The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The House looks like a GOP lock in 2022, but the Senate will be much harder

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at a March 18 news conference in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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Redistricting will take place in almost every congressional district in the next 18 months. The party of first-term presidents usually loses seats in midterms following their inauguration — President Barack Obama’s Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010 and President Donald Trump’s Republicans lost 40 in 2018 — but the redistricting process throws a wrench into the gears of prediction models.

President George W. Bush saw his party add nine seats in the House in 2002. Many think this was a consequence of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America nearly 14 months earlier, but the GOP, through Republican-led state legislatures, controlled most of the redistricting in the two years before the vote, and thus gerrymandering provided a political benefit. Republicans will also have a firm grip on redistricting ahead of the 2022 midterms.

The Brennan Center has found that the GOP will enjoy complete control of drawing new boundaries for 181 congressional districts, compared with a maximum of 74 for Democrats, though the final numbers could fluctuate once the pandemic-delayed census is completed. Gerrymandering for political advantage has its critics, but both parties engage in it whenever they get the opportunity. In 2022, Republicans just have much better prospects. Democrats will draw districts in Illinois and Massachusetts to protect Democrats, while in Republican-controlled states such as Florida, Ohio and Texas, the GOP will bring the redistricting hammer down on Democrats.

The Democrats’ meager nine-seat House majority is likely to evaporate in the midterms. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) is likely to be House speaker in 2023.

Prospects for Republican gains in the 50-50 Senate are not so good. Only nine seats are really seen as “in play.” Republicans are retiring in Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Sen. Ron Johnson promised Wisconsin voters in 2016 that he would retire; he may face an uphill climb if he breaks that promise. (Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska upsets the right wing but is a reliable vote to organize the Senate, and the GOP will support her.) So five Republican seats are at risk. Only four Democratic seats are considered competitive: Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Recruitment of stellar candidates with compelling biographies is crucial to success in states where the Republicans are vulnerable, which is why so much attention will focus on the Republican primaries, especially in Missouri and Ohio.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes how a string of Republican retirements could reshape the Senate and former president Donald Trump’s role in the Republican Party. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Democrats have a long record of helping the GOP electorate choose eventual losers in their primaries, as in 2012, with the terrible candidate Todd Akin, a Missouri congressman at the time. But even when Democrats don’t play such games, the GOP periodically self-destructs, nominating a fringe candidate such as dabbler-in-witchcraft Christine O’Donnell in Delaware in 2010.

This year, all eyes are back on Missouri, where disgraced former governor Eric Greitens is attempting a return to politics via the Senate. As The Post said after he announced his candidacy on March 22, the man who left office in 2018 once faced “two criminal charges, an ethics probe, and public fallout over reports that he’d had an affair with a hairdresser and then allegedly tried to blackmail her with nude photos.” But now “the criminal charges have been dropped, the ethics case has been closed, and Greitens is aiming for a Lazarus-esque comeback.”

After hearing news of the Greitens candidacy in Missouri, a GOP insider told me, “Any Republican not named Greitens wins that seat easily.”

Greitens now says he has been “exonerated,” but as I discovered when I interviewed him last week, he seems to regard “exonerated” as an accordion term that includes not being actually cleared by any legal body or judge. Dropped charges and abandoned investigations are not exoneration.

Trump may lean toward a steadfast ally, Rep. Jason T. Smith, in the race. If Trump doesn’t stick with Smith out of loyalty, it’s hard to imagine him endorsing anyone, even rising star Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is young and out of central casting, or Rep. Ann Wagner, who brings some personal wealth to the table. A Greitens endorsement by Trump would be an invitation to an embarrassing loss just before the start of the 2024 election cycle.

In Ohio, author, lawyer and investor J.D. Vance of “Hillbilly Elegy” fame won support from Peter Thiel, the iconoclastic investor/inventor, who plunked $10 million into a super-PAC intended to help Vance win the primary. But another Marine Corps veteran, onetime state treasurer (and failed Senate candidate) Josh Mandel and former state party chair Jane Timken are serious candidates. None would bring to the Ohio race the obvious red flag that Greitens flies. All three are Trump supporters, but Vance has the “Thiel seal” and Trump surely remembers Thiel speaking for him in Cleveland at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

To regain control of the Senate, the GOP needs every break, and as many superb candidates as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, can recruit. Don’t be surprised if many forces within the party choose sides early on in every race.

Read more:

Henry Olsen: Run for office, J.D. Vance

Henry Olsen: Republicans better hope Eric Greitens’s Senate bid flops

Jennifer Rubin: Democrats should avoid past errors in the 2022 Senate races

David Byler: Why Senate Republicans start the next cycle from a position of strength

Paul Waldman: Republicans have a strategy to take back power. Here’s why it could fail.