U.S. Senator Bob Menendez isn’t on the ballot this year – but his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is.
When Democrats flipped two Senate seats in Georgia in early 2021, it allowed Menendez to become possibly the most powerful voice on foreign policy in all of Congress for a second time; he’d already held the top spot once before, from 2013 to 2015. The Foreign Relations Committee is among the Senate’s most prominent committees, and it gives its leader a global policy reach.
For someone who was elected to the Union City school board at age 20, nearly five decades ago, the chairmanship is the pinnacle of Menendez’s career.
Now Menendez is facing the prospect of losing it once again, as Democrats seek to defend a number of vulnerable Senate seats and maintain or expand their narrow 50-50 majority. He’s not the only New Jerseyan who would stand to lose out; Senator Cory Booker would be relegated to a minority role on the hugely important Judiciary Committee if Republicans flipped the Senate.
Both Menendez and Booker have been working hard to stave off that possibility, with Menendez raising loads of money for Senate Democrats and Booker offering himself as a surrogate in competitive states across the country.
With no Senate race in New Jersey this year, the New Jersey Globe isn’t following every twist and turn in the race for the chamber, but other publications – among them the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and FiveThirtyEight – are. Here’s where the field stands with 25 days to go until Election Day.
The core playing field: Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
The fight for the Senate right now seems to hinge primarily on four states: Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. At least one of Cook, Sabato, or 538 currently considers each of these seats to be a toss-up, and whichever party wins a majority of the four wins control of the Senate. (A split of two each would result in another Democratic-controlled 50-50 Senate).
Two of the seats, Georgia and Nevada, feature first-term Democratic incumbents hoping to win in states narrowly carried by Joe Biden.
In Georgia, Senator Raphael Warnock – who first won his seat just two years ago in a much-vaunted special election – faces former NFL star Herschel Walker. Walker was briefly a New Jerseyan, living in Verona from 1983 to 1985 while playing for the New Jersey Generals.
Given that Georgia was one of the closest states in the country in 2020, Warnock is in for a difficult race no matter what, but explosive stories about Walker have made the race a bit easier for him. According to reporting from the Daily Beast, the staunchly anti-abortion Walker paid for a girlfriend to get an abortion in 2009, and has more generally been an inconstant father to the many children he does have. Warnock has led in almost every public poll since the abortion story was released, though some of those leads have been quite small.
With Walker’s difficulties, Nevada may represent the best chance Republicans have of flipping a seat. Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez-Masto is running for re-election against former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, and polls have generally shown the two neck-and-neck, with a slight advantage to Laxalt.
An open seat in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the best Democratic pickup opportunity in the country. New Jerseyans are also likely more familiar with the contest than with any other Senate race, since the Republican nominee, TV medical personality Mehmet Oz, was one of us until very recently; Oz had considered running for Senate in New Jersey in prior cycles before moving to Pennsylvania in late 2020.
Oz’s Democratic opponent, Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman, has drawn constant attention to Oz’s longtime residence in Cliffside Park. Polls have tightened enough for the Cook Political Report to move the race back to toss-up after putting it in the Lean Democratic category for a short while, but Oz still has yet to post a lead in any publicly released poll.
Finally, in Wisconsin, Republican Senator Ron Johnson is running for a third term against Lieutenant Gov. Mandela Barnes. Johnson has won tough races before, and he’s established a modest lead in recent polling, probably making him the favorite.
Since Democrats only need to win two of the four toss-up seats to hold the Senate while Republicans would need to win three to flip it, it’s generally agreed that Democrats are slight favorites in the battle for control.
Leaning Democratic: Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire
In order for Democrats to have any chance of holding the Senate – and for Menendez to maintain his perch atop Foreign Relations – they also need to protect three competitive seats that major prognosticators consider to be leaning their way.
New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan won the closest Senate race in the country in 2016, unseating Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte by 1,017 votes. Her Republican opponent this year, retired Army brigadier general Don Bolduc, is a far weaker candidate than Ayotte was and would likely need a lot to go right to win.
Like Hassan, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly – a native of West Orange – was a top Republican target at the beginning of the cycle, but the quality of his opponent seems to be lacking. Venture capitalist Blake Masters has run an underfunded campaign and polls show him doing relatively poorly against Kelly in the hyper-competitive state.
Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado is more of a sleeper target, since Joe Biden handily carried the state in 2020 and there hasn’t been too much outside focus on the race. His Republican opponent Joe O’Dea, however, is an avowed moderate who could keep the race close.
Leaning Republican: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Utah
If Democrats have an unexpectedly good night, on the other hand, they could expand into Republican territory and flip red-leaning seats.
The two likeliest Democratic upset possibilities are in Ohio, where Republican venture capitalist J.D. Vance faces Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, and in North Carolina, where Republican Rep. Ted Budd is up against former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat who went to Rutgers. The underlying dynamics of both states point towards Republicans, but Democrats have been nipping at their heels in most polls.
Florida, where Republican Senator Marco Rubio faces Rep. Val Demings, is an even heavier lift for Democrats, but the state does have a penchant for hosting close races no matter what.
And in Utah, Republican Senator Mike Lee is in an intriguing fight against independent Evan McMullin, who ran for president in 2020. Lee is an ardent conservative while McMullin has pledged not to caucus with either party, which has seemingly made him a competitive candidate in a state that often prefers moderates.