Democrats have complete control of Washington for the first time in a decade, after winning both the presidency and the Senate in 2020.

Retaining both the Senate and the House in 2022, though, will be a tough task. The Democrats’ majorities are among the slimmest in modern history — with a 50-50 Senate and an effective nine-seat House majority — and midterms are usually very tough on a president’s party.

Republican retirements were the early story of the 2022 battle for the Senate. Five of the 20 GOP senators facing reelection — fully one-fourth of its class — announced their retirements, with several in competitive states. The GOP dodged a potentially troubling retirement this week when 88-year-old Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he would run again, but Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is still deciding. None of the 14 Democratic senators who are up have yet announced their retirements.

Those exits have reinforced the Democrats’ structural advantage. Every two years, one-third of Senate seats are up, and where those seats lie is hugely important. For now, Democrats have slightly more opportunities to win seats.

But given that Democrats have only a functional 50-50 Senate majority (with Vice President Harris breaking ties) — and given the historical midterm advantage for the opposition party — that early edge is tenuous. Losing a net of just one seat would cast Washington politics in a very different light by handing the Senate back to the GOP.

How is that battle for the Senate shaping up? Here are some basics.

The first is that Democrats are defending 14 seats, compared with the GOP’s 20. In addition to defending fewer seats — and having more open seats to attack — Democrats appear to have the better opportunities for now. Open seats in North Carolina and Pennsylvania are particularly tantalizing, given how close those states were in the 2020 presidential race and that it’s generally tougher to defeat an incumbent. Democrats could also have a good opportunity in another key swing state, Wisconsin, regardless of whether Sen. Ron Johnson (R), who is considering retirement, seeks reelection.

Potentially competitive U.S. Senate races in 2022

Held by Republicans (out of 20 seats up)
2020 result
Ron Johnson
Biden +0.6
Open (Patrick J. Toomey retiring)
Biden +1.2
Open (Richard Burr retiring)
Trump +1.3
Marco Rubio
Trump +3.4
Open (Rob Portman retiring)
Trump +8
Held by Democrats (out of 14 seats up)
2020 result
Raphael G. Warnock
Biden +0.2
Mark Kelly
Biden +0.3
Catherine Cortez Masto
Biden +2.4
Maggie Hassan
Biden +7.4

The Democrats could also have opportunities in Ohio, where Sen. Rob Portman (R) is retiring, and in Florida, home of Sen. Marco Rubio (R), but both of these once-preeminent swing states have drifted toward the GOP in recent elections and could be tough to pick off in 2022.

The GOP’s top two pickup opportunities are also readily apparent: Arizona and Georgia. Both were among the most narrowly decided states that Biden won, and both have a history of favoring Republicans. Both are home to Democratic incumbents who won their seats in 2020 special elections: Sens. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) and Raphael G. Warnock (Ga.). The GOP’s path back to a majority begins with reclaiming these two states.

Beyond that, though, obvious GOP opportunities are harder to come by. New Hampshire could be competitive if popular Gov. Chris Sununu (R) challenges Sen. Maggie Hassan (D). But it has trended in the Democrats’ favor in recent years, going for Biden by seven points last year. Ditto Nevada, where first-term Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D) is up for reelection, and the leading GOP candidate is former Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who lost a race for governor in 2018.

The big question in the battle for the Senate is whether the map assists the GOP enough in what should be a good year for Republicans. The 2018 midterms, for instance, were very good for Democrats — they won more than 40 House seats and took that chamber — but a very tough Senate map meant Republicans actually gained two seats there. The imbalance isn’t quite so great in 2022, but it could be significant enough.

Democrats’ control of the House is arguably more imperiled than their hold on the Senate. That’s a function of the Senate seats that are up for reelection as well as the lay of the land in the House.

Put plainly: Through a combination of the GOP’s inherent advantage on the House map, its control over the upcoming round of redistricting and the very narrow Democratic majority, 2022 could be very tough for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic Party.

About this story

Potentially competitive races as judged by Cook Political Report. 2020 results from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.