With Joe Biden in a steady lead over Donald Trump, and the battleground state landscape looking pretty favorable, Democrats are optimistic about their chances of winning back control of the Senate for the first time since 2014.
But then what? Would control flip back to Republicans in a 2022 midterm election? After all, last time Democrats took the White House away from Republicans, they lost six Senate seats in the ensuing 2010 midterms.
At Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Louis Jacobson looks ahead at the next couple of Senate cycles and suggests 2022 may not be so bad for Democrats even if they are playing defense and Joe Biden is in the White House.
Senate seats are divided into three “classes,” so that a third of the chamber is up every two years. And as it happens, seats currently held by Democrats are heavily concentrated in Class I, which was up last year and will be up next in 2024. In fact, nearly half (23 of 47) Democratic senators are in that class, which reflects the fact that its recent elections have all been held in relatively strong Democratic years (2006, 2012 and 2018).
But that also means that Class II (up this year) and Class III (up in 2022) skew heavily Republican, creating more targets for Democrats.
Jacobson assigns “vulnerability points” for senators based on past election performances and trends in their states. He finds that 14 of this year’s batch of Republican senators have at least one indicator of vulnerability — Martha McSally has four, and Cory Gardner and Susan Collins have three. Democrats have only six senators with vulnerabilities — though Doug Jones of Alabama is particularly exposed, with three areas of vulnerability. Democratic gains appear very likely, and the only question is whether Democrats can pick up three net seats (which is what they need if Joe Biden wins the presidency and his running-mate takes the tie-breaking gavel of the Senate).
For 2022, Jacobson finds eight Republicans with vulnerabilities, with Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin having three areas of weakness. He identifies just five Democrats with vulnerabilities, none of them having more than two. Unless it’s a disastrous midterm for Democrats, they should be able to hold onto the Senate and possibly could even make gains.
In 2024, Democrats have 16 senators with vulnerabilities, as opposed to just three Republicans in similar peril. Their main hope for holding onto the chamber would be a successful Biden administration with a popular president — or perhaps a popular designated successor — running for a second Democratic term. If you are going to have a hyper-vulnerable Senate class when your party controls the White House, it’s good to expose it in a presidential year rather than a midterm.
But the starting point for a Democratic era of Senate control is this November.