Senate GOP confident about midterms despite open seats

Republicans are defending three open Senate seats in 2022, and Democrats see opportunity

Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman announced Monday he is not running for reelection.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman announced Monday he is not running for reelection. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 27, 2021 at 5:00am

Republicans will now be defending three open Senate seats in 2022, and there could be more to come. But they’re not panicking yet. 

Defending open seats can be more difficult, since incumbents typically have advantages in name recognition and fundraising. And with multiple open seats, the GOP could face divisive and costly primaries. 

Democrats believe open seats provide more opportunities to expand their razor-thin Senate majority. But some Republicans said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s surprise retirement announcement Monday doesn’t foreshadow broader problems for the party in 2022.  

“It says nothing about the 2022 landscape,” Indiana Sen. Todd Young, who ran the Senate GOP campaign arm in 2020 and is seeking a second term next year, told CQ Roll Call.

More to come?

Republicans are defending 20 Senate seats in 2022, to 14 for the Democrats. In addition to Portman, Sens. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard M. Burr of North Carolina have also announced they are not running for reelection.

National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott told CQ Roll Call on Monday that he did not expect more retirement announcements.

“I’d be surprised,” he said. “You know, not everybody’s come out publicly and said they’re going to run.”

One senator who has not announced his plans is Wisconsin Republican Ron Johnson, who initially pledged to serve just two terms but has left the door open to running again. 

“It’s always been my preference to do two terms, but now we got a 50/50 Senate,” Johnson told reporters at the Capitol on Monday. “When I talked about that, I really always felt the House was pretty much a firewall against the craziness of the left, maybe the Senate. So that’s certainly part of my thinking.” 

If Johnson decides not to run, Republicans would be facing open-seat races in two states that President Joe Biden won in November (Wisconsin and Pennsylvania).

Even if he runs, Democrats believe Johnson would be vulnerable given his support for former President Donald Trump. Johnson did run ahead of Trump in 2016, defeating former Sen. Russ Feingold by 3 points while Trump was carrying the state by less than a point. Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson has already launched a bid for the Democratic nomination. 

Republicans could also face open seats in Iowa, Missouri and Alabama, where the GOP incumbents have not yet said if they’re running for reelection. Trump won all three states in November, carrying Missouri and Alabama by double digits. 

Alabama Sen. Richard C. Shelby, 86, is not expected to run for reelection. He told CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that he would have more to say on his political future after Trump’s impeachment trial.

Missouri’s Roy Blunt, 71, said Tuesday that he is “planning on reelection, but I haven’t made a final statement on that yet.”

Asked Tuesday if he is running for reelection, Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, 87, told reporters at the Capitol, “You’ll have to ask me that several months from now.” Grassley significantly outran Trump when they were both on the ballot in 2016, winning a seventh term by 24 points, more than double Trump’s 9-point margin. In 2020, Trump won Iowa by 8 points. 

Problem for the GOP? 

Additional retirements may disappoint some in the GOP, but Republicans aren’t worried about open seats creating more problems in 2022, since they only need a net gain of one seat to flip the Senate. Historically, the number of Senate retirements has not determined which party is victorious, according to CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales.  

Still, Democrats welcomed the retirements. Open seats could expand the map of hotly contested Senate races, potentially diverting GOP resources from other states. 

Justin Barasky, a senior adviser to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who managed Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown’s successful reelection campaign in 2018, said Portman’s retirement moves the Buckeye State into a top tier of competitive races. 

“It now is one of a number of open-seat races,” Barasky said. “Portman was nothing if not well prepared for his campaigns, would have had a ton of money, and always ran a really good race. And now you’re going to have … a fairly nasty Republican primary.”  

One GOP strategist involved in Senate races said additional retirements wouldn’t alter the 2022 landscape.

The strategist compared the dynamics for 2022 to the 2010 election cycle, the first midterm after Democrats had won the White House to go with their control of both chambers of Congress. Twelve senators, six Democrats and six Republicans, retired in 2010. And while the GOP fell short of retaking the Senate, it still had a net gain of six seats. 

“Nobody wants to see those retirements happen, but I don’t think it dooms our chances by any stretch,” the strategist said.  

Lindsey McPherson and Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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