(The Hill) — High-profile election battles in states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada have dominated talk about which party wins the Senate majority but strategists on both sides are eyeing sleeper races in second and third-tier states such as North Carolina, Colorado and Washington that could unexpectedly tip the balance of power.
A couple of Senate races that were expected to be top-tier races have faded in the background, such as Arizona, where incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly (D) has pulled well ahead of his Republican rival in the polls and fundraising, and New Hampshire, where Republicans failed to recruit their best candidate, Gov. Chris Sununu (R).
With three weeks before Election Day, however, Democratic and Republican strategists say there are several “sleeper races” that could surprise political handicappers and decide which party controls the Senate next year.
Republicans need a net pickup of only one seat to win control of the Senate, which is now divided 50-50.
The race between Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.), who is backed by former President Trump, and former North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, hasn’t been part of Washington’s daily chatter of most competitive Senate seats, even though some Democratic strategists insist it should be considered on par with the Pennsylvania Senate battle.
The race has largely flown under the radar until late last month when Senate Majority PAC, a PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), launched a new ad attacking Budd’s family seed company, which went bankrupt and repaid family members ahead of small farmers.
“There’s no question North Carolina Senate race is the sleeper of the cycle,” said Morgan Jackson, a highly respected Democratic strategist based in North Carolina.
Jackson said that’s a good thing for Beasley because the relative lack of attention has given her an opportunity to become known to voters without the same aerial bombardment of attack ads that candidates have faced in other races.
“This race was off the radar this summer and gave [Beasley] the ability to introduce herself to voters, establish a relationship on her own terms rather than through a super PAC. What’s happened because of that is the race hasn’t been nationalized and I think that has accrued greatly to her benefit,” he said. “Now super PACs are here.”
What had been a relatively quiet atmosphere in North Carolina’s Senate contest is heating up as outside groups start pouring in more money and tensions between the candidates rise.
Senate Majority PAC announced last week that it would reserve another $4 million in television ads in North Carolina and strategists expect it to be on the air through Nov. 8.
The race is starting to get nasty with new ads approved by Budd hitting Beasley’s for what a narrator says was her ruling as a judge to strike down a law requiring GPS tracking of child predators.
Beasley’s campaign, however, says the ad mischaracterizes her record. Three retired North Carolina judges and two sheriffs called on Budd to take down his ad, which they called “ugly” and “dishonest.”
Budd leads Beasley by an average of 2.5 percentage points in recent public polls, according to Real Clear Politics, which compiled the data.
Schumer recently transferred $1 million to Beasley’s victory fund and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee included North Carolina in its $46 million Defend the Majority Program, which funds organizing, voter protection and field programs in battleground states.
Beasley raised $13.3 million in the third fundraising quarter, substantially more than the $4.77 million that Budd reported for the same period.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) wasn’t viewed as a top Republican target at the start of the election cycle, but Senate Republicans are now making the race a higher priority as their prospects have dimmed in two other battlegrounds: Arizona and New Hampshire.
The race started garnering more attention from the GOP when Senate Republicans invited Bennet’s challenger, Joe O’Dea, to their weekly conference lunch on Sept. 20.
The previous evening, McConnell hosted a fundraiser for the underdog with a group of top-dollar lobbyists, including Kirk Blalock, Rob Chamberlin, Aaron Cohen and Rob Hobart, according to an invitation viewed by The Hill.
Outside groups had $3 million in television spending arrayed against Bennet the last week of September, according to a source familiar with the race. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), announced this month it would put $1.25 million in the race.
Majority Forward, a dark-money group affiliated with Schumer, has spent more than $3 million attacking O’Dea, according to the Colorado Sun.
In a normal election cycle, Bennet would cruise to re-election without a problem but President Biden has a 42 percent approval rating among highly likely voters, according to a recent Marist poll, and that’s a troubling sign for the Democratic incumbent.
Even so, Bennet still leads O’Dea by six points in the Marist poll and by an average of 7.7 points in recent public surveys, according to Real Clear Politics.
“Michael Bennet is definitely vulnerable. We can and will beat him here at the end,” said Joe Jackson, the executive director of the Colorado Republican Party. “He’s sided with Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer 98 percent of the time.
Jackson and other Republicans say the Hispanic vote could be decisive in Colorado and predict Latino voters to swing to O’Dea because of rising costs and concern over the economy.
“Hispanic voters are looking for a different candidate who will actually fight for their issues and those issues are inflation and cost of living and making sure Colorado families across the state can afford to live,” Jackson said, citing Bennet’s vote for the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Republicans say has made inflation worse.
The two heavyweights in the battle for the Senate, the Senate Majority PAC and the Senate Leadership Fund — which are aligned with Schumer and McConnell, respectively — haven’t yet weighed in in a major way on the Florida Senate race.
But the Democratic challenger, Rep. Val Demings (Fla.), has reported raising $22.5 million during the third fundraising quarter, which ended Sept. 30, more than twice as much as the $9.8 million incumbent Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) reported raising.
Strategists say the race may hinge on the candidates’ first and only Senate debate, which is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Democrats think that Rubio is taking the race for granted and letting himself coast on the lead he holds in recent public polls.
A Mason-Dixon poll of registered and likely voters conducted at the end of September showed Rubio ahead of Demings by 6 points, 47 percent to 41 percent with 10 percent undecided.
Schumer recently transferred $1 million to Demings’s victory fund and the DSCC included Florida in its $46 million Defend the Majority Program, which funds organizing, voter protection and field programs in battleground states.
Democrats believe that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which struck down the constitutional right to an abortion, could have a significant impact in the Florida race.
A Spectrum News/Siena College poll of 669 likely Florida voters conducted last month showed that 21 percent of all voters and 36 percent of Democratic voters said abortion is their most important issue.
Democratic strategists hope that will drive more women to the polls to vote for Demings.
“What we’re seeing in a lot of our polling in the suburbs is that abortion with college-educated voters, women and men, still matters greatly, even though they’re still thinking about the economy,” said Jackson, the Democratic strategist. “There’s no question that the economy is the top issue but when you look inside the polls … when you look at the intensity, if abortion is one of your top two or three voters … your chances of voting moves up from 50 percent to 90 percent.”
The Senate race in Washington state, which is reliably Democratic, is the mirror image of what’s happening in Florida, with the underdog Republican challenger raising substantially more money than the Democratic incumbent in the third quarter.
Tiffany Smiley, the GOP nominee, reported raising $6 million in the third quarter and $2.5 million in cash on hand. Incumbent Sen. Patty Murray (D) reported raising $3.6 million in the third quarter and reported $3.8 million in cash on hand.
Republican strategists are looking back to 2010, the last time there was a Republican midterm election wave, when Murray beat Republican challenger Dino Rossi by only five points. They say Murray could be more vulnerable than most political experts think.
An Emerson poll of 782 likely voters conducted from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 showed Murray with a nine-point lead over Smiley but Republicans think the race is closer than that.
Caleb Heimlich, the chairman of the Washington state Republican Party, said Murray has spent too much time and energy attacking Smiley on the issue of abortion rights and not enough talking about financial pressures facing working-class families.
“Sen. Rick Scott [R-Fla.] has been talking about this as a sleeper race for over a year and that’s because Patty Murray is vulnerable and Tiffany Smiley is, I would argue, the strongest Republican candidate running as a challenger this year,” he said, referring to the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Republicans are touting Smiley’s résumé as a major selling point. She is a former triage nurse who married her high school sweetheart who became an advocate for veterans after her husband, a former army major, was partially paralyzed and permanently blinded by a suicide car bombing in Iraq.
Murray and Smiley have agreed to participate jointly in a candidate forum scheduled for Oct. 23.
Like in other Senate battlegrounds, Republicans are attacking their Democratic counterparts on crime and inflation.
“She’s probably most vulnerable on crime and inflation. She voted for the Inflation Reduction Act that did absolutely nothing to reduce inflation and increased taxes on people in the middle of a recession,” said Ben Gonzalez, the communications director for the Washington state GOP, who argued that two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth is the definition of a recession.
David Bergstein, the DSCC’s communications director, however, downplayed the threats facing Murray and Bennet and argued that Republicans are being forced to play defense.
“The GOP is on defense across the Senate map: our Democratic incumbents in these states have a firm advantage in their races, and these offensive opportunities are two of the multiple pickup seats that remain strongly in play,” he said.