The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans seek a U.S. Senate takeover in 2022 but struggle over candidates

Sean Parnell announces his candidacy for the U.S. Senate in McCandless, Pa., on May 11, 2021. (Steve Mellon/AP)
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The national environment could hardly look more favorable to Republicans one year before the midterm elections, with declining approval for President Biden, growing pessimism in the country and spiking prices for essentials like gasoline and milk.

But Republican struggles to settle on candidates have left some wondering whether the party will blow its big chance to retake the U.S. Senate.

The party’s front-runner in Pennsylvania, Sean Parnell, is awaiting a judge’s ruling on accusations, which he denies, that he choked his estranged wife and hit one of his children. The top-polling Missouri GOP candidate, former governor Eric Greitens, is trying to downplay his resignation from office after allegedly tying up his mistress in the basement of his marital home. And in Georgia, the party’s likely nominee, Herschel Walker, is bracing for a Democratic advertising assault about his ex-wife’s claims that he threatened her with a gun.

Competitive primaries elsewhere have pushed the debate in the Republican Party far outside the comfort zone of general election strategists, as the candidates fall over each other to indulge former president Donald Trump’s election conspiracy theories. To top it all off, the party’s top Senate recruit, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, shocked party insiders last week by saying he didn’t want the job.

The challenges have forced Republicans to play defense, often against fellow members of their own party, in multiple states that Biden won in 2020, like Georgia, Arizona and Pennsylvania. The prospect of fierce and damaging primaries in some states risks weakening candidates for a general election, when Republicans seek to win over voters who previously rejected Trump.

Some Republican strategists, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to criticize the party’s midterm strategy, said they are concerned about a possible return to dynamics that defined the 2010 Senate elections, when Republicans failed to reclaim the Senate despite a massive win in the House. GOP candidates that year included Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who declared herself “not a witch” in a campaign spot, and Nevada’s Sharron Angle, who made false claims about sharia law taking over parts of the country.

“The great misperception in politics is that these things just work themselves out,” said one Republican strategist. “When you do that you end up with witches.”

Other Republicans have argued that the national environment is so bad for Democrats that the primary fights and personal baggage of Republicans will fade into the background by next November.

Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based strategist, helped to run the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 1994, when Republicans defied early expectations and won eight Democratic-held seats. He said he sees a similar environment developing this year, anchored in rising economic concerns of voters amid worsening inflation.

“I don’t think it is a question of, ‘Oh this person has a blemished record,’ ” Carney said. “There is a frustration and anger that is worse than the tea party in 2010.”

At stake in the Senate is the trajectory of the Biden presidency before the 2024 elections. Not only is the future of the Democratic legislative agenda on the ballot, as it is in the race for the House, but a Republican Senate majority could also create a vast bottleneck in confirming Biden’s executive and judicial nominees, including potential Supreme Court vacancies. And it would put committee gavels — with agenda-setting and, in some cases, subpoena powers — into the hands of lawmakers with a vested interest in electing a Republican president in 2024.

Republicans need only a one-seat net gain to win control of the chamber, which is currently split 50-50, with Vice President Harris delivering tiebreaking votes to Democrats.

How the 2022 Senate map is shaping up

The off-year election results this month in Virginia, New Jersey and bellwether suburban districts elsewhere in the country showcased a dismal political environment for Democrats, with a consistent swing toward Republicans compared with the 2020 election results.

In Virginia, where Biden secured a 10-point victory last year, Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin won narrowly over former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe. In New Jersey, where Biden won by 16 points, incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy barely eked out a win over GOP businessman Jack Ciattarelli, and elections in Pennsylvania, New York and Texas demonstrated a similar shift against Democrats, particularly in crucial suburban areas.

The Fix’s Aaron Blake breaks down what the Virginia and New Jersey elections results could mean for the 2022 midterm elections. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Disapproval of Biden’s job performance has continued to grow nationally since those defeats, as has the share of Americans who believe the country is on the wrong track, according to polling averages. Rising costs of staples like groceries and heating oil have also popped up as a major concern for middle-class voters.

“It sounds silly to the elite, because they only get the organic peanut butter and they don’t make these decisions,” Carney said. “These families have to make decisions, and it is embarrassing to bring back home no-brand peanut butter.”

Democratic strategists acknowledge the political head winds that candidates will face next year — including the historical tendency for the incumbent president’s party to lose congressional seats. But several said they remained confident that the economic situation would improve in the coming months, that incumbents stand to reap political dividends once they complete passage of Biden’s domestic agenda, and that Democrats will match up favorably with the Republican nominees in key campaigns.

Senate candidates, they say, will be hard-pressed to replicate Youngkin’s careful two-step, which involved securing the nomination in a unique, low-turnout party convention and then pivoting to the center in the general election and assiduously keeping some distance from Trump — while turning out his voters.

“We’ve seen in multiple Senate cycles that flawed Republican candidates can become a major problem for their party in Senate races,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “And quite candidly, there isn’t a Glenn Youngkin running in Senate races across the map.”

That view was only bolstered this past week by Sununu’s decision to pass on a Senate run while savaging the institution that Republicans including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had aggressively wooed him to join.

“The more I spoke to some of the folks in Washington, I realized that you know what, I have been criticizing Washington for a long time and I guess I was right,” Sununu said about his decision to instead run for reelection as governor. The decision also did not bode well for GOP efforts to lure two other popular, moderate governors to challenge Democratic incumbents, Doug Ducey of Arizona and Larry Hogan of Maryland, both of whom have denied an interest in Senate campaigns.

Scott has said he will not involve himself in GOP primaries, despite his push to get Sununu to run. He maintained his confidence last week, even after Sununu bowed out.

“The grass roots energy is on our side. The map and the data are on our side. Most importantly, the American people are on our side,” Scott said in a widely circulated memo.

GOP strategists note that Democrats have primary issues of their own: In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the party’s best opportunities to flip Republican-held seats — candidates are eager to appeal to an increasingly liberal base. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, an unabashed supporter of socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is outpacing more moderate challengers in fundraising and public polls.

The conservative group Club for Growth has endorsed six Republican candidates for Senate, including the Trump-backed Reps. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). The group’s leader, David McIntosh, says the concern about a repeat of 2010 is unfounded fear, and blamed the concern on the party’s moderates.

“They want to elect moderate, squishy Republicans who will fall into line when they get elected. Voters are looking for candidates who will fight,” he said. “We have a lot better, stronger candidates on the right than we did back then.”

But the tensions inside the party are likely to grow in the coming months. Trump has been encouraging former senator David Perdue’s possible primary challenge against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who declined to indulge Trump’s election fantasies. Similar GOP divisions over the 2020 result proved disastrous earlier this year, when Democrats won two Senate runoff elections in Georgia amid depressed Republican turnout.

Republican candidates in Ohio, where Democrats have a well-known candidate in Rep. Tim Ryan (D), have been publicly feuding as they run to the right to prove their fealty to Trump. In Arizona, one Senate candidate, Attorney General Mark Brnovich, has launched a new investigation into potential election irregularities in 2020, while the other, Blake Masters, announced last week, “I think Trump won.”

“For decades in Arizona, the thought was all you had to do was win the Republican primary, and then you would win the general election,” warned Doug Goodyear, a veteran Republican strategist in the state who is close to Ducey. “It’s not that way anymore, and the swing voters are in the suburbs.”

Democrats, meanwhile, need to deliver on their domestic policy promises — and fast — to draw an effective contrast with Republicans in the coming months.

House Democrats gave Biden a signature win this month, finally clearing a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that had languished amid internal fights over the rest of the party’s domestic agenda. But moderates and liberals are still wrangling over the details of the unfinished Build Back Better social spending bill, with no clear timeline for completion.

“It has to get done, because at the end of the day, we need to drive a pretty clear contrast between extremism and conspiracy and misplaced priorities on one end, and on the other end, competence,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic pollster who previously worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Key Democratic incumbents up in 2022 — particularly Mark Kelly in Arizona and Raphael G. Warnock in Georgia — have already raised enormous sums for their reelection campaigns, and they are under pressure to begin spending down their war chests quickly to combat the difficult environment. Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), for instance, aired her first campaign ads in September — more than a year before the general election — and Biden is due to visit New Hampshire this week to tout the new infrastructure bill, and presumably Hassan.

“I would not encourage people to wait,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic media consultant and former DSCC political director. “We have to be really aggressive and disciplined in talking about all of the ways that Democrats have been effective.”