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Despite Republican momentum, Election Day dawns with high uncertainty about Senate majority

Senator Raphael Warnock (right), a Georgia Democrat up for reelection, joined his Democratic Senate colleague Jon Ossoff during a Get Out the Vote rally in Macon, Ga., on Monday.Michael M. Santiago/Getty

ATLANTA – Late-breaking momentum in swing states such as Georgia has Republicans increasingly — albeit cautiously — hopeful they will capture narrow control of the Senate in addition to the House in Tuesday’s midterm elections, dealing a blow to President Biden and likely blocking much of his agenda for the next two years.

But the persistent unreliability of polling, combined with a difficult-to-predict electorate and a slate of unusual GOP candidates, leave few analysts willing to make any definitive predictions other than one: The battle for the Senate has all the makings of a nail-biter.

“There are a lot of races that are a legitimate coin flip,” said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political newsletter at the University of Virginia. “We may not even know who controls the Senate on Election Night.”

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The Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania are widely seen as tossups that most likely will determine the majority. Polling leads by the Democratic candidates in those states that persisted through the summer and into the fall have evaporated in recent weeks, leaving incumbents such as Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Raphael Warnock of Georgia fighting for their political lives as Republicans hammered away in the closing weeks of the campaign with a message that blames the party in power for problems including inflation and crime.

It all means that a chaotic campaign defined in large part by controversial Republican candidates who embraced former president Trump and rattled by the fall of Roe v. Wade this summer might be heading toward a conventional midterm finish, with the party out of power poised to pick up seats.

But Democrats insist the fact that so many races remain competitive amid widespread economic pessimism and low approval ratings for Biden shows their candidates still have strong appeal.

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“In a midterm environment with struggles in the economy, Republicans should have been able to put some of these races into their win column already, but we go into Election Day with them being a jump ball,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist. He said the outcome seems harder to predict this year than in the closing days of the 2010 and 2018 midterms, when the wave elections that came to pass were obvious well in advance.

The results Tuesday have major implications for the final two years of Biden’s term. Though Democrats still have a slim chance of holding on to the House, most analytical models predict Republicans will pick up at least the five seats needed to take control. That leaves the Senate, where Republicans only need a net gain of one seat to grab the majority, as the key point of leverage in the balance of power in a divided Washington.

With the House and Senate under GOP control, Democrats would be left mostly playing defense, largely through Biden’s veto power and the Senate filibuster, against a Republican legislative agenda. But should Democrats retain the Senate, it would give them a power base from which to shape legislation.

Control of the Senate is likely to come down to possibly a few thousand votes in a couple of states – and the closer those races are, the longer it could take for the results to be clear. Several Republicans, including Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, have not committed to accept the election results, and Republicans across the nation have already begun challenging ballots, raising the possibility that fights over the count could stretch well beyond Election Day, as happened with Trump in 2020.

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In Pennsylvania, where Democrat John Fetterman lost his polling edge over Republican Mehmet Oz after a rough debate that showed Fetterman’s lingering symptoms from a stroke, election officials may have to spend days counting mail-in ballots. In Nevada, where Cortez Masto is fighting a tough challenge from Adam Laxalt, and Arizona, where Kelly is trying to fend off Blake Masters, the speed of vote-counting will depend on how many mail ballots come in and when they arrive.

And in Georgia, where former football star Herschel Walker has pulled even with Warnock in the polls, the contest will go to a December runoff election if neither candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote – the exact scenario that dragged out the battle for Senate control after the 2020 election. The extra race is all the more possible again this year because polls show a third party candidate with between 1 and 5 percent support.

“These races are, especially in Georgia and especially in Pennsylvania, so unique, so strange and so just plain weird, that I really don’t know” what will happen, said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who has worked for Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. “Atmospherically, the wind is blowing in the Republicans’ favor, but these races have a character and quality all their own.”

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One possible bellwether on Tuesday, Coleman said, is New Hampshire, especially if incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan loses in her tougher-than-expected challenge from the far-right Republican Don Bolduc.

“If Republicans can beat Hassan, I think that’s a big sign that they may overperform their polling in races across the country,” Coleman said.

There are a handful of other Senate seats in which either party is looking for an upset. In addition to New Hampshire, Republicans are eyeing Washington and Colorado. Democrats are hopeful that Wisconsin and possibly Ohio or North Carolina might be within reach on a very good night.

Adding to the uncertainty are questions about the quality of political polling. After multiple election cycles that found polls consistently under-estimating Republican performance, a number of GOP-favoring polling firms have tried to fill the gap with less traditional methods and analytical attempts to calibrate traditional polling averages.

History would also predict a Republican takeover of both chambers. Since 1934, the party that holds the presidency has lost an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats in the midterms, according to the American Presidency Project at the University of California Santa Barbara. Gaining seats is rare for the president’s party, though it has happened in the House three times and in the Senate six times.

As both parties try to wring every vote out of their base and sway undecideds, they are painting dire scenarios, as was on display recently in Wisconsin, a perennial purple state.

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In Madison on Friday, Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes hyped up a coffee shop packed with college students as hail cascaded outside, warning that Republicans would take their rights away.

“It may start with abortion rights, but I can tell you, it’s not going to stop there,” Barnes said. Earlier in the day, he campaigned alongside a celebrity surrogate, the television star LeVar Burton, who called Johnson, “arrogant” and “racist.”

Johnson, a two-term senator who has been accused of trying to help Trump overturn the 2020 election, took the stage in a county fairgrounds in Elkhorn on Friday and knocked Barnes, who is Black, for remarks he has previously made about the persistence of racism.

“We have an insane world brought to you by a very biased media and unfortunately the education system,” which Johnson alleged is teaching “critical race theory, exacerbating the racial divide, transgenderism.”

In a display of confidence about the Republicans’ midterm results, the stage was decorated with wooden waves painted red.

Proclaimed Chris Goebel, the local GOP county chair: “We are going to shellac them.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Tal Kopan can be reached at tal.kopan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.