ANALYSIS — More than 16 months before Election Day, new House district lines haven’t even been drawn, and yet the fight for Congress is likely to hinge on the outcomes in four critical states.
On a basic level, every state matters in the Senate, considering Republicans need to gain just a single seat to get to the majority. Each significant recruitment development (such as if GOP Gov. Chris Sununu challenges Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire) would instantly affect the handicapping of a race and the fight for control. But there are other states less dependent on a single candidate.
Every seat also matters in the House, where Republicans need a net gain of five seats for a majority — a paltry number in a body of 435 members and in the face of the midterm history, which favors the party out of the White House. And some states, such as Texas, are of particular importance to one of the chambers. But a handful of states are hosting competitive races that will affect control of both the House and the Senate.
After winning one of two essential runoffs on Jan. 5 to deliver control of the Senate to Democrats, Sen. Raphael Warnock is a prime Republican target in 2022. Along with Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly, Warnock won a special election last cycle and is bidding for a full term next year. Considering Joe Biden won the Peach State by less than half a percentage point, Georgia is one of the most critical races to watch in the general election. And an interesting GOP primary could develop as well.
Even though Georgia didn’t gain or lose a seat in reapportionment, it’s a key state to watch for redistricting and the overall fight for the House. Republicans are ultimately in control of the process, and it remains to be seen how aggressive they will be. They will likely draw either the 6th District (currently represented by Democrat Lucy McBath) or the 7th (held by Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux) to be firmly Democratic and the other district to either be more competitive or even Republican-leaning. That would give Republicans a potential net of at least one seat, in an environment in which every seat matters.
Georgia will also host one of the most interesting gubernatorial races in the country as GOP Gov. Brian Kemp feels pressure from forces angered by him not handing the state over to Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential race and from Democrats who just want him defeated and for 2018 nominee Stacey Abrams to make history as the first Black woman elected governor in the country.
The Tar Heel State gained a seat in reapportionment, and Republicans are in control of the mapmaking, making North Carolina a key state to watch. Republicans currently have an 8-5 edge in the House delegation after a court forced the map to be redrawn prior to the 2020 elections, and Democrats gained two seats as a result.
Since the map was just redrawn, some observers don’t expect dramatic changes, but Republicans are likely to try to push another seat or two or three into their column. That could be challenging considering the population growth has been among Democratic-leaning voters. If the GOP succeeds, however, the party could get close to half of what it needs to win the House majority in North Carolina alone.
North Carolina is also home to a battleground Senate race with two competitive primaries. GOP incumbent Richard M. Burr is not running for reelection, leaving behind a competitive seat in a state Trump won by 1 point. The former president has endorsed GOP Rep. Ted Budd, but he faces former Charlotte Mayor and Gov. Pat McCrory, former Rep. Mark Walker and others in a competitive primary. McCrory led the field with 45 percent in a recent poll for the Budd campaign, followed by Budd (19 percent) and Walker (12 percent). The seat is a must-hold for Republicans, who have a paucity of takeover opportunities in their bid to recapture the Senate.
Republicans have won all the big statewide races in the Sunshine State over the past decade, but they can’t take the state for granted. That goes for Sen. Marco Rubio, who starts the general election with the advantage, but his party’s narrow margins and the uncertainty of Trump’s coalition turning out when the former president is not on the ballot should be considerations. Democrats are ecstatic about their likely nominee, Rep. Val B. Demings, but the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate how they’re going to win statewide in Florida, particularly when the national environment might be working against them.
Florida is also a key state in the fight for the House. Republicans are in control of redrawing the map, which will include an additional seat because of reapportionment. They will want to expand their 16-11 delegation advantage but also have a lot of work to do. They may want to shore up at least one of their two freshmen in South Florida (Carlos Gimenez in the 26th District and María Elvira Salazar in the 27th) and create new opportunities in Central Florida, with either a new seat and/or making Democrat Charlie Crist’s Tampa seat more competitive (he’s running for governor again) or targeting Democrat Stephanie Murphy. Democrats need to minimize their losses in Florida to have any chance of holding the House.
Republicans can’t get over Biden’s narrow victory there in 2020, and some of them don’t believe Trump lost at all. No matter what they think, defeating Kelly is a top priority for the GOP. The challenge is that what’s good for the party’s chances of winning back the Senate seat seems to be at odds with what Trump wants. The former president has disparaged term-limited GOP Gov. Doug Ducey for not delivering Arizona for him, to the point where Ducey is unlikely to run and might not be able to win a Senate primary anyway. Ducey would likely be Republicans’ strongest challenger but, at least for now, the GOP has a list of lower-tier challengers. This is the type of race that should put Republicans over the top in the Senate, but there’s a lot of doubt.
The Grand Canyon State is important in the fight for the House too, even though the state didn’t gain a seat during reapportionment as expected. Similar to a decade ago, a commission will draw the congressional map. While it takes out much of the naked partisanship from the process, it adds a degree of uncertainty. Other states, such as Michigan and Colorado, are using commissions for the first time. And in an election where every seat matters, that could lead to unexpected results.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.