One year out: These senators are most vulnerable in 2022

Four Democrats, two Republicans have difficult races ahead

Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock tops the list of vulnerable senators one year out from Election Day.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock tops the list of vulnerable senators one year out from Election Day. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 9, 2021 at 6:30am, Updated at 11:55am

Democrats dominate the list of vulnerable senators one year before Election Day 2022, but that doesn’t mean their majority is doomed. 

Democratic strategists who work on Senate races are still optimistic their party will prevail, in part because President Joe Biden won six of the eight states Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as Senate battlegrounds. Democrats are also eyeing pickup opportunities in a handful of competitive states where Republican incumbents are retiring, including Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Ohio. 

Republicans, who need a net gain of just one seat to retake the Senate, believe they are likely to win the chamber since midterms tend to be difficult for the president’s party. They point to Biden’s low job approval rating as a sign that the political environment is on their side. 

[These House members are vulnerable, and they're not alone]

Campaign operatives in both parties do agree on one thing when it comes to the battle for the Senate: It’s going to be a slog. 

Here are the most vulnerable senators one year out from Election Day:

Republicans believe the dynamics that fueled Warnock’s victory in a January special election runoff — a singular focus on Georgia, sky-high Democratic energy, and President Donald Trump casting doubt on whether votes would be counted — won’t be easily replicated. Still, Warnock is considered a tough opponent. As of Sept. 30, his campaign had $17.2 million on hand. Multiple Republicans, including state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and retired Navy SEAL Latham Saddler, are running in the primary. Trump has endorsed former NFL player Herschel Walker, who posted strong fundraising numbers, ending the most recent quarter with $2.5 million on hand. The GOP primary has already turned negative, with Black highlighting domestic abuse allegations against Walker.

Johnson, the only non-retiring incumbent up this cycle in a state that supported the opposite party’s presidential nominee in 2020, hasn’t said yet if he’s running for a third term. Democrats believe Johnson’s controversial comments about the COVID-19 vaccine, the 2020 election and the Jan. 6 insurrection will turn off suburban swing voters. But Republicans caution that Johnson won a tough race in 2016 and has strong support from the party base. A crowded field of Democrats is running in the primary, which is not until August. The top candidates include Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes; state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski; Alex Lasry, whose father co-owns the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team; and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. Although Johnson’s fundraising has lagged behind other incumbents, he still had the most cash, reporting $2.3 million on hand at Sept. 30.

Some strategists believe Hassan may be the most vulnerable senator thanks to the drop in Biden’s job approval rating and her lower favorability rating. Outside groups and Hassan’s campaign are already airing TV ads, but the GOP field is still in flux. Republicans were hoping Gov. Chris Sununu would jump into the race, but after he said Tuesday he wouldn’t, they’re still optimistic about recruiting a formidable challenger, such as former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, whom Hassan narrowly unseated in 2016. Democrats believe Sununu could be vulnerable on social issue,s including abortion, and they view the state’s recent history of electing Democrats at the federal level as a sign that Hassan could have an edge. The senator has been prepping for a competitive race, ending the recent fundraising quarter with $6.5 million in the bank. The only GOP candidate raising money against her, retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, had just $58,000 on hand at Sept. 30. Bolduc lost the GOP Senate primary last year.

Kelly won a high-profile special election in 2020 and is now running for a full term. He likely benefits from his recent race, in which he ran on his background as a former astronaut and a Navy veteran, and proved to be a blockbuster fundraiser. Republicans believe they can tie Kelly to liberal Democrats now that he has a voting record. But there is some concern about the fundraising strength of the GOP field, which includes state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, energy executive Jim Lamon, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mick McGuire and Blake Masters, who runs billionaire Peter Thiel’s investment firm and foundation. Kelly had $13 million in his campaign account on Sept. 30, more than double the GOP contenders’ combined cash on hand. The Republican primary has already turned negative, with a Thiel-backed super PAC that supports Masters going after Brnovich.

Democrats are once again hoping strong Hispanic turnout, particularly in populous Clark County, will propel Cortez Masto, the first Latina elected to the Senate, to victory. National Republicans have coalesced around former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who also has Trump’s endorsement, but the Senate hopeful does face some primary competition. Laxalt lost a governor’s race in 2018, but Republicans believe he is a strong candidate who can simultaneously appeal to the party’s base and more moderate voters. Democrats have also struggled to turn out their voters in recent midterms in Nevada. But they believe they can exploit Laxalt’s ties to Trump in a state that twice rejected the former president. Laxalt led the Trump campaign’s efforts to challenge 2020 election results in Nevada. Cortez Masto starts with a financial advantage with $8.3 million on hand at Sept. 30, compared with Laxalt’s $1.3 million.

Democrats acknowledge that winning Florida is a challenge thanks to the state’s expansive size and expensive media markets. But they’re optimistic that Rep. Val B. Demings will be a formidable challenger to Rubio, helped by her fundraising prowess. She raised a whopping $8.5 million in the most recent fundraising quarter. Rubio still had a cash-on-hand advantage with $9.6 million in his account as of Sept. 30, compared with Demings’ $6 million. Republicans aren’t overly concerned about Demings’ fundraising — at least not yet — since they believe Rubio has a strong brand in the state and can appeal to Hispanic voters who have shifted toward the GOP in recent elections.