Five races where Democrats could pull off surprise wins

Elections 2022

Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs and Republican Kari Lake are vying for governor in Arizona.

(NEXSTAR) — Democrats are bracing for a possible red wave as the national mood has shifted and surveys increasingly show voters seeing economy and inflation as the top issues heading into the election. 

But for all the doom and gloom that political watchers are forecasting for the party, Democrats could also benefit from some surprise wins in unexpected places.

Here are five races where Democrats could pull off some upsets.

Arizona gubernatorial race

Democrat Katie Hobbs and Republican Kari Lake are going to head to head for Arizona’s gubernatorial seat, which was left open since Gov. Doug Ducey (R) is term-limited. Hobbs, Arizona’s secretary of state, became more of a recognizable name following her criticism of a 2020 election audit of Maricopa County results that was prompted by baseless claims from former President Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Lake, a former local news anchor, gained notoriety for pushing false claims about the last election, eventually earning Trump’s endorsement. The race has at times grown ugly as Lake has repeatedly hit Hobbs over refusing to debate her, claiming Hobbs is trying to hide from the press and the candidate.

In an interview with “CNN This Morning” this week, Hobbs defended her decision not to debate Lake, a former local news anchor, saying that, “She centered her entire platform around this election denialism, I didn’t want to give her a bigger stage to do that.”

While Hobbs’s decision not to debate has drawn scrutiny, public polling has shown that the move might not have hurt her. One Fox News poll earlier this week showed Lake ahead of Hobbs, 47 percent to 46 percent, which is within the margin of error for the poll. A New York Times-Siena College released late last month showed Lake and Hobbs tied. And an Emerson College Polling survey released Friday found the two candidates also neck and neck.

Ohio Senate race

Ohio, once the quintessential swing state, has been seen as increasingly out of reach for Democrats since Trump won the presidency in 2016, even after Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) managed to hold onto his seat in 2018. For this reason, many observers initially wrote off this year’s Senate race between Trump ally J.D. Vance and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), focusing instead on other high-profile races in states like Pennsylvania and Georgia.

But Ryan has managed to beat the odds and run a competitive campaign against the “Hillbilly Elegy” author, painting himself as a no-nonsense thorn in the side to Beltway lawmakers on both sides of the aisle while memorably branding his opponent as an “ass-kisser” to Trump.

To be sure, Vance is still the clear favorite to win the race. While many recent polls suggest Ryan trails the Republican by only a handful of points, a survey released Friday from Emerson College Polling found Vance widening his lead over his opponent.

Still, if there’s any lesson to be drawn from the Senate race in Ohio, it’s that one shouldn’t count out Ryan, who has proven to be a formidable campaigner in a state that is trending red.

On Tuesday, he might surprise people even more.  

Oklahoma gubernatorial race

The Sooner State hasn’t seen a Democrat elected to the governor’s mansion since former Gov. Brad Henry was reelected in 2006. A Republican stronghold, Trump won the state by more than 30 points in 2016 and 2020.

So Republicans are understandably scratching their heads about how the race has tightened in recent weeks and even required the Republican Governors Association to spend seven figures in the state. 

Part of it has to do with five of the biggest Native American tribes making the unusual move to wade into the race and back Democrat Joy Hofmeister, a former Republican and the state’s superintendent of public instruction. Incumbent Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) drew the ire of indigenous tribes after hunting and fishing compacts with the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations were not renewed and for trying to have gaming compacts with tribes renegotiated.  

Hofmeister has also used education and crime to go after the incumbent, including an education voucher proposal by Stitt that was defeated given that it was unpopular among rural lawmakers.

Recent surveys have shown Stitt and Hofmeister polling with the margin of error. An KOCO 5-Amber Integrated poll out on Thursday found Stitt at 45 percent and Hofmeister at 44 percent, while an Ascend Action poll out earlier this week showed Hofmeister leading Stitt 48 percent to 45 percent, both of which are within the margin of error. 

Montana’s 1st Congressional District race

Former Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke won Montana’s at-large House seat in 2014 and 2016 with double digits. Zinke is running in Montana’s 1st Congressional District after the state gained an extra seat following the 2020 census and he notched Trump’s endorsement before his primary. This district would have gone 7 points last election to Trump had it used the new congressional map.

That should put the House race well within reach for Zinke, but Democrat Monica Tranel, a former Olympic athlete and attorney, is making the race more competitive than usual. 

Partially explaining this is the fact that Zinke barely edged out fellow GOP contender Al Olszewski in his primary earlier this year, winning it by roughly 2 points. Zinke also left the Trump White House on a sour note while he was under investigation in multiple probes. 

While the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman noted laTt month that the race was still favored toward Zinke, they shifted their ratings from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican,” saying in part “The creation of a brand new western seat that unites the college towns of Missoula and Bozeman, combined with GOP former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s high negatives, have kept Democratic attorney Monica Tranel competitive.”

Wisconsin Senate race

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is fighting for a third term in the Senate and is seen as the most vulnerable incumbent Republican. Democrat Mandela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, is looking to disrupt that streak. And while most polls show Barnes trailing Johnson, sometimes within the margin of error, it’s possible Barnes could pull off a surprise upset.

A Marquette Law School poll released earlier this week showed Johnson ahead of Barnes among likely voters, 50 percent to 48 percent. Meanwhile, an Emerson College Polling-The Hill survey also out this week showed the senator edging out the lieutenant governor outside the margin of error, at 50 percent and 46 percent, respectively. 

The senator has also at times strayed into controversy, including comments earlier this summer suggesting that Medicare and Social Security should be considered for annual approval and allegations from a House select panel that his office was involved in a fake elector scheme. Johnson says he had no participation in such a scheme. Even during a debate between himself and Barnes, he drew boos after he was asked what he found admirable about his challenger.

But the race is still an uphill challenge for Barnes, who has been whacked continuously on claims that he’s soft on crime. And the nonpartisan Cook Political Report recently changed its rating for the seat from “toss-up” to “lean Republican,” with editor Jessica Taylor noting that “Many national Democratic strategists we talked to closely watching this race concede those attacks have worked, and aren’t optimistic given the worsening political environment.”

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