Senate 2022: Few opportunities as parties battle for control

Battleground has been smaller only once in more than two decades

Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win in a January runoff helped Democrats take the majority, but he'll have to defend his seat in 2022, a year when just eight seats are competitive in early race ratings. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock’s win in a January runoff helped Democrats take the majority, but he'll have to defend his seat in 2022, a year when just eight seats are competitive in early race ratings. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 1, 2021 at 6:00am

Corrected, 1:56 p.m. | It’s a good thing Republicans hoping to take control of the Senate next year don’t need to pick up more than one seat, because there’s a dearth of takeover options. Indeed, the Senate battleground at this point in the cycle has been smaller only once in the past 22 years.

At the outset of the 2022 midterm elections, eight states are competitive, with each party holding four seats that look initially vulnerable. Democrats are on defense in Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire and Nevada, while Republicans are defending Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida. 

Just a few months into the cycle, five Republican senators have announced that they will not seek reelection, but those decisions haven’t altered the color or the shape of the initial Senate battleground. Newly open seats in Missouri and Ohio could develop into Democratic opportunities, but considering President Donald Trump’s wide margins in each state in 2020 and the strong correlation between presidential results and Senate outcomes, Republicans start as favorites to win those races.

According to ratings by The Rothenberg Political Report (and then Inside Elections) in January of the off year, going back to 1999, the initial Senate battleground at the beginning of each cycle averaged 12 seats. The largest recent battlegrounds were in the 2000 (16 seats) and 2002 (17 seats) cycles, with 2008 (seven seats) being the only cycle in which the initial Senate battleground was smaller than this cycle’s eight seats. 

There’s been only one other cycle since 2000 where the initial battleground was evenly divided. In 2006, Republicans and Democrats were defending seven vulnerable states each. Democrats eventually gained six that cycle, in President George W. Bush’s second midterm. 

Even though Republicans lost the majority in 2006, midterm history is encouraging for the GOP, considering Democrat Joe Biden is in the Oval Office. The president’s party has lost Senate seats in 14 of the last 20 midterms going back 80 years. 

Those historical results, however, can be a function of the class of Senate seats up that cycle. For example, Republicans lost 40 House seats in Trump’s midterm in 2018 but gained two Senate seats because the class was heavy with GOP-leaning states represented by Democrats. The initial 2018 Senate battleground consisted of 10 vulnerable Democratic seats and just two vulnerable Republican seats.

Midterms are generally challenging for the president’s party because they are a referendum on the party in power. But it remains to be seen what impact Trump has, even though he’s out of office. He could be the GOP’s hero who turns out the full Trump coalition and expands a populist party that is reaching out to minority voters. Or he could become the Republicans’ monkey wrench in the gears of a party trying to move on from Trump if his meddling in GOP primaries produces toxic nominees who turn off independent voters and keep the Democratic base unified and energized. 

With 20 months to go, there’s still plenty of time for party strategists to wind up their arguments and be up in arms over individual race ratings. At a time when there’s widespread division, everyone should be able to agree that control of the Senate is up for grabs in 2022.

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

This report is corrected to show that Democrats gained six Senate seats in 2006.

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