grassley defended himself by pointing to his busy schedule as well as his tenure in the Senate, which Republicans argue gives the state more weight.
Franken, meanwhile, has argued that politics has become too contentious, citing Grassley’s bias and framing himself as an independent who puts “state before party.” He also emphasized his support for abortion rights and defending programs like Social Security. Franken has faced scrutiny over allegations he kissed a former staffer without consent last Marchwhich he denied.
National Democrats refused to invest in this race after investing heavily in the 2020 Senate and multiple House races, only to lose. As such, Franken’s bid remains a long one, although he has made more inroads than Democrats initially expected.
Sen. Mike Lee (R) faces a strong challenge from a candidate he once voted for himself.
Lee opposed Trump in the 2016 election, instead supporting independent candidate and former CIA officer Evan McMullin. Six years later, McMullin, a former Republican, is now running for Lee’s seat as an independent, once again positioning himself as an anti-Trump option.
“It’s a Republican state, but it’s not necessarily a pro-Trump state,” Coleman says of Utah.
Lee eventually aligned himself with Trump, and he was vilified for his support of the former president’s efforts to challenge the results of the 2020 election. Although Lee did not vote to challenge the election results like some of his other Senate colleagues, text messages with former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows revealed that he supported other legal plans to challenge the results. McMullin accepted Lee’s actions as part of his campaign, claiming that this election serves as “ground zero for the defense of American democracy.”
McMullin is aiming to garner support from moderate Republicans and Democrats — neither of whom are fielding a candidate in the race. Sen. Mitt Romney also decided not to endorse in the primary, a move that could potentially help McMullin win over some of his supporters.
Lee argued that McMullin’s views were unclear and that he was a Democrat camouflaged as an independent. Lee also maintains a strong lead in the state, where a majority of voters still supported Trump in 2020, and where FiveThirtyEight polling average leads by about ten points. However, he acknowledged the success of McMullin’s run, noting recently that it was “close”.
Sen. Patty Murray (D) is another D.C. veteran whose race has received a surprising amount of attention despite playing in a deep blue state.
Murray, a five-term incumbent, is running against Tiffany Smiley (R), a veterans advocate and strong fundraiser who says Murray is out of touch with her constituents in the same way she was when she first ran. Smiley focused on both inflation and the rise in crime during the pandemic, arguing that Democrats are responsible for both.
“If there’s an anti-incumbency, anti-establishment situation, that could galvanize Smiley,” said Jessica Taylor, a Senate election expert at the Cook Political Report.
Murray, for her part, indicated her support for the Law on Reducing Inflation, which would reduce prescription drug costs, and in defense of her abortion rights, on which Smiley took a more ambiguous stance. Smiley said she would not support a national ban or a national vote codifying Roe into law.
While Murray performed well against Smiley in the state’s first two primaries earlier this year, winning 52 percent to her opponent’s 34 percent, the polls have been closer in the weeks since, prompting Democrats to pour more money into the race. FiveThirtyEight has a polling average Murray by only six points ahead, a sign that Smiley’s campaign has gained momentum and could benefit from a national boost in Republican energy. Unlike the other two incumbents, Murray’s party has been losing more than gaining momentum with voters as Election Day nears, causing Republicans to grow more sympathetic to Smiley as Election Day approaches.
Political experts, however, note that Smiley would still have a large base to make up given the state’s significant Democratic tilt, and are skeptical that she could fully cover it.
As a result, Murray remains the favorite, although she warned Democrats not to get complacent. “We are a democracy if people vote,” she said at a recent event, according to reports the New York Times report.
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