ANALYSIS — In early January 2021, Inside Elections identified eight states that would decide control of the Senate in 2022 and designated them with a Battleground rating. Over the subsequent 12 months, there have been multiple COVID-19 variants, four more senators announced they will not seek reelection and the president’s job approval rating dropped by 10 points. And yet there have been no changes to the list of most competitive states.
Now that the calendar has flipped to 2022, it’s time to adjust from the binary Battleground or Solid rating to our more traditional categories, to further define the fight for the majority.
With 10 months before Election Day, it’s easy to use the phrase “A lot can happen between now and then” as a crutch to cover any misguided early analysis. A look at recent cycles, however, reveals that the Senate battlefield isn’t likely to change dramatically between now and November.
Two years ago, Inside Elections identified 12 competitive Senate races, including nine seats held by Republicans and three held by Democrats. The battlefield expanded slightly to 14 seats on Election Day, including 12 seats held by Republicans and two held by Democrats.
Four years ago, in January 2018, there were 13 competitive Senate races, including 11 seats held by Democrats and two seats held by Republicans. By November 2018, there were 12 competitive Senate races, including eight Democratic-held seats and four Republican ones.
This cycle, the Senate battlefield is relatively narrow. Democrats are defending seats in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire while Republicans are on defense in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida, although even some Democratic strategists waver on whether Florida Republican Marco Rubio should be on the list or not at this stage.
Overall, this class of senators (Class III for the nerds) includes 14 seats currently held by Democrats and 20 seats held by Republicans.
The narrow battlefield and limited takeover opportunities are not necessarily a stumbling block for Republicans though, considering they need a net gain of just a single seat to make Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell the Senate majority leader again.
Even though the battlefield looks balanced between the two parties, four of the five most vulnerable seats are currently held by Democrats. The reelection races of Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Mark Kelly of Arizona and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada are all rated Toss-ups, while Sen. Maggie Hassan’s race in New Hampshire is rated Tilt Democratic. On the Republican side, the Pennsylvania contest to replace retiring GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey is rated Tilt Republican. The races in Wisconsin, where Republican incumbent Ron Johnson announced he was seeking reelection Sunday, and North Carolina, where GOP Sen. Richard M. Burr is not running, are rated Lean Republican. And Rubio’s race is rated Likely Republican.
In the face of a challenging cycle in which President Joe Biden’s job approval rating slumped and has since leveled off at a mediocre 43 percent approve/52 percent disapprove, according to the latest FiveThirtyEight average, Democrats are finding solace in a combination of anecdotes and shaky historical trends.
Democrats point to 2010, when their Senate leader Harry Reid won reelection in Nevada and Democrat Chris Coons held a competitive open seat for the party in Delaware in the face of a GOP wave. Except Democrats lost six other Senate seats to Republicans that November, which is far more than the margin the GOP needs this cycle to win back the chamber.
While the historical midterm trend for the president’s party is ominous in House elections, it’s more mixed in Senate races. Since the passage of the 17th Amendment (the direct election of senators) in 1913, there have been 27 midterm elections. The president’s party gained Senate seats in six of those, and broke even in another two.
But that doesn’t mean the president’s party successfully ran against the national environment, according to Jacob Rubashkin at Inside Elections. In three of those eight instances, the Senate result was in line with the national trend. For example, Republicans gained Senate seats in 2002 and Democrats broke even in the Senate in 1998 when their respective parties held the White House. In other years, including most recently in 2018, the president’s party benefited from the partisanship of the most competitive states.
Overlaying the 2020 presidential results map with the 2022 Senate battleground is good news for Democrats, considering Biden won six of the eight Senate battleground states in 2020. But five of them were won by such small margins that the advantage seems negligible after Democrats significantly underperformed in Virginia and New Jersey in 2021.
In both those gubernatorial races, Democrats underperformed by 12 points compared to Biden’s 2020 showing. That doesn’t bode well for the party this year when Biden’s victory in five of the battleground states was by less than 2.5 points, including three by less than 1 point.
Stellar incumbents can outperform the partisan performance of a state to an extent. But a positive national environment can help overcome candidate deficiencies and fundraising gaps as well. That’s good news for Republicans in places such as New Hampshire, where they’re combing through B-list challengers, or Georgia and Arizona, where the GOP faces incumbents who are fundraising juggernauts.
Republicans need to do well in the battlegrounds because their expansion opportunities still look out of reach. There’s a lower-tier crop of candidates in Colorado against Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet. Republicans are encouraged by Tiffany Smiley’s candidacy against longtime Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in Washington, although the GOP hasn’t won a Senate race there since 1994, when Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was in elementary school. And Republicans don’t have a serious candidate against Sen. Ron Wyden in Oregon. The GOP’s best chance for expansion might be for Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan or Vermont Gov. Phil Scott to reverse course and run for Senate.
Democrats are hoping the Senate battlefield expands to Ohio and Missouri if Republicans move to the general election with a polarizing nominee who would jeopardize their party’s chances in states President Donald Trump won by 8 and 15 points, respectively. But again, a positive political environment can mask weakness. And unless the political environment changes dramatically (and it usually doesn’t), Democrats will be swimming against the tide.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.