The Senate comes down to two key swing states — and maybe a runoff
Democrat John Fetterman flipped Pennsylvania early Wednesday morning, giving his party 48 seats, while Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) secured reelection late Wednesday morning. That gives Democrats 48 seats and Republicans 49 — meaning whichever party wins two of the three outstanding contests in Arizona, Georgia — which is headed to another runoff — and Nevada will control the Senate.
Arizona and Nevada are the biggest question marks, with significant numbers of votes still to be counted in both states. If either party sweeps those two states, it will take control of the Senate regardless of what happens in Georgia next month.
Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is facing off with Republican Adam Laxalt in Nevada. Laxalt leads with more than 80 percent of the expected vote counted. But there is still a long way to go in the state, and Laxalt’s advantage is tenuous because of a glut of potentially Democratic-leaning outstanding ballots. Nevada’s two most populous counties — Democratic-leaning Clark County, home of Las Vegas, and battleground Washoe County, home of Reno — have at least tens of thousands of outstanding ballots to be counted, but the exact number is not currently known.
In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Clark County registrar of voters Joe Gloria, the chief election official there, said the county still had over 50,000 votes that need to be counted. Gloria said he expected the vast majority of those to be tallied by Saturday.
The county plans to publish results from a new tranche of counted ballots once a day going forward, which are expected to come sometime in the evening.
New mail ballots are also still arriving: Nevada ballots that have a USPS postmark by Election Day, but are delivered to election officials by Nov. 12, will also be counted, but it is hard to project that total. In Clark, for example, an additional 12,700 ballots were received from Postal Service officials on Wednesday, but just over 600 came in on Thursday.
Gloria also noted that through the end of Monday, voters can “cure” defective ballots — that is, if a ballot comes back unsigned, or election officials are unable to match the signature on the ballot to the one on the voter rolls, voters have an opportunity to prove their identity and get their ballot counted. There are over 7,000 of those ballots in Clark.
Additionally, provisional ballots — for voters who registered at the polling place, for example — likely won’t be validated until Wednesday of next week. Gloria said there were over 5,500 of those in Clark County, but not every one of them will ultimately be ruled valid.
Similarly, officials in Washoe County have many ballots to count. Jamie Rodriguez, the interim registrar of voters, said in a press conference on Wednesday that she anticipated ballot tallying to run through at least Friday. A spokesperson for the county told CNN earlier on Thursday that it still has about 20,000 ballots that need to be tabulated. Some of the state’s rural counties still likely have votes outstanding as well.
Arizona, too, still has many votes outstanding. Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has the edge, and his lead over Republican Blake Masters is expected to shrink — but not erode completely.
As of Thursday evening, the secretary of state’s office estimated that there were approximately 600,000 ballots left to tally across the state. The vast majority are from Maricopa County, the state’s largest county, which has an estimated 400,000 left to count. Another big bucket is nearly 160,000 ballots in Pima County, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Election officials there have long warned that this would be the case. Officials said before the election that they hoped to have 99 percent of ballots tabulated by Friday. (Unlike Nevada, late-arriving mail ballots cannot be counted in Arizona.) But on Friday, officials in Maricopa warned that they would not meet that Friday goal.
“The goalposts have changed,” said Bill Gates, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. He said the wave of mail ballots dropped off at vote centers on Election Day — some 290,000 of them — was slowing down the count, because of the time-consuming process to verify them.
In Georgia, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock leads Republican Herschel Walker narrowly. The problem for Warnock — and Democrats — is that the incumbent fell below a majority of the vote, which triggered a Dec. 6 runoff between Warnock and Walker. The race was officially sent to a runoff on Wednesday afternoon.
If the two parties split Arizona and Nevada, Senate control would once again come down to Georgia, just as it did in 2020. Two years ago, Democrats swept a pair of runoffs in the state, securing a 50-50 split in the chamber and making Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.
Warnock will finish in first in the November election, but that doesn’t guarantee that he will prevail in December. In one of the two 2020 runoffs, then-Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) also finished just shy of the 50 percent threshold. But now-Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) stormed past him to win the race for a full term in the early 2021 runoff. Warnock, meanwhile, also won a special election Senate runoff in 2021, defeating then-Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) after the pair emerged from a fractured November field.
Warnock’s victory then gave him two years in the Senate, while this year’s contest will decide a full six-year term.
One significant difference for this year’s runoff is the timing. Runoffs in the state used to be in early January. But after suffering those losses in 2021, Georgia Republicans changed the law in the state to bump runoffs up by about a month, setting them for early December.
GOP ahead in House battle — but winning smaller-than-expected gains
Republicans are still leading the race for the House majority, but the number of uncalled races point to how surprisingly close the battle for the chamber has been.
Of the 26 House races POLITICO forecast as “toss-ups,” nine remain uncalled as of Thursday morning. Another 18 races POLITICO rated as “Lean Democrat” or “Lean Republican” are also uncalled. Altogether, that includes nine races in California, a slow-counting state — one of several reasons why resolving control of the House majority could take some time.
Perhaps the most shocking seat still outstanding is in Colorado, where controversial Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), who represents a heavily Republican seat that got redder in redistricting, narrowly trails Democratic opponent Adam Frisch with 98 percent of the vote tallied.
The unresolved toss-up districts include Maine’s 2nd District, where Democratic Rep. Jared Golden leads former GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin. But the race is likely headed to a ranked choice tabulation, after an independent candidate pulled about 7 percent. (In 2018, Golden deleted Poliquin in a ranked choice runoff after Poliquin narrowly led in the first round.)
Democratic incumbents also hold narrow leads in some of their uncalled toss-up races sprinkled throughout the country, including seats in Nevada and Washington.
California — where counting can be slow and ballots postmarked by Election Day can arrive later and still be counted — also have numerous uncalled House battleground races. Democratic Rep. Katie Porter and GOP Rep. David Valadao both hold on to narrow leads, but there are still votes coming in.
Western governor races still big question marks
For similar reasons to their Senate counterparts, the gubernatorial contests in Nevada and Arizona both remain uncalled, though Oregon’s governor’s race was called for Democrat Tina Kotek late Thursday.
Republican Joe Lombardo has a lead over Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak in Nevada, while Democrat Katie Hobbs is up over Republican Kari Lake in Arizona for the open seat race there. Like the Senate races, those races are expected to tighten significantly, or outright flip, as more votes are counted.
It is worth noting that both Democratic candidates are running a bit behind their respective Senate incumbents, meaning these contests will likely be closer. Similarly, the secretary of state races in these states remain uncalled, with Democrats staking out a bit of a larger lead.
One final uncalled — but safely Republican — Senate seat
Alaska’s Senate race is also unresolved. The question is not which party will control the seat but which Republican will win it.
GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski is facing a challenge from Trump-backed Republican, Kelly Tshibaka, after Murkowski voted to convict Trump on impeachment charges in 2021. Both Republicans advanced through Alaska’s new top-four, all-party primary into a ranked-choice general election. Murkowski is currently trailing Tshibaka in the vote count, but the incumbent is more likely to pick up Democratic voters who ranked her second in a ranked-choice retabulation, which would take place in late November if no candidate gets to 50 percent.
Kelly Hooper contributed to this report.