Senate 2022 ratings: Eight states competitive, with control on the line again

Initial battleground divided between GOP- and Democratic-held states

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson faces a competitive bid for a third term next year.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson faces a competitive bid for a third term next year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 8, 2021 at 4:10pm

ANALYSIS — We knew it even before the runoffs in Georgia were finished: Control of the Senate would be on the ballot once again in 2022. Every vote in the chamber will matter over the next two years and every seat will matter in two years when voters decide, again, which party will be in the majority. 

After Democrats take control, Republicans running in what will be President Joe Biden’s midterm will need to gain just a single seat from an initial battlefield of eight states. Those vulnerable seats are split evenly between those currently held by Republicans (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and those held by Democrats (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire). Two of those Democrats (Arizona’s Mark Kelly and Georgia’s Raphael Warnock) just won special elections and will be fighting for full terms in 2022. 

An eight-state battlefield is relatively small compared to 2020, when there were at least 13 states hosting competitive races. Depending on the political environment, circumstances and party recruitment, the battlefield could expand to include another couple of GOP seats, including Iowa (if Chuck Grassley doesn’t seek reelection) and Ohio (where Rob Portman is up for reelection) or a Democratic-held seat in Colorado (where Michael Bennet is likely to run again).

Overall, this class of senators (Class III for the nerds) includes 14 seats currently held by Democrats and 20 seats held by Republicans. 

It’s the second consecutive class in which there’s been a disproportionate number of GOP seats because of past election results. The 2020 class included more Republican held seats (23-12) because it was the class of 2014, when Republicans gained nine seats in President Barack Obama’s second midterm. The 2022 class includes more Republicans because of 2010, when Republicans gained six seats in Obama’s first midterm, even though the GOP lost two seats in this class six years later.

As with every cycle, other seats could be added to the docket with special elections in the event senators leave because of appointments to the administration, death, or resignation. 

While it’s obviously very early in the 2022 cycle, history is somewhat encouraging for Republicans: The president's party has lost Senate seats in 14 of the last 20 midterm elections going back 80 years. Those results, however, can be a function of the class of Senate seats up that cycle. For example, Republicans lost 40 House seats in President Donald Trump’s midterm, but gained two Senate seats because the class was heavy with GOP-leaning states.

Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly is one of two Democrats who just won special elections and would have to run again in 2022 for full terms. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans would likely benefit from a midterm cycle focused on Democratic control of Washington, but Trump’s shadow looms over the races. His dedication to punishing GOP senators who didn’t sufficiently support him could result in some costly primaries. And if the president’s crusade against “weak” Republicans causes some of his supporters to shun GOP candidates in the general election, it could create takeover opportunities for Democrats that don’t exist under normal partisan conditions. 

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Trump’s postelection activity and behavior will also be a factor. His consistent public presence could keep Democrats energized by reminding them about his actions in office (particularly what happened in the final days of his term) and the importance of voting. The results in Georgia should have been a sobering reminder to Republicans that the president doesn’t have magical political powers. 

One of the key lessons from the 2020 elections is the power of partisanship. While candidate profiles, résumés, attack ads and fundraising generate headlines, it’s often the fundamentals of a state, including the top of the ballot, that drive results. There’s just less and less ticket splitting.

In 79 Senate races over the last two presidential cycles, just one state voted for a different party for president than it did for the Senate. That makes GOP Sen. Susan Collins’ victory in Maine last November even more impressive.

In 2022, just two Republican seats are in states Biden carried (Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) and no Democratic seats are up in states won by Trump. Of course, this will be a midterm without a presidential race at the top of the ballot, but the partisan alignment shouldn’t be ignored. 

At this early stage in the cycle, we’ve decided to use broader rating categories, simply describing races as either Battleground or Solid. As the cycle and races develop, we’ll shift to more specific ratings.

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