Democrats’ control of the 50-50 Senate could well be washed away by a red wave in this fall’s midterm elections.
Republicans appear favored to win back the Senate for two simple reasons. First, the national environment has moved in their favor. Biden’s approval rating is low. The GOP has improved in generic ballot polls and won the governor’s seat in Virginia last November.
Second, the Senate is already split 50-50, so a net gain of even just one seat for Republicans would flip the chamber into their hands.
However, Democrats do still have a way to hold on. The main thing they have going for them is a decent map — they aren’t defending any seats in states Trump won in 2020, while Republicans are defending two states Biden narrowly won. If Democrats manage to hold their losses to a minimum, or make up for them by defeating Republicans elsewhere, they could keep Senate control. But if the national environment keeps looking so dire for the party and the president, that would be a tall order.
Most analysts expect Democrats to lose the House. Losing the Senate would be an even more painful blow. Senate control would give Republicans veto power over Biden’s appointees — new Cabinet secretaries and subcabinet officials, as well as judges, including even a future Supreme Court justice should a vacancy unexpectedly arise. A GOP takeover would dramatically constrain the next two years of Biden’s presidency, and set progressives up for even more disappointment in this administration than they’ve already faced.
Six key states
In the past decade, there have been 20 individual Senate elections where a seat ended up flipping to the other party. The vast majority of those races (16 of 20) had the same partisan outcome as either the presidential race that year or, in midterm years without a presidential contest, the most recent one. Senate races have been falling in line with the state’s presidential party preference. “Mismatched” senators, who represent a state their party’s presidential nominee lost, are becoming rarer.
From that perspective, Democrats have a pretty okay map in 2022. In the two most recent midterm cycles, they were badly exposed, with several incumbents in states the Republican presidential candidate just won. This year, they have none at all. (They do have three such seats coming up in 2024, which will be a major challenge, but that’s a problem for another time.) Meanwhile, there are two GOP-held seats in states Biden narrowly won, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, on the ballot.
But that’s likely too optimistic for Democrats. Another way to think about the map is that there are six true swing states with races this cycle. At least once in either 2016 or 2020, Trump either won or came quite close to winning Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona, and New Hampshire. Nevada, meanwhile, trended right relative to the country between 2016 and 2020, though Biden still won it.
These six states — four held by Democrats, and two held by Republicans — are currently the core of the 2022 competitive Senate map, though other contests could also come into play. It’s reasonable to expect that with Biden’s national standing declining, Senate seats in these states are in great danger of slipping out of Democrats’ grasp.
But while Senate race outcomes have become more correlated with national partisanship, individual candidates do frequently overperform or underperform the overall trend. Democrats’ Senate chances likely hinge on whether enough of their candidates can escape this partisan gravity, arguing either that they’re not just another Democrat, or that their opponent is a uniquely unfit Republican.
Republicans’ top Democratic-held Senate targets
Georgia: Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) won his seat in a high-stakes January 2021 runoff, but that was a special election; he has to run again for a full term this fall. His likely opponent is Herschel Walker (R), a former University of Georgia football star, making this a rare US Senate race likely to feature two Black major party nominees.
Republicans are hoping Democrats’ narrow Georgia triumphs last cycle were a fluke, and that the long-red state is moving back toward the GOP. But some are a bit worried about Walker, who’s a political novice with a good deal of baggage in his personal history (for instance, his ex-wife alleged that he put a gun to her head and threatened to kill her). Meanwhile, Democrats hope the presence of Warnock and likely gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams on the ballot will motivate Black voters to turn out for them.
Arizona: Sen. Mark Kelly (D), a former astronaut, was also another of Democrats’ biggest success stories in a 2020 special election, who also must now run for a full term in a state that narrowly tipped from Trump to Biden. Unlike his iconoclastic Democratic colleague Kyrsten Sinema, Kelly has kept a low profile in the chamber so far, and he’ll face the challenge of distinguishing himself from his party’s brand.
Meanwhile, Republicans have a messy primary situation. State attorney general Mark Brnovich is well-regarded in the party but Trump is trashing him for insufficient support of his lies that the 2020 election was stolen. Wealthy businessman Jim Lamon has greatly outspent his opponents, but venture capitalist Blake Masters may also have lots of money on his side because he is president of billionaire Peter Thiel’s foundation. Mick McGuire, the former head of Arizona’s national guard, is also running. This primary is in August, so they will be at it for some time.
Nevada: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) is running for a second term, and she’ll likely face former state attorney general Adam Laxalt (R). Nevada has voted for Democrats on the presidential level since 2008, but there have been some troubling signs for the party there. Demographically, this is a state where Democrats’ worsening performance with Latino voters and continued poor performance among non-college white voters are problematic, since those two groups made up more than 50 percent of the 2020 electorate, according to the firm Catalist. That year, Nevada was one of just two states where Biden did not improve on Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory (Florida is the other).
Cortez Masto won her seat by 2.4 percentage points in 2016, and in the advance of her reelection she’s been positioning herself as a defender of the state’s mining industry. Laxalt has run two statewide races — his 2014 bid for attorney general (which he won by less than 1 percentage point in a good GOP year), and his 2018 bid for governor (which he lost by 4 points in a good year for Democrats). So neither has a track record of overwhelming electoral dominance.
New Hampshire: Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) won this seat in 2016 while she was the state’s governor. Hassan just barely unseated Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) by a 0.1 percentage point margin (about 1,000 votes), in a year when Trump came very close to winning in the state as well. In 2020, though, New Hampshire moved sharply away from Trump, as Biden won it by 7 points, but this famously swingy state could certainly swing again.
Republicans were disappointed when they failed to recruit the state’s moderate governor, Chris Sununu, to take Hassan on, and Democrats argue the remaining candidates in the field are unimpressive. The primary’s not until September, so we won’t know who will face Hassan for some time, but the GOP field includes a former state senate president and a retired general, among other candidates.
Democrats’ top GOP-held Senate targets
Meanwhile, there are two GOP-held seats in states that swung from Obama to Trump to Biden up this fall.
Pennsylvania: The contest for the open seat held by retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R) may well be the most expensive one in the country. For Democrats, the state’s lieutenant governor John Fetterman has taken a lead in recent polls over Rep. Conor Lamb and state rep. Malcolm Kenyatta. Fetterman strikes an unusual profile for a Democratic politician — burly, bearded, about 6 foot 9, often dressed informally. Democrats have been divided over whether he’s exactly what they need to appeal to the white working class, or whether his past support for Bernie Sanders and progressive positions on issues like criminal justice reform risk his chances in the general election.
The Republican primary, meanwhile, features celebrity television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz (circulator of dubious health claims) and ex-hedge fund CEO David McCormick, both of whom are spending millions of their own money. Some conservatives have questioned Oz’s conservative bona fides but Trump endorsed him this month. The primary will take place on May 17.
Wisconsin: Sen. Ron Johnson (R) is running for a third term in office (despite having previously pledged only to serve two). Democrats have long believed he’s too conservative for this swing state, but Johnson, a wealthy self-funder, took down incumbent Russ Feingold in 2010 and then beat Feingold again in 2016. This time around, no one thinks he’ll be easy to beat.
Democrats have a competitive primary featuring Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski, and billionaire’s son Alex Lasry (an executive of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, which his father co-owns), among other candidates. This is an August primary so there won’t be clarity here for a while.
Apart from these core six races, both parties hope to expand the field to other “reach” contests. There are 35 Senate contests overall this year, but most are in strongly Democratic or strongly Republican states. Only a handful of others are believed to be even potentially competitive (though an unexpected event like a scandal or death could bring others into play).
Republicans point to Colorado, where Sen. Michael Bennet (D) is running for a third full term. The GOP has struggled in Colorado lately — Trump lost the state by nearly 14 points. But in a wave year, perhaps the state could be in play for Republicans, as it was in 2014 when Cory Gardner defeated incumbent Sen. Mark Udall. National Republicans hope businessman Joe O’Dea wins the nomination in the June primary. They fear the other candidate, state rep. Ron Hanks, who champions stolen election conspiracy theories, is too extreme to win.
Some Republicans also optimistically float Washington, where longtime Sen. Patty Murray (D) is on the ballot, as a race that could come into play in a truly dismal national environment for Democrats. Tiffany Smiley, a former nurse and veterans advocate, is viewed as the leading Republican candidate there. Biden won the state by nearly 20 points, though, so she’d face an uphill battle to overcome the state’s underlying Democratic tilt.
Democrats, meanwhile, tout North Carolina, with some arguing it should be considered a top tier contest. This is an open seat race in which Republicans are facing a heated primary between former Gov. Pat McCrory and Trump-endorsed Rep. Ted Budd, while the Democratic nominee will be former state supreme court chief justice Cheri Beasley. Democrats haven’t managed to win a presidential or Senate contest in North Carolina since 2008, so pulling it off in a tough year for the party nationally would be a challenge. But Democrats argue that Trump only won the state narrowly, and that Gov. Roy Cooper’s success shows the party can win there.
Additionally, there’s another Republican-held open seat in Ohio with a competitive GOP primary winding down and Rep. Tim Ryan (D) the likely Democratic nominee — the Buckeye state has leaned strongly toward Republicans in recent years, but Ryan hopes he can defy the trend with an anti-China message. In Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio (R) is facing a challenge from Rep. Val Demings (D), but Democrats have had little success they can point to in Florida lately. And both parties agree Missouri could get competitive if the state’s scandal-plagued former governor Eric Greitens wins the GOP nomination, but he has been dropping in polls of late.
The math to keep in mind is that, to hold the chamber, Democrats need to either hold all their own seats, or they need to match any lost seats with pickups of GOP-held seats. In a neutral political environment, that would be quite doable. But if the environment remains so challenging, they’ll have to hope unique dynamics among candidates in individual races break in their favor. If the GOP wave is big enough, though, those individual dynamics probably won’t be enough to make a difference.