Don’t look now: The fight for the Senate continues into 2022

Similar to 2020, Republicans start on the defensive

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., is up for reelection in 2022, a year when, just as this year, there will be more Republican seats Democratic seats up. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., is up for reelection in 2022, a year when, just as this year, there will be more Republican seats Democratic seats up. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 5, 2020 at 6:00am

While all the votes have yet to be counted and there’s no clear winner in this year’s fight for the Senate, the battle will continue into the 2022 midterms. Similar to 2020, Republicans will start on the defensive, and Democrats are initially poised to make gains once again. But the cycle will likely be defined by the actions of the White House.

The 2022 Senate class was last elected in 2016. Republicans lost two seats that year, even with Donald Trump’s surprise win, but it’s still a GOP-heavy class because the party gained a combined 10 seats in the preceding 2010 and 2004 cycles. 

The initial 2022 Senate field includes 21 seats currently held by Republicans to 13 for the Democrats. That includes the Arizona seat won by Democrat Mark Kelly over GOP Sen. Martha McSally, and the Georgia seat currently held by appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler. But that race is headed for a Jan. 5 runoff. A win by Democrat Raphael Warnock would change the 2022 class makeup to 20 Republicans and 14 Democrats. That’s a fairly similar partisan breakdown to this cycle, when Republicans were defending 23 seats to the Democrats’ 12. 

Within the entire 2022 class is the actual battleground, featuring states with seats that could legitimately flip. The final 2020 battleground included 12 vulnerable Republican seats and just two vulnerable Democratic seats. The initial 2022 battleground is likely to include six Republican seats and three Democratic ones. 

Open seat in Pennsylvania

The initially vulnerable GOP seats next cycle include Pennsylvania (where Sen. Patrick J. Toomey has already announced he’s not running for reelection), North Carolina (where Sen. Richard M. Burr said in 2016 that his current term would be his last), Iowa (open seat or Charles E. Grassley’s reelection), Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), and Florida (Marco Rubio). Georgia, with Loeffler, would be the sixth vulnerable GOP seat.  

On the Democratic side, potentially vulnerable senators in 2022 include Kelly, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. Their vulnerability is likely to hinge on whoever occupies the White House.

Ultimately, the Senate battleground — and the entire fight for the Senate — will likely be defined by the actions of the party in power in Washington. Despite the discrepancy in the partisan makeup of the 2022 class, a victory by Joe Biden this year would probably be the best thing that could happen to Senate Republicans. 

With the White House, the House and potentially the Senate, Democrats will be pressured to push a liberal legislative agenda by progressives who fell in line behind Biden during the 2020 campaign. Then GOP incumbents could run on an effective check-and-balance message and minimize losses by reminding moderate voters about the ills of Democrats in power. On the other hand, a President Biden and the Democrats could be riding high after overseeing a national economic recovery and a return to normal after the coronavirus. 

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Midterms tough for president’s party

Historically, Republicans could face a more difficult midterm election if Trump wins reelection, as voters grow tired or skeptical of the president after six years in office. In 2014, Republicans gained nine Senate seats in President Barack Obama’s second midterm. In 2006, Democrats gained six Senate seats in President George W. Bush’s second midterm. And in 1986, Democrats gained eight Senate seats in President Ronald Reagan’s second midterm. 

The lone recent departure from that trend was 1998, when there was no net change in the Senate. Republicans today might take comfort in that example because the election was in response to their party’s perceived overreach on impeachment. But Republicans already controlled 55 Senate seats (so there were limited opportunities to grow the majority) and President Bill Clinton’s job approval rating at the time was 66 percent, according to Gallup. That’s 20 points higher than Trump’s current ratings. Under a second Trump term scenario, Senate Republicans can only hope that an effective and widely available vaccine comes quickly enough for a strong economic recovery before the midterms. 

Outside the initial battleground, there are several potentially interesting 2022 storylines. The California race will feature an appointed senator in place of potential Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and other 2022 senators could be tapped for Cabinet positions if Biden wins. On the Republican side, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski is likely to face a difficult primary after getting sideways with Trump, and she may have to win reelection as an independent once again. 

While it could take months for senators to decide whether they’re running again, it won’t take long for the Pennsylvania race to replace Toomey to enter the spotlight. 

Democrats will be itching to run, but aspiring politicians are also balancing the chance to run for governor. If state Attorney General Josh Shapiro becomes the heir apparent to replace term-limited Gov. Tom Wolf, then Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and 2004 congressional candidate/state Treasurer Joe Torsella would likely look at a Senate run. Reps. Chrissy Houlahan and Brendan F. Boyle will be in the conversation, as well as Rep. Conor Lamb, state Auditor Eugene DePasquale (if he wins the 10th District race this year), Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh, state Sen. Sharif Street and others.

The GOP field might be guided by Trump’s final fate. Fewer aspiring Republicans are likely to line up to run in a second Trump midterm, when the party could struggle. In the first midterm of a Democratic president, the initial GOP chatter would likely include former Rep. Ryan A. Costello, wealthy 2018 gubernatorial candidate/Health and Human Services official Paul Mango, Rep. Dan Meuser, Rep. Scott Perry (if he wins reelection), state Sens. Camera Bartolotta, Doug Mastriano and Scott Martin, state Rep. Tarah Toohil and others.

There’s a temptation to shun any 2022 talk because the 2020 elections aren’t over. But these races are already beginning whether you want to acknowledge them or not. And if Democrats fall short of control this year, they’ll have an opportunity in two years, particularly if Trump wins reelection.

Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.