An Early Look at the 2022 Senate Contest

We love covering Senate elections here at The Postrider, and after some narrow misses in our 2020 forecast (we stacked the odds against some candidates that won but were pretty accurate by being far more conservative than other outlets with our overall forecast of Democrats controlling between 50-51 seats), we’re anxious to watch the races again in 2022. 

The Senate currently consists of 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and two independents who caucus with the Democrats. Since Democrats control the White House and thus, the vice presidency, this effective 50-50 breakdown with the vice president breaking the tie gives Democrats the most narrow possible control of the upper house of Congress. 34 of these Senate seats are up for election in 2022 and though the incumbent party generally loses House seats in the midterm — on average, 27 seats, to be specific — that does not necessarily bear out for Senate elections. Because only a third of the chamber is up for reelection and senators, by nature of representing entire states as opposed to drawn districts, are exempt from gerrymandering, it’s plausible (as happened last midterm, wherein Republicans suffered through a Democratic wave election but gained seats in the Senate) that this may not portend doom for the Democrats and their narrowly-held Senate majority.

Unfortunately for Democrats, unlike 2020 when they competed over a wide swath of states with an incredibly strong slate of candidates, the number of competitive races in 2022 puts them at a disadvantage. Here’s a look at the map:

Light blue indicates Democratic-held seats; light red indicates Republican-held seats; dark red indicates Republican-held seats in which the incumbent is retiring; gray are states in which there is no Senate election this year

Only seven of these states were decided by under 5% in the 2020 presidential election: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. That’s a not-insignificant difference from the last midterm in 2018, where there were nine Senate races that were decided by under 5% in the 2016 presidential election.1This includes both the regular and special Senate elections in Minnesota in 2018. It may seem promising for 2022 that five of those seven states were won by Joe Biden but it is a discouraging sign for Democrats that the state he won by the largest margin of these was Nevada, which he won by 2.4%. In fact, Biden won each of Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin by under a single percentage point. In 2020, Biden received about 4.5% more votes than Trump overall, which means every single one of these 2022 races in “close states” is taking place in a state that is more Republican than the country as a whole. So calling any of these states (with the possible exception of Nevada, which we will get into shortly) Democratic-leaning would be an overstatement.

Democrats on the Offense

Republican incumbents retiring in Ohio (which went for Trump by 8% in 2020, making it roughly 12.5% more Republican than the nation overall), North Carolina (Trump by 1.4%; 5.9% more Republican than the nation overall), and Pennsylvania (Biden by 1.2%; 3.3% more Republican than the nation overall) would seem like a good sign for Democrats, who have yet to have any retirees on their slate. But Ohio is likely far too conservative for Democrats to pick up at this point. This leaves North Carolina (which has been the Lucy pulling a football away from the Democrats’ Charlie Brown for about 12 years running following notable Democratic losses there in the 2012 presidential, 2014 Senate, 2016 presidential and Senate, and 2020 presidential and Senate races) and Pennsylvania the best pick-up opportunities for Democrats. If that “best” seemed a little stressed given how much I’ve now warned you that these states are both more Republican than the nation as a whole and midterms generally see the president’s party receive fewer votes, you’re picking up what I’ve been trying to put down.

The other two Republican-held seats that could be potential pickups for Democrats, Florida and Wisconsin, both have Republican incumbents who appear to be seeking reelection. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin is currently uncommitted to seeking a third term — probably because he promised he’d only serve two — but has been stirring up fresh culture war and anti-vaccination controversy, and has not indicated he’s not running so, judge that as you will. Marco Rubio of Florida is running for reelection. Both have been endorsed by Trump, for what that’s worth. Both states have become more Republican relative to the national mood in the last few cycles, so trying to overcome the incumbents in what may be a GOP-leaning year may pose a challenge for Democrats. Johnson is the easier candidate to unseat, and Biden is clearly invested in restoring the Democratic Party’s brand in the state, but the truth is that “Midwestern nice” Wisconsin — like Kansas before it — portended the toxicity of American politics we live with now, and enabled the rise of a more radical right. 

Democrats on the Defense

So we’ve covered the offense: Democrats can at least try to win in Pennsylvania and North Carolina where there will be open seats, with a possible stretch opportunity in Wisconsin. Where can Republicans strike back to reclaim control of the chamber?

The GOP’s easiest target is Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia — who won a miracle of a double-whammy special election runoff back in January. Georgia is changing, and an impressive Democratic organization there has helped turn the state into a competitive one. But, much like Colorado (and arguably North Carolina) before it, it can take a while for such changes to become fully entrenched. Barack Obama may have been the first Democrat to win Colorado twice since FDR, but 2014 still saw an incumbent Democratic senator unseated in favor of a Republican challenger. Expect a “two steps forward, one step back” narrative for Democrats in Georgia too, especially with Georgia’s steps to limit voting. Warnock is a strong candidate but even a perfect candidate would face headwinds in this race.

After Georgia, the Republican’s most promising pickups are in the Southwest: Arizona and Nevada. Arizona is probably less competitive than it’s being billed. Incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly is a very strong candidate, remains popular in the state, and Arizona’s independent streak and diversifying demographics took it in a decisively anti-Trumpian direction in the last four years. Kelly outperformed Biden by about 2% in Arizona in 2020, which gives him a further buffer, as does his newfound incumbency. 

Nevada, on the other hand, is probably slightly more competitive than it’s being billed. Incumbent Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, who we’ve profiled on this site before, is fresh off her spell managing Senate Democrats’ campaign arm for the 2020 cycle. The first and only Latina in the Senate, Cortez Masto took over Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid’s seat in 2017 after a three point victory in the 2016 election, slightly overperforming Hillary Clinton, who also won Nevada. She’s doing everything right in a diverse, concentrated, and very purple state; she’s got a lot of money in her war chest too, built up from personal goodwill, Reid’s machine in Nevada, and her stint in charge of the Democrats’ Senate campaign this past cycle. She seems likely to face Adam Laxalt, a descendent of another big name in Nevada, Cortez Masto’s successor as state attorney general, and a one time candidate for governor. The problem for Democrats is that while Nevada has voted for Democrats in the last four presidential elections and they scored a major Senate victory there in 2018, the margin for them has barely budged.2And arguably has actually decreased over the last decade given it voted for Obama by 55% and 52%, but Clinton by 48% and Biden by 50%. Yes, 70% of the voting population lives in one major urban area, which is promising for Democrats who rely on Clark (home to Las Vegas) and Washoe (home to Reno) counties to run up their margins. But, the state is caught in the middle of two powerful demographic forces: a large proportion of non-white voters (the state is about 30% Hispanic) and a large proportion of the population with less than a bachelor’s degree.3Only 25.7% of those aged 25 or older in Nevada have a bachelor’s degree or more, which is only more than five other states: Kentucky, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Expect the Nevada race to get increasingly more attention as we head into 2022.

And finally, if Republicans are having a good year and are able to recruit current Governor Chris Sununu to run against incumbent Senator Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, that race could be in play too. New Hampshire took a pretty hard swing towards Democrats in 2020 but Sununu won reelection on that same ballot by over 30%. If there was a race that is not there yet but could become competitive if the pieces align for Republicans, it’s New Hampshire.