The Democratic and Republican campaign chiefs agree on one thing about the battle for the Senate majority: Nevada and Georgia are at the center.
"If you look at the polls, Nevada and Georgia are the two logical ones" Republicans can pick up, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the GOP's campaign chair, said in an interview. Sen. Gary Peters, the Democratic campaign honcho, sees things similarly.
"I've been saying that Georgia, Nevada are gonna be real close races," the Michigan Democrat said.
Of course, Democrats would love to pick up Senate seats in places like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman has led every recent public poll. And Republicans dream of wins in Colorado and Washington.
Yet Democrats' most straightforward path to keeping the majority still means bringing back their so-called Core Four battleground senators: Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. And while Hassan and Kelly are breathing a bit easier these days, Cortez Masto and Warnock are sweating it out in extremely tight races. As Peters put it, "I feel more comfortable about - or I feel good about - the trajectory that we're seeing in Arizona and New Hampshire."
There's time for the political tide to shift before November, but the reality is that both parties have modest dreams at the moment. And Democrats have reason to worry if they can't hold onto a majority of their four vulnerable incumbents.
Currently a good Republican night would involve holding Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio, while snagging Nevada and Georgia - a net shift of two seats. A good Democratic night would mean no lost incumbents, plus pick-ups in Pennsylvania and perhaps one other state, giving the party enough votes to comfortably confirm President Joe Biden's nominees.
Hassan and Kelly aren't out of the woods yet, but both exploited messy GOP primaries to take steady leads in the polls and benefited from Govs. Chris Sununu (R-N.H.) and Doug Ducey (R-Ariz.) passing on Senate runs.
Republicans nominated former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia, a state where partisan polarization and his athletic fame are keeping him afloat despite his flaws. And Nevada is returning to its swing-state status as it recovers from the pandemic's chilling economic effect.
That makes Cortez Masto and Warnock the two incumbents whose campaigns keep Democrats up at night.
"You're climbing a hill if you're a Democrat running in Georgia," said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who expressed confidence in both Cortez Masto and Warnock.
The GOP nominee in Nevada, former state attorney general Adam Laxalt, lost a gubernatorial race in 2018 but counts a powerful political legacy from his grandfather, the late Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.). Kaine observed that the name "Laxalt in Nevada is like a Sununu in New Hampshire. Nevada is the one place where [Republicans] got the candidate they wanted."
Though Democrats significantly outraised their foes in every Senate battleground, Laxalt and Walker are holding their own. Recent polling shows both Republicans locked in tight races and even occasionally leading, whereas Hassan and Kelly have led all public polls in their states since the GOP nominated Don Bolduc and Blake Masters, respectively.
"Georgia is the most competitive battleground state in the country," explained Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.). Warnock hit 50 percent in some recent public polls, but if neither candidate reaches a majority threshold on November's ballot - as was the case in the state's regular and special 2020 Senate elections - the race will go to a December runoff.
In Georgia, both Walker and Warnock's campaigns concede there are few swing voters to win over. The Peach State's winning strategy is all about turnout, then, while Nevada has more independents to compete for. Nevada ballots even have a "none of these candidates" option that can affect the outcome of a close Senate race.
Cortez Masto contended the state is not as blue as its reputation, even though Democrats won the state's last two Senate races and carried it during the last four presidential elections.
"Nevada is always competitive," she said. "It's a swing state."
In conversations with more than a dozen strategists and senators, members of both parties said Nevada and Georgia represent Republicans' strongest opportunities to flip seats, while Pennsylvania is Democrats' best bet for a pickup. New Hampshire will now be a tall order for the GOP, the consensus goes, and top Republicans also see flipping Arizona as a pipe dream.
The New Hampshire GOP nominated Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general, despite Republican challengers spending millions of dollars to stop him. Fergus Cullen, the former New Hampshire Republican Party chair who supported state Senate President Chuck Morse in the primary, said Bolduc lacks the skills or field operation to run a competitive general election campaign.
As of the end of August, Bolduc had less than $84,000 in cash on hand, compared with Hassan's $7.3 million.
"Nothing has changed to suggest that the pre-primary concerns were not valid," Cullen said of handwringing over Bolduc's history of gaffes and controversial positions. "Democrats can't put this one in the bag yet, but they have to be breathing a huge sigh of relief."
Bolduc spokesperson Kate Constantini said he has been "underestimated by the pundits and critics, and yet he won his primary without spending a dime on television advertising."
The top Senate Republican super PAC, Senate Leadership Fund, has kept its committed $23 million in the state. Yet Hassan holds a significant early lead in the first public general election polling, and Bolduc quickly recanted his past endorsement of false voter fraud claims about the 2020 election and support for the privatization of Medicare and Social Security. Nonetheless, Republicans say they are staying in.
"We see a path to victory, but don't take our word for it: National Democrats are pouring millions into New Hampshire over the month of October," said Jack Pandol, a spokesperson for SLF.
Hassan and her allies, notably, still insist that the race isn't over.
In Arizona, Republican Blake Masters is polling behind Kari Lake, the state's Republican gubernatorial nominee, who has spent less on her campaign than he has. Members of both parties say Masters is wounded by waffling on the state's abortion ban.
On Thursday, Kelly launched a new ad about Masters' support for abortion restrictions, one of several Democratic spots about his stance on the issue. In an interview, Kelly said voters "realize that this is what my opponent wants: an abortion ban with no exceptions."
A Masters spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Before winning the primary, he advocated a federal anti-abortion "personhood law," but has since sought to soften his stance while still embracing a proposed national 15-week ban.
The Senate GOP's main super PAC has since withdrawn all of its scheduled Arizona ads. Other outside GOP spending groups cobbled together money to keep him on the air in recent weeks, but he will likely need a substantial funding source for October to have a shot at remaining competitive, according to a Republican with knowledge of the race.
Another person with knowledge of a recent Arizona Republican internal poll found Masters' favorability rating to be lower than Roy Moore's in 2017 as the Alabama Senate nominee imploded amid reports of past sexual misconduct, including romantic pursuit of minors.
Three Republicans involved in national races said the party's chances of unseating Kelly are comparable to those of GOP victories in blue Colorado or Washington. The party's candidates in those states raised significant money in an effort to unseat Democratic incumbents with tepid approval ratings - and they're still underdogs.