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. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is still deciding. Only 1 of 14 Democratic senators who are up has announced his retirement, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), in what should be a safe state for the party.
Last week, Republicans lost out on a top potential recruit, with popular New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) opting not to challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and to instead seek reelection.
Democrats also have a structural advantage. Every two years, one-third of Senate seats are up, and where those seats lie is hugely important.
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, as reinforced by last week’s elections in New Jersey and Virginia — 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. They also arguably have better opportunities, at least on paper. 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 Johnson seeks reelection.
Potentially competitive U.S. Senate races in 2022
Held by Republicans (out of 20 seats up)
Open (Patrick J. Toomey retiring)
Open (Richard Burr retiring)
Open (Rob Portman retiring)
Held by Democrats (out of 14 seats up)
Raphael G. Warnock
Catherine Cortez Masto
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 President 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. Sununu’s decision not to run leaves less-heralded options in a blue-trending swing state, which went 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 Democrats 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 structural imbalance isn’t as great for the president’s party in 2022, but it could be significant.
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, where Republicans are able to re-draw many more districts in their favor after the 2020 Census.
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 the Democratic Party.