Political handicappers looking to the 2022 midterms have naturally focused on House races, mostly because the Democratic margin of control is so small (five seats at present) that the very predictable pattern of midterm House losses by the president’s party makes continuation of a Democratic House a real long shot (and probably a prohibitive long shot unless Joe Biden’s job-approval rating shows significant improvement soon). The loss of either chamber, of course, means the governing trifecta that has made enactment of part of Biden’s legislative agenda possible will be gone, probably for a good while (at least until 2026, by my reckoning). But there is some independent value in continued Democratic control of the Senate thanks to that chamber’s role in confirming Biden’s executive branch and judicial nominees along with the ability to control committee and floor action in a way that gives Democrats significant leverage and opportunities for conveying their message.
Because only one-third of the Senate is up for reelection every two years, there is not the sort of predictable relationship between Senate outcomes and the general political climate. In other words, a bad year for either party in presidential, House, or gubernatorial contests doesn’t mean a bad year in Senate races if the landscape is positive. We saw that most recently in 2018, when Republicans lost 41 net House seats and seven net governorships yet picked up two net Senate seats because the landscape (with 26 Democratic Senate seats and only nine Republican Senate seats at stake) was very positive for the GOP.
The Senate landscape is modestly positive in 2022 for Democrats, who have to defend only 14 seats as compared with 20 seats for Republicans. Moreover, as Amy Walter points out, none of the 14 Democratic seats are in a state carried by Donald Trump in 2020. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending two seats in states carried by Biden in 2020, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
But at the same time, Democrats are defending three Senate seats (in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada) in states Biden carried very narrowly (he won by 0.30 percent in Arizona, 0.24 percent in Georgia, and a relatively luxurious 2.39 percent in Nevada). Republicans in the two nominally blue states whose Senate seats they control don’t have much ground to make up, either (Biden won Pennsylvania by 1.17 percent and Wisconsin by 0.63 percent). They also control an open seat in North Carolina, a state Trump won by only 1.3 percent.
To give you an idea of how much “swing” Republicans might rationally expect in a midterm, consider that Republicans won the national House popular vote by 1.1 percent in 2016 and Democrats won it by 8.6 percent in 2018. That’s a lot of movement against the party controlling the White House. Anything remotely like that in 2022 — again, controlling for state aberrations despite the trend toward straight-ticket voting in recent years — and Republicans could pretty easily sweep the six contests mentioned above, all rated as toss-ups by the Cook Political Report, and take control of the Senate by a 53-to-47 margin, assuming neither party breaks serve by winning in a less competitive state.
What may give Democrats better Senate odds is the current nature of Republican intrastate and intraparty dynamics. There are potentially fractious GOP Senate primaries in Arizona, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania that could produce nominees with real weaknesses. Moreover, in these states and others (notably Ohio, a “red” state that recently reelected a progressive Democratic senator), Trump’s insistence on turning GOP primaries into referenda on loyalty to his ludicrous 2020 election claims could interfere with the expected pro-Republican midterm trend.
Potential Trump-generated problems affecting Senate races aren’t limited to his involvement in just those races. Georgia is a classic example. Freshman Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock, who along with Jon Ossoff won by an eyelash in 2021’s unique dual general-election Senate runoff in what has become the ultimate battleground state, ought to be a sitting duck in 2022 with even a minimal midterm swing. But Trump enormously complicated Georgia politics by pushing the man Ossoff beat a year ago, David Perdue, into a primary challenge to the incumbent governor, Brian Kemp, as part of a purge effort aimed at those who didn’t support the 45th president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election results. The Perdue-Kemp primary is sure to be an extremely expensive and divisive affair. It could weaken the ultimate winner in a general election against Stacey Abrams and might spill over into the Senate race, where Republican front-runner and Trump favorite Herschel Walker hasn’t shaken questions about his background and temperament (or rid himself of primary opposition).
Divisive Republican gubernatorial primaries seem likely in Arizona and Pennsylvania, as well, and could extend to Wisconsin, where incumbent GOP Senator Ron Johnson is struggling with low favorability numbers.
Republicans should be considered the slight favorites to flip the Senate (and much stronger favorites to flip the House) in 2022, assuming Biden’s popularity doesn’t seriously improve by November. But Mitch McConnell should not be making big plans for 2023. His party’s lord and master, Trump, could screw things up yet, and you never know entirely what will happen in a wide array of competitive Senate races.