Senate Races in Pennsylvania, Ohio Key to Control of Chamber

We take the pulse of two of the most critical midterm election races. The upshot: Nuance takes a back seat to party affiliation.

J.D. Vance, Republican candidate for the senate from Ohio.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This midterm election, Senate Races in Pennsylvania, Ohio are taking center stage in the battle for control of the upper house. So Kiplinger recently spent a few days in each state to get a better understanding of what’s on voters’ minds, who they support, and why.

What we learned along the way is interesting, though perhaps not shocking: Republican voters, particularly those who strongly support former President Trump, are not as enthusiastic about the GOP candidates he’s endorsed as they are about Trump himself.

 

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Pennsylvania: Oz vs. Fetterman

In Pennsylvania, Republican voters are more eager to criticize Democratic candidate John Fetterman than to praise their party’s nominee, Mehmet Oz, who Trump endorsed. A likely contributing factor is that Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, has been involved in Keystone State politics for years while Dr. Oz, a celebrity physician who has lived much of his life out of state, is running in his first campaign.

Overall enthusiasm for Oz among Republican voters isn’t at the level GOP operatives would like, especially given his celebrity status and Trump’s backing. To combat this, Oz and allied conservative groups have strongly attacked Fetterman for being soft on crime as lieutenant governor. And the move appears to have gained traction: Many voters we spoke with mentioned curtailing crime as a top concern, with Republicans universally saying that Fetterman’s liberal policies would hurt, not help, in that effort.

him a slight edge to win the race, but just barely.

Meanwhile, Fetterman enjoys mostly enthusiastic support among the Democratic base, who applaud his policies and like his unconventional persona, at least for a politician (he’s the tattooed 53-year-old with the shaved head, campaigning in a hoodie and jeans). Democrats, particularly in his hometown Pittsburgh area, are also quick to dismiss Republican accusations that his style is all for show, saying that “what you see is what you get” with Fetterman.

One wildcard in the Pennsylvania Senate race is Fetterman’s health. He suffered a stroke in May, which kept him on the sidelines for months. So far, most voters we spoke with from both parties didn’t list his stroke as a major concern. But that could change, particularly if Fetterman doesn’t appear at peak health during his debate with Oz in late October.

Oz in recent weeks has narrowed Fetterman’s lead in some polls, and his campaign seems to have new life after slumping into the general election with a primary-win margin of just 1,000 votes. He is working overtime to court black voters, though it remains to be seen if his efforts will pay off. Fetterman still holds a slim advantage in most polls, and we give

Ohio: Ryan vs. Vance

In Ohio, voters are still getting to know Republican candidate J.D. Vance, a political newcomer and venture capitalist who’s authored a best-selling memoir. Like with Oz, Republican voters back Vance unreservedly. Also like Oz, enthusiasm for Vance isn’t as strong as expected, particularly after he scored Trump’s coveted endorsement. Privately, GOP officials are concerned that Vance’s campaign has underwhelmed and underperformed. He’s also struggled with fundraising.

Buckeye State voters are more familiar with Democratic candidate Tim Ryan, who has served in the U.S. House for almost 20 years and briefly ran for president in 2020. Voters seem to either love or loathe him, depending on their party affiliation. But he’s run as good of a campaign as party officials could’ve hoped, and Democrats are more optimistic he can eke out a win than they were a few months ago.

Still, it’s Vance’s race to lose. The Buckeye State has become reliably Republican in recent elections, with Trump winning the state twice. And while enthusiasm for Vance isn’t overwhelming, the “R” next to his name carries significant weight in red-state Ohio. Big conservative donors also are helping shore up Vance’s campaign coffers. This race should be very close, closer than most election handicappers predicted earlier in the year. We rate the contest somewhere between a slight lean for Vance and a tossup.

A couple of observations we noticed while traversing Pennsylvania and Ohio: First, we saw far fewer candidate yard signs than in past elections. Midterms never reach the fever pitch of presidential elections, so we didn’t expect the level of signage that we saw when visiting both states in 2020. But with such high-profile Senate races on tap, we expected more this time than we actually saw. A few voters we spoke with mentioned that some folks are afraid to showcase their political leanings for fear of backlash from friends and neighbors. But the lack of yard signs may also highlight lackluster enthusiasm for the midterm election and the candidates running.

Second, undecided voters are increasingly difficult to find. With the polarization of American politics in recent years, straight-party voting has become the norm. But this often means that voters are less apt to research the candidates. While voters weren’t shy about telling us who they support, they routinely drew a blank when asked what policies and positions they like about an individual candidate. For most, it seems that a candidate’s party affiliation is the only information they need when casting their ballots.

Sean Lengell
Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter

Sean Lengell covers Congress and government policy for The Kiplinger Letter. Before joining Kiplinger in January 2017 he served as a congressional reporter for eight years with the Washington Examiner and the Washington Times. He previously covered local news for the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune. A native of northern Illinois who spent much of his youth in St. Petersburg, Fla., he holds a bachelor's degree in English from Marquette University.