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A handful of voters will decide Senate control in 2022

Republicans and Democrats will focus on turning out ‘soft’ partisans to vote for their candidates

Voters in Nye County arrive for early voting in May at a community center in Pahrump, Nev. Nevada is on the short list of states that will determine who controls the Senate next year, Stuart Rothenberg writes.
Voters in Nye County arrive for early voting in May at a community center in Pahrump, Nev. Nevada is on the short list of states that will determine who controls the Senate next year, Stuart Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — If you are from New York, Nebraska, Oregon, Vermont or Mississippi, you have the same right to vote that everyone else in the country does. But that doesn’t mean that you will have the same political clout. In fact, you are likely to be irrelevant in this fall’s elections.

While everyone is watching to see whether Republicans continue to support Donald Trump or are finally starting to show some fatigue with the former president’s antics, the key to the 2022 midterms is likely to be a handful of voters in a handful of states.

The House is still likely to flip to the GOP in November even after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, though now Democrats have issues to use in suburban districts that give them at least a chance of holding additional House seats. So, if you are a voter in one of those districts, you may be more relevant than you were a week ago.

But Republicans have benefited from redistricting in the House, and four more months of inflation, possibly accompanied by talk of growing unemployment and a recession, could make substantial GOP gains in the House all but inevitable.

The midterm dynamic tends to be far stronger in the House than in Senate contests, where individual candidates matter more. So, the focus for 2022 is very much still on the midterm Senate races.

Voters in seven states will decide who controls the U.S. Senate in 2023-24: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. If Republicans net even one seat in the fall midterms, they can block President Joe Biden’s judicial, diplomatic and executive branch appointees for the rest of his term.

While some of those seven states have large populations — Pennsylvania is the fifth most populous, Georgia the eighth, North Carolina the ninth, Arizona the 14th, Wisconsin the 20th, Nevada the 32nd and New Hampshire the 41st, according to the 2020 census — only a handful of voters in each state will decide who wins their 2022 Senate races.

That is because most voters are reliably Republican or reliably Democratic. They may well tell you that they are independents who cast their votes depending on their evaluation of the candidates, but that is usually poppycock. Most are closet partisans who vote consistently for one party or the other but like the idea of being “independent.”

Since each of the seven states is almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, those partisans generally don’t decide who wins. It is true swing voters — “soft” Democrats, and “soft” Republicans in those states who have the power to pick winners in any statewide contest. 

Traditionally, turnout in midterm elections is significantly below that in presidential years, so part of the parties’ electoral calculations includes their ability to turn out out voters who otherwise would not show up at the polls in a typical midterm.

In most of these states, the handful of crucial voters come from one of two demographic categories. Either they are minority voters who don’t always turn out — such as in Philadelphia, DeKalb County (Atlanta) or Nevada, for example — or they are suburban white swing voters, who are fiscally conservative but culturally progressive and live and work in places like the Philadelphia suburbs, the Atlanta suburbs, and Maricopa County (Phoenix).

Candidates matter in the handful of competitive House races in 2022, but they will matter much more in the fight for the Senate. Senate campaigns spend dramatically more money and get far more media attention than do House contests, and voters get to know Senate hopefuls better than they do House candidates. Moreover, few House districts are competitive.

Swing voters and base turnout will be crucial in a state like Georgia, where Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Senate hopeful Raphael Warnock squeezed out narrow victories in 2020. Warnock beat appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler 51 percent to 49 percent, a margin of about 95,000 votes out of 4.5 million cast.

Warnock is likely to win or lose narrowly in November, depending on whether minority voters turn out and whether suburban women are more upset about inflation or the Republican Party’s continued veer to the right — as well as the Supreme Court’s decisions.

The same is true in Pennsylvania, where blue-collar Democrat John Fetterman and TV celebrity and Trump-backed Republican Mehmet Oz are expected to be locked in a close contest.

Can Fetterman turn out minority voters and people in the Philadelphia suburbs the way Biden did (carrying the state by 80,000 votes in 2020), or will Fetterman underperform among those groups in November the way Hillary Clinton did (losing the state by 45,000 voters in the 2016 presidential race), increasing the likelihood of an Oz victory? A relative handful of voters will decide.

In Arizona, Democrat Mark Kelly defeated appointed GOP Sen. Martha McSally 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent — a margin of about 80,000 votes out of 3.3 million votes cast for the two nominees. Can Kelly hold the suburbs in 2022 without Trump on the ballot and with inflation among voters’ top concern?

The one thing that is almost inevitable is that the winners will claim a mandate and act as if they won decisively. In fact, it is likely that relatively small percentages of swing voters — as well as turnout rates — will separate the winners from the losers.

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Photos of the week ending April 19, 2024