8 min read

Sleeper races to watch this year

From Connecticut to South Dakota, a roundup of surprisingly close contests that could transpire into upsets on Election Night.
Sleeper races to watch this year
Good morning! It’s Monday, October 17, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 22 days away. Election Day 2024 is 750 days away.

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The top midterm sleeper races

Every election year, there are a few big political upsets, from Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 to Scott Brown in 2010.

This morning, instead of talking about the same old contests (Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, etc.), I want to take a look at some of this year’s “sleeper races.” These are contests that will probably go the way we think they’ll go — but still show some notable signs of wavering nonetheless. These races are perfect fodder for Election Night upsets; by running through a few of them now, hopefully you won’t be too caught off guard if the unlikely happens comes November.

I’ve split up the sleeper races into Senate, gubernatorial, and House races. There are both Democratic and Republican seats on the list, capturing races that operatives on sides of the aisle are dreaming about picking up.

In each case, even if no upset occurs, these races are still worth paying attention to. As I’ll note below, for many of them, even a tight margin of victory for the expected winner could offer a clue about the national mood and come as a warning sign for similar candidates in other races.

Senate races

Iowa (Republican seat): In his six re-election races since first joining the Senate in 1981, Republican Chuck Grassley has never received less than 60% of the vote. Most political observers expect he’ll coast to victory again this year — but a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday suggested otherwise.

The poll showed Grassley with 46% of the vote to retired Navy vice admiral Mike Franken’s 43%, a lead within the margin of error. Sure, it’s just one poll (the FiveThirtyEight average still has Grassley up seven), but it’s not just any poll. The survey was conducted by Ann Selzer, who is known as the “gold standard” of Iowa pollsters and even as the “best pollster in politics.”

This weekend’s survey was the first time in Selzer’s decades of polling that more Iowans (48%) disapproved of Grassley’s job performance than approved (44%). Grassley is 89 years old, which means he’d be 95 at the end of another term. 60% of voters in Selzer’s poll said Grassley’s age is a concern; if Franken scores an upset, or even if he turns the contest into a close race, it could send up a warning sign to Grassley’s fellow octogenarians in the upper rungs of American politics that voters are ready for a change.

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley is caught in a surprisingly tough race. (Gage Skidmore)

Colorado (Democratic seat): Most pundits thought Colorado had shed its battleground state status after several cycles in which the state’s Democratic lean has been a foregone conclusion. But Republicans are trying to move Colorado back into tossup territory with their challenge this year to Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, a mild-mannered former presidential candidate who’s seeking his third full term.

Although Republicans have had some well-documented struggles with landing the right Senate candidates this year, in Colorado businessman Joe O’Dea they scored a star recruit. Unlike the “ultra MAGA” standard-bearers in other states, O’Dea supports some abortion access and believes the 2020 election was legitimate. Politico reported this morning that some party operatives call him the “best Republican candidate running for Senate this year”; he calls himself the “Republican Joe Manchin,” promising to be an independent voice for Colorado.

To be clear, Bennet is still heavily favored in the race: the polling average has him leading by eight points. But, infatuated with O’Dea, Republicans are eyeing the race as a possible long-shot. Plus, sometimes the importance of a sleeper race is that it forces one party or the other to expend resources protecting a seat they shouldn’t have to; two Democratic super PACs announced a combined $5 million ad blitz in Colorado last month. That may be enough to stave off an upset, but they’re also dollars that Democrats would much rather be sending elsewhere this late in the campaign.

Gubernatorial races

Oregon (Democratic seat): It’s been 40 years since Oregon, a deep blue state, elected a Republican governor. But Republican Christine Drazan currently boasts a slim, three-point lead in the FiveThirtyEight polling average for this year’s gubernatorial race in the state. There has not been much public polling in the race, but Drazan has led in every survey that’s been published.

Drazan’s possible victory has been partly fueled by the entrance of an Independent candidate, Betsy Johnson. A former Democratic state legislator, Johnson has pulled a considerable swath of votes from Democratic nominee Tina Kotek; the FiveThirtyEight average shows Johnson at 16.4%, far from enough to win but more than enough to shake up the race.

Kotek, who would be the first lesbian governor in U.S. history, has also been dragged down by term-limited Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s approval ratings. With crime and homelessness soaring in the state, Brown has become one of the least popular governors in the country. President Biden traveled to Oregon to campaign for Kotek last week, a sign of her emerging vulnerability.

The three-way Oregon gubernatorial race, featuring (from left to right) Betsy Johnson, Tina Kotek, and Christine Drazan. (Screengrab)

South Dakota (Republican seat): Towards the end of the Trump presidency, after delighting the then-president by gifting him a model of Mount Rushmore with his likeness carved into it, Gov. Kristi Noem’s public profile was lifted by running speculation that Trump would ditch Vice President Mike Pence and put the South Dakota chief executive on the ticket.

That promotion failed to materialize, but Noem now appears to have her eye on the 2024 ticket: either as a running mate if Trump runs or a presidential contender herself if he doesn’t. First, though, she has to win re-election this November.

That has turned into a surprisingly difficult task, as she faces a familiar allegation for pols with national ambitions: that her out-of-state travels, campaigning for fellow party members, show she has forgotten about South Dakota. Democratic state Rep. Jamie Smith has also made light of Noem’s ethics troubles, including allegations that she improperly influenced a state agency to give her daughter a real estate license. A recent poll showed the race within the margin of error; even a slim Noem victory could hamper her national job prospects.

House races

Connecticut’s 5th district (Democratic seat): Once upon a time, Jahana Hayes was one of the star Democrats of the 2018 class: a former National Teacher of the Year who became one of the first women of color to be elected to Congress from New England.

She won re-election by 12% in 2020, as President Biden won her district — located in the western part of the state — by about the same amount. But her re-election is no longer guaranteed this year, as she competes against former state senator George Logan, who is also Black.

Both candidates have sought to distance themselves from their national parties: Logan has denounced a national abortion ban, while Hayes has run ads boasting about her work with former President Trump on veterans legislation. The race has also generated some controversy: Logan released an ad accusing Connecticut Democrats of comparing him to a monkey, after the state party tweeted (and then deleted) an attack on Logan in the style of the “Curious George” children’s books.

Sean Patrick Maloney (at podium) has one more House race to worry about: his own. (New York DES)

New York’s 17th district (Democratic seat): As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is in charge of protecting the Democrats’ vulnerable House majority. But he’s become one of the many Democratic incumbents whose seats may be up for grabs.

After a controversial redistricting shuffle and a bitter primary challenge, Maloney is running for a sixth term in the district that includes his home — but leaves out about 75% of the district he currently represents. That means he’s an incumbent by title, but an unfamiliar face to most of his hoped-for constituents.

Maloney faces Republican state assemblyman Mike Lawler, who has benefited from a surge in GOP fundraising support, generated by Republicans who wouldn’t mind picking off the Democrats’ campaign chief. Lawler recently put out an internal poll showing him in the lead; meanwhile, Maloney is accusing the Republican of being tied to a 2019 antisemitic video accusing an Orthodox Jewish lawmaker of plotting a “takeover.”

Is there a sleeper race I didn’t mention that you’re paying attention to? Let me know by responding to this email; your answer might get featured in an upcoming newsletter.

What else you should know

➞ Ukraine: A week after Russia attacked Kyiv for the first time since June, five more drones struck the Ukrainian capital this morning, appearing to target the country’s energy infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Russia’s new draft law has thrown its military into chaos, as many of its aging, untrained soldiers die shortly after entering the war.

➞ Midterms: A New York Times/Siena poll out this morning is the latest to show Republican gains: the new survey has the GOP up four points in the generic ballot, after showing Democrats with a one-point edge last month. Notably, the poll shows the two parties tied among female voters, 47% to 47%.

The new data comes as Democrats are hemorrhaging spending in key House races and looking for surrogates not named Joe Biden, including his wife Jill and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (the subjects of competing articles this weekend calling them the party’s most sought-after speakers).

Pete Buttigieg is a sought-after Democratic surrogate. (Gage Skidmore)

➞ Economy: A Wall Street Journal survey of economists found that most experts expect the U.S. to enter a recession in the next 12 months.

➞ Immigration: President Biden is relying on a Trump-era rule to deny asylum to Venezuelans fleeing the Maduro regime, per the Associated Press.

➞ Presidency: According to a CNN analysis, Biden has spent more than a fourth of his presidency in Delaware — outpacing former President Trump in vacation time.

➞ Circling back: Wake Up To Politics, October 11: “Some Republicans turn to racist, anti-semitic rhetoric as Election Day nears

Washington Post, October 15: “Racist GOP appeals heat up in final weeks before midterms”

Also note that Trump trafficked in some antisemitic tropes of his own this weekend, posting on Truth Social: “U.S. Jews have to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel - Before it is too late!”

Today at a glance

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

AT THE WHITE HOUSE: President Biden will return to the White House from Delaware, where he spent the weekend. He has nothing else on his schedule.

Vice President Kamala Harris is in Los Angeles. She’ll participate in a moderated conversation on abortion (6 pm) and deliver remarks at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser (9:10 pm).

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold her daily press briefing (1:30 pm).

ON THE HILL: The House and Senate are on recess.

IN THE COURTS: The Supreme Court will not meet today.

ON THE TRAIL: Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) and his Democratic rival Stacey Abrams will face off in a debate (7 pm). So will the Ohio Senate candidates, Democrat Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance (7 pm), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) and his Independent challenger Evan McMullin (8 pm).

That’s all for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe