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McConnell’s grim 2022 expectations-setting

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) walks back to his office after speaking on the Senate floor. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The expectations-setting for the 2022 midterm elections is off to an early start, and this entry is a doozy.

In an appearance back in his home state of Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) downplayed the odds of Republicans reclaiming the Senate — and, by extension, him reclaiming the title of majority leader. In doing so, he suggested that “candidate quality” was a key factor.

“I think there’s probably a greater likelihood the House flips than the Senate,” McConnell said, according to NBC News. “Senate races are just different — they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.”

McConnell added: “Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country, but I think when all is said and done this fall, we’re likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly or their side up slightly.”

In one way, this merely acknowledges an emerging reality. The generic ballot has tightened in recent weeks, and polls show Republican candidates struggling in some states — such as Arizona, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania — that are key for McConnell’s path back to majority leader. Some prognosticators now have Democrats as favorites to keep their majority.

It’s also convenient for McConnell to set the bar lower in this way, such that an adverse outcome on election night is laid at the feet of those specific candidates (or perhaps someone who endorsed them), and is not seen as a referendum on the broader political strength of his party.

But viewed another way, it’s pretty striking that McConnell’s even in this position — that is, of having to manage expectations. And it’s abundantly clear that he’s not particularly happy with it.

The reason these comments land with some force is that Republicans need to pick up just one seat to regain the majority — and in midterm elections, the vast majority of the time, the party that doesn’t control the White House does gain ground.

(Also, consider President Biden’s approval ratings, which have been low enough to make the political terrain especially favorable to the GOP — though those numbers have ticked up slightly, in recent days).

Over the past century, the opposition party has gained Senate seats in 18 out of 25 midterm elections. The average shift is four seats to the opposition party.

There are, of course, exceptions. But generally they include some unusual factors.

The opposition party lost a seat in the 2002 midterms, but that was when the country was still very united after 9/11.

And it actually happened again just four years ago, in 2018, when Democrats lost two Senate seats in the only midterm under Donald Trump. But that was in large part because the election map overwhelmingly favored the GOP; each of its takeovers came in red states, and on the same day Democrats gained more than 40 seats in the House, winning back that chamber.

The 2022 election does not feature such a lopsided map. Each party has approximately five seats they must worry about defending, with three or four of them in swing states (depending on how you define that).

What it does feature is some underperforming GOP candidates — most of whom were foisted upon the GOP with the help of Donald Trump.

High on that list is Ohio’s J.D. Vance, who has trailed in most polls despite the state being increasingly red. Mehmet Oz (Pennsylvania) and Blake Masters (Arizona) both trail by double digits in the FiveThirtyEight polling average, despite running in swing states. And in Georgia, Herschel Walker trails in most polls after myriad stumbles as a candidate.

These are undoubtedly the races McConnell had in mind when he mentioned “candidate quality.” All were backed by Trump. McConnell ultimately endorsed Walker when it looked like he was a shoo-in for the GOP nod.

Polling can be unreliable, and it’s possible some of these candidates could soon consolidate support from the GOP base after hard-fought primaries. But in all of these races, Republicans should be in a better position than they appear to be — that is, if 2022 is a good midterm year, as is traditional for the opposition party. But it just doesn’t look like one right now. And a McConnell-aligned group pumping $28 million into Ohio, as we learned Thursday, is pretty indicative of where things stand.

And he doesn’t seem particularly happy about it.

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