The announcement of Joe Biden’s first group of federal judicial nominees helps dramatize the value to Democrats of holding the White House and the Senate at the same time, aside from the value of a governing trifecta in terms of enacting the party’s legislative priorities. So even if Democrats lose control of the House in the 2022 midterms, as history (buttressed by redistricting) suggests they might, it’s important to Biden’s legacy to hang onto the Senate at least through his current term in the White House. And if you take a look at the midterm Senate landscape, it’s not that much of a reach.
But first let’s look at history. The very high number of midterms in which the president’s party loses House seats (17 out of the 19 since World War II) isn’t quite matched in Senate races (11 out of 19 over the same period). The most obvious reason is that only one-third of the Senate is up in any one cycle, which means the playing field can sometimes be skewed in the direction of the president’s party even if it’s having a bad year overall.
For example, in 1970, the first midterm after Richard Nixon’s election as president, 24 of the 34 Senate seats up were held by Democrats. Even though Democrats flipped Republican seats in high-profile contests in California and Illinois, and Republicans lost an additional seat in New York as third-party Conservative James Buckley beat both major parties, the GOP had a net gain of one seat in a very target-rich environment even as Democrats gained 12 net seats in the House. More recently, and even more strikingly, Republicans gained two net Senate seats in 2018 even as Democrats netted 41 House seats. It wasn’t that hard since 24 of the 33 Senate seats on the ballot were held by Democrats, including incumbents in the very red states of Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota.
The 2022 landscape isn’t as favorable to Democrats as those two were for Republicans, but it is still reasonably sunny, with Republicans holding 20 of the 34 seats at risk. It certainly helps Democrats that five Republicans are retiring in 2022, with additional retirements still possible, while so far all the Democratic incumbents are running again.
According to the Cook Political Report’s initial analysis of 2022 Senate races, six look competitive (either tossups or leaning in one direction or the other). Of those, four (including the two tossups, which involve open seats in North Carolina and Pennsylvania) are currently held by Republicans. Conditions could obviously change (possible GOP retirements in Iowa and Wisconsin could make those two seats more competitive, and if popular New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu decides to run against Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan, that race could heat up). But all things considered, Democrats don’t need a national advantage to keep the Senate.
In the meantime, of course, Democrats should pray for the health of their current senators. If a Democratic senator in the wrong state (i.e., one of the six where a Republican governor would have the power to appoint a Republican to a vacant seat) resigns or dies, Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote could become meaningless, and Mitch McConnell might regain the gavel. At that point Biden’s power in Congress might drop to somewhere near zero.