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Opinion Democrats should avoid past errors in the 2022 Senate races

Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) during a confirmation hearing for Deb Haaland, President Biden's nominee for interior secretary, on Feb. 24. (Leigh Vogel/Bloomberg)

As of this writing, five Republican senators have announced they are not running for reelection in 2022: Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rob Portman of Ohio. It is very possible that two additional Republican senators — Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — will also decide to hang it up. So far, no Democrats have announced they are departing.

Before Senate Democrats get too excited about the prospect of expanding their majority — and perhaps no longer being hostage to the whims of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III or Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — they would do well to recount some recent history.

At first, 2020 looked very promising for Democrats. At one point, six to nine seats seemed to be in play. In the end, they barely crawled to a 50-50 tie. Candidates can falter (as Cal Cunningham did in North Carolina with a sexting scandal), fizzle (as Theresa Greenfield did in Iowa), or fail to overcome Republicans’ huge advantage in red states (e.g., Kentucky).

Second, while the disgraced former president will not be on the ballot in 2022 and turnout will be lower, Democrats still should be wary of dumping millions of dollars into a deep-red state simply because they are taken with a specific candidate. Should they start pouring millions into Alabama or Missouri, it would be wise to recall the tens of millions of dollars wasted in Kentucky, Iowa and Alaska in 2020. In other words, run everywhere but prioritize carefully. The most enticing states — Pennsylvania, North Carolina and potentially Wisconsin — will need the most resources.

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Third, Democrats better start outreach and registration now, if they haven’t already. Georgia did not turn blue in a single election cycle. It took years of organizing and litigating before it elected two Democratic senators and a Democratic nominee for president. Democrats would do well to press in states in which Republicans are already running into MAGA backlash.

The Cook Political Report notes, “According to data compiled by Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer, 20,218 registered Republicans are now unaffiliated voters, by far the most significant spike among groups changing their party affiliation. Those GOP voters who switched largely came from the suburbs — 31% from surrounding suburban counties and 28% from urban suburbs.” The unaffiliated category is taking from both sides, although more from the GOP. North Carolina Democrats need to focus on women, increasingly diverse suburbs and college-educated voters — hoping they will turn out as they did in the 2018 midterm elections.

Fourth, especially in red states, Democrats should remember 2018 and 2020: Progressives may win some primaries and then hold on to already-blue seats, but pickups in previously red states usually come from well-positioned center-left Democrats who can forge a coalition across racial and ideological lines (e.g., Mark Kelly of Arizona).

After 2020, Democrats descended into bickering about the impact of “defund the police” messaging. Some research suggests it hurt them with Hispanics:

Finally, Democrats should look at 2022 as not only a midterm opportunity but as a dress rehearsal for 2024. That means building up their voting lists, establishing a presence among communities with infrequent voters, listening to what voters care about and building up a diverse get-out-the-vote operation. With voting rights under attack, Democrats will need to prepare for an election with possibly reduced absentee and early in-person voting, shortened voting hours and longer lines.

Read more:

Edward B. Foley: Saving voting rights is an emergency. Here’s a modest fix Republicans might support.

Eugene Robinson: Democrats shouldn’t wait for Republicans to come to their senses

Max Boot: The Andrew Cuomo scandal highlights Republicans’ appalling double standard

Henry Olsen: Why Mike Pence might be a weak presidential candidate

Brian Klaas: Meet the Republicans who want to end the electoral college