2022 Midterm Preview: A First Look at the Senate

Well, now that we’ve all made it through the Georgia runoffs, the Capitol riots, Biden’s inauguration, the Superbowl, the second impeachment trial, and The Queen’s Gambit, all in about a six-week period, everyone must surely be spending this Presidents Day thinking about the midterm elections, which are not even twenty-one months away. Right?


What? Is the Toteboard out of its fucking mind? Warnock and Ossoff haven’t even figured out where all the congressional restrooms are, so can’t we please have a break from politics and elections for just a little while? At least until most of us have gotten our Covid vaccinations, for crying out loud?


Actually, the Toteboard really does sympathize. This entire election cycle, not to mention Trump’s pustular presidency itself, has brought us all to the point of physical and emotional depletion, which has been horribly exacerbated by that nearly yearlong pandemic out there just waiting to jab its spikey thumbs in all our eyes. And so as we try to recover from the accumulated exhaustion and regain some modicum of equilibrium, it all just seems so unfair that the politicians and the journalists and the Toteboard are already springing another election on us, and that the DNC and Nancy Pelosi and anyone else who has our contact information are already soliciting donations from us for the next round. Don’t we even get to enjoy a rest period, even a brief one, between campaigns? Isn’t that the way it used to be?


Well, yes and no. While it may have appeared to regular folks that there were once interregna between election cycles, the “invisible primary” would actually pretty much always begin the morning after election day. Party organizations at both national and local levels would begin the process of strategizing for the future, identifying potential battlegrounds, and recruiting candidates, while incumbents and potential challengers alike would begin competing for endorsements, soliciting donations (mainly from big-ticket contributors), establishing PAC’s, and otherwise jockeying for position. But the 24-hour news cycle has brought this previously sub rosa process out into the open, and the ubiquitous world of cellphones, email, and social media has given the players cheap and easy access to would-be supporters. The parties may not be able to afford to send seven million postcards to their respective bases every few days, but they can text and tweet and robocall to their little heart’s delights, all without particularly denting much of their budgets. Whether we like it or not, the invisible primary has become very visible.


And one could even argue that the paint-still-drying impeachment trial was the opening salvo in the 2022 elections, as at least some of the participants on both sides were burnishing their credentials in order to protect existing positions or lay the groundwork for future ambitions. No weary rest for the rest of the weary.


That said, the Toteboard does feel justified in offering a sneak preview of the Senate midterms, which as we all know will be pretty damn important for Biden if he is to maintain any momentum for his policies and programs. And as you might have expected, there are some complicated, and competing, narratives that serve as prolegomena to the battles yet to come, in both branches of Congress.


THE 2022 MIDTERMS: A NARRATIVE OVERVIEW


1. The Traditional Pattern. It’s fair to say that that historically speaking, the incumbent party generally does not do very well in the midterms, in either the House or the Senate. Sometimes, in those “wave” elections, they can really get creamed. The democrats lost 63 House seats in Obama’s first midterm, 54 in Clinton’s first, and 72 (!) in FDR’s second, and lost an average of about 9 Senate seats in each of those three elections. Historically, the curse is fairly bipartisan too, as the republicans lost 40 House seats in Trump’s first midterm, 48 during Ford’s only midterm, and 48 in Eisenhower’s second (Ike also lost 12 Senate seats that year). If you want to go back into some ancient history, the numbers get even wilder. Warren Harding lost 77 seats, Grover Cleveland lost 127, Benjamin Harrison lost 93, and Ulysses Grant lost 93, which was a pretty big deal at a time when there were only 283 House seats in total! Sometimes this is the result of some genuine backlash against the incumbent party, but more often it is simply a predictable counter-balance to the incumbent party’s over-performance during the earlier presidential election, i.e., the proverbial pendulum swinging back to center. But this pattern isn’t carved in stone, and there have been times when the public was especially enthusiastic about a new president’s mandate, or wanted to show support during a time of national crisis, or decided to punish the opposition party for overreach and/or assholerie. And so, FDR and JFK both netted Senate seats in support of their respective New Deal and New Frontier programs, Bush 43 gained ground waving a flag in the aftermath of 9/11, and Bill Clinton managed a slight net plus when Newt Gingrich tried to recast publicly lying about marital infidelity into a high crime or misdemeanor. And on rare occasion, not much happens, as with Bush 41’s relatively dull single midterm. So, history suggests that the democrats enter 2022 at a disadvantage, but how Biden manages these next two years will of course be the biggest independent variable.


2. A Favorable Map. If history wants to favor the republicans, the actual electoral map itself shows a modest advantage for the democrats, who are defending only 14 seats, compared to 20 for the republicans, with perhaps a handful in play on each side. Still, that’s not as good a map as the democrats had three months ago, when they did tip the Senate, but missed a golden opportunity to pad that majority even more. In any event, what happens when the traditional historical pattern and a specific election map point in different directions? Well, the devil’s in the details, and it just depends on which narrative gains enough momentum to subdue the other. And often, the results are mixed. In 2018, that was a “good year, bad map” election for the democrats, and though they won big in the House and successfully defended a larger percentage of Senate seats than did the republicans, the asymmetry was just too much to overcome, and they ended up losing a net of two seats. If 2022 does turn out to be a “bad year, good map” election for the democrats, then we’ll just have to see how it all shakes out.


3. An Ambiguous Mandate. Biden won the presidential election decisively . . . sort of. Yes, he outpaced Trump by more than seven million votes, and secured a comfortable 300-plus electoral votes, but only by the grace of three or four very close states. Add to that the somewhat anemic democratic performance in the Senate and the loss of a dozen-plus House seats, and Biden seems to have won with a kind of backasswards mandate, i.e., a clear popular vote victory but not enough coattails to cover anyone else’s derriere. It’s not clear what this means for elections in the near-future (or for the present, for that matter). Is the public nervous about Biden, only ready to give him a qualified mandate, and ready to yank his power if he doesn’t perform? Or does Biden actually have room now to grow, i.e., to satisfy or exceed expectations and then win over voters who weren’t quite ready to go all in with the democrats? It seems like either scenario is possible, creating further uncertainty about which narrative will come to dominate.


4. The Splitters Have Split. For all the talk of historical patterns, favorable maps, and upside-down mandates, all of this may end up being trumped by the simple fact that because of the country’s hyper-partisan mood, ticket-splitting is at an all-time historical low, and it might just be that voters end up choosing senators in accord with their state’s respective colors. In fact, only six states now have “split” Senate delegations (three of which are in the 2022 mix), a far cry from when Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley would both routinely win by landslides in Iowa, and an even farther cry from 1962, when New Hampshire-ites re-elected an incumbent republican by twenty percentage points, but on the very same day elected the democrat in a special election for a vacant seat by a comfortable margin. And so, what would happen if the states all vote according to color, i.e., with the Reds and Burgundies all voting republican and the Blues and Indigos all voting democratic? Well, the good news is that the democrats might actually gain two seats (figuring in the pair of true Purples as well). Hallelujah. The less good news, however, is that those two gains are in states that Biden won by pretty tiny margins, and there are two more democratic-held seats in states he won by even tinier margins, and so we could end up staying up all night and biting our nails while we wait for Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia to decide the final results. Hmmm, now where have we heard that before? In fact, the six closest states in the 2020 presidential race, all of which were settled by less than 2.4% of the vote (!), all have senate races in 2022, three with incumbent democrats, three with incumbent republicans. In terms of the narrative(s), it really looks even money twenty-one months out. The senate may end up being decided by the slightest shift in the public mood . . . unless politics somehow turn local again, and each side picks up one or two and drops one or two.


SENATE 2022: PLAYING OFFENSE AND DEFENSE


Regardless of whether they’re getting their insights from the Toteboard, the main data-driven election analysts are in general agreement that the current field is a rather narrow one, and that the current odds for control are still a coin toss. The Cook Political Report identifies two toss-ups and four leaners (two in each direction), Sabato’s Crystal Ball and 270toWin both identify one toss-up and six leaners, and Inside Elections identifies eight seats as “in play” (four from each party), but doesn’t rate them beyond that. So here are the likely battleground states the Toteboard is watching for now:


Important Democratic Holds. These are not exactly necessary holds for the party, but it would sure be nice if they could win them all and then concentrate on adding to their margin. Here are the possible targets for the republicans, listed from the safest to least safe democratic hold.


New Hampshire. Maggie Hassan’s narrow victory over incumbent Kelly Ayotte was one of the few bright spots in the 2016 nightmare, and she is clearly well-liked in this (currently) Blue state. What’s more, New Hampshire has looked noticeably bluer in the short term, at least with regard to Trumpian populism, as it recorded one of the country’s most dramatic swings (7%) away from Trump between 2016 and 2020. That said, statistical analysis identifies New Hampshire as one of the most elastic states in the country, home to one of the last vestiges of true ticket-splitters, and capable of dramatic movement in either direction during any election cycle. Word on the streets of Concord is that Ayotte may be spoiling for a rematch, and dynastic scion Chris Sununu may be getting bored in the governor’s mansion, so this could quickly become a battle of the titans in this itty-bitty state. At the moment, it’s Hassan’s to lose, but she’d be smart to start watching her back early.


Nevada. The Toteboard recently promoted Nevada from Indigo to Blue, as it has a democratic governor and two democratic senators, and has voted democratic in four straight presidential elections. So that sure sounds like a Blue state, but you can’t take anything for granted when the margins of victory have been stubbornly (and consistently) narrow, and third party candidates continue to siphon off a lot of votes in less than predictable ways. Biden won the state by 2.39%, slightly underperforming Clinton’s margin of 2.42%, both of which are nearly identical to freshman incumbent Catherine Cortez Masto’s 2.43% margin four years ago. One might expect that Cortez Masto has a lock on the Latino vote, but as is the case in other states, Nevada’s Hispanic voters are anything but monolithic, and Trump managed to pick off more than a third of them last November. And though you wouldn’t know it from these recent results, Nevada has also historically been a fairly elastic state. The republicans haven’t started talking specific candidates yet, but you can be sure this one will be in the sights.


Arizona. Given that the polls had been showing near double-digit leads for ex-astronaut Mark Kelly, his 2.35% victory in November’s special election for John McCain’s old seat looks a little underwhelming. If anything, it demonstrates that this newly Purple state is not quite ready to turn Blue overnight. Still, Kelly did outperform Biden (who also won the state), and the demographic trendlines do suggest further blue-ing in the coming years. It also doesn’t hurt that Arizona republicans have been eating each other since the election, and they may end up shit-listing potentially strong candidates (like the current governor) for not behaving sufficiently Trumpian. But given Arizona’s newfound status as a swing state, this will certainly be one to watch, regardless of whom the republicans nominate.


Georgia. What can we say about Georgia, the other New Purple, beyond “thank you!” Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff may have stunned the country, and even the world, with their twin runoff victories last month, but as Stacey Abrams can (and did) tell you, this was anything but an overnight success. For the last decade, Abrams and her organizations have been painstakingly building coalitions, registering new voters, and bringing people of color into more important and more visible party roles, and it finally paid off bigly. If Stacey challenges incumbent governor Brian Kemp to a rematch in 2022, the Abrams-Warnock ticket should be able to tap into the same constituencies that turned the state Blue in November and January. But there are still a lot of republicans out there in rural Georgia, Biden’s 0.24% victory hardly qualifies as a rout, and the republican apparatchiks are already introducing an abundance of voter-suppression legislation, in their perverted effort to bring Georgia back to its Jim Crow days. What’s more, you (probably) won’t have Trump blathering about rigged elections and telling his crazies to sit on their hands, so the democrats can’t let down their guard on the turnout front. But as is the case with Arizona, the republicans here are bickering as well, and blaming one another for their losses, which is actually kind of funny. Trump acolyte Doug Collins castigates Kelly Loeffler for having felt entitled to her Senate appointment, and Loeffler castigates Collins for having felt entitled to challenge her in the primary, and both of them (along with the equally deposed David Perdue) still vent their frustrations on election officials who don’t believe the republicans were entitled to win in November and January. Regardless of which hack eventually gets the nomination, the Toteboard is hoping above hope that Dekalb County chooses to exercise its muscle once again.


The Best Targets. Fortunately, the democrats will not only be playing defense, as they have some genuine pick-up opportunities, and the field could conceivably expand with another retirement or two. There is also reason to think that some of the republicans, especially the freshman and sophomores, may be weaker than they appear at first blush. This is because they were elected during generally good republican years, i.e., Obama’s second midterm in 2010, and Trump’s upset victory in 2016, and so their previous victory margins may inflate somewhat how strong their candidacies actually are. For now, here are the republican seats the democrats are most likely to target, listed from most to least realistic possibility.

Pennsylvania. Pat Toomey’s retirement pretty much sets the stage for a free-for-all. Toomey’s seat was never exactly a safe one for the bad guys – he won by only 2.02% and 1.43% in republican years, against candidates who looked better on paper than they did on the campaign trail. The democratic lieutenant governor John Fetterman, who got a lot of airtime during Trump’s tantrum in the election aftermath, has already declared his candidacy, but both parties have fairly deep benches and we could see interesting primaries on both sides. Pennsylvania is an Indigo state, just barely it seems, and it’s smack-dab in the middle on the elasticity meter. So, this one is probably as close to a true toss-up as you can have nearly two years out. The democrats would be wise to view this one as eminently winnable, and to invest their resources accordingly.


Wisconsin. Ron Johnson inexplicably unseated the profoundly decent and intelligent Russ Feingold in 2010 by nearly 5%, and then bettered him again in a 2016 rematch by better than 3%. These are not monstrous margins, but they, along with Scott Walker’s gubernatorial victories in 2010 and 2014, were the canaries in the coalmine announcing that Wisconsin wasn’t as safely Blue as everyone had been taking for granted since about 1988. Since then, Wisconsin voters ousted Walker and split pretty much down the middle in two presidential contests, and so the Indigo-ish state is really fair game in just about any election for the foreseeable future. Johnson would be a slight favorite if he runs again, but his unapologetic Trumpism and role in the Ukraine scandal (not to mention periodic dabbling with conspiracy theories) may turn off just enough of those sensible midwestern voters. There are also rumors that Johnson may not even run – he lost his homeland security committee chair when the senate flipped (he was term limited by his party anyway), and he looks older than his 66 years – and his retirement would really throw everything up for grabs.


North Carolina. The democrats had high hopes when Obama won this Burgundy state in 2008, and Kay Hagan won the Senate seat in a landslide that same year, but since then the state has been like a flip-side to Nevada, i.e., maddeningly just out of grasp, at least at the presidential and senate levels (they currently have a democratic governor). It also didn’t help that Cal Cunningham seemed poised to flip a seat in November, until the story broke that he couldn’t keep his cellphone in his pants, and he and Biden both lost by the same narrow margin. North Carolina is probably about 5 or 6 percentage points right of the national average, perhaps a tick more, which sounds pretty intimidating, until you consider that the national average leans democratic by about 3 or 4 points, and that the state is fairly average on the elasticity meter, so it still could theoretically turn blue with the right democratic wind at its back. Republican Richard Burr has already announced his retirement (which gave him the freedom to vote to convict Trump, and suffer the subsequent heresy trial), and both sides have deep benches. The one wildcard is the rumor that Lara Trump (!) may be pursuing the republican nomination for this seat, and that would turn the whole thing into a circus. If you found it infuriating that the Bush dynasty seemed to haunt every political generation since I Love Lucy made its TV debut, the thought of having to contend with Trumps for another two decades is just too much of a mindfuck. Shoot. Me. Now.


Florida. Marco Rubio is probably going to run for another term, and he’s still well-positioned in a Burgundy state that’s probably a little redder than North Carolina. But Rubio has shown himself to be a chameleonic opportunist with no intellectual depth, and the right challenger, especially one who draws national attention, could conceivably catch fire, especially if Rubio is bloodied a bit (or even upset) by an absurd primary challenge from Ivanka Trump (yes, really). On the democratic side, the Toteboard would like to see representative and former impeachment manager Val Demings take the plunge. Demings already has a national profile, she could energize Black voters, and her background in law enforcement – her husband, the current mayor of Orange County is also a former cop – could immunize her against the “socialist” label that scares off so many Florida Latino voters. Whether or not Demings runs, what Florida and North Carolina could both really use is a Stacey Abrams, i.e., someone who has the vision to implement a long-term plan for bringing together potential coalitions and adapting the party to those coalitions. Until that happens, democratic hopes in both states will be catch-as-catch-can.


Ohio. Dull-as-dirt Rob Portman’s unexpected retirement theoretically opens the door to a democratic flip, but the big republican swings in the last two presidential elections suggest that Ohio may be hanging on to its Burgundy status by the skin of its teeth. Still, the fact that Ohioans reelected Sherrod Brown by a substantial margin suggests there’s some hope that a democrat with the right profile could bring the state back to its senses. So what would that profile be? Well, think John Glenn. Sensible, plain-spoken, solid work ethic, hip to both Rust Belt industrial and Heartland agricultural interests, no charisma – actually, is there even such a thing as charisma in the Upper Midwest? For the moment, republicans have the deeper bench, and the fundamentals on their side, but let’s keep one eye open.


Iowa. Few states have reddened as quickly and dramatically as Iowa, as it seemingly transformed over the last five years from a reliable piece of the Blue Base to a just-barely Burgundy, a la Ohio. Both Trump and Senate incumbent Joni Ernst significantly outpaced the polls (which generally showed toss-ups) and then summarily drubbed their opponents in November. And if Charles Grassley, who has been in the Senate since 1980 (!), chooses to run again, this one won’t even show up as a faint blip on the motion sensor. But Farmer Chuck will be 89 in 2022, and there’s scuttlebutt circulating that he just might not want to spend his tenth decade of life in the Senate, especially as a member of the minority party. It’s not clear who might be waiting in the wings, or if Iowa’s rightward turn was more about Trumpian populism than ideology (and therefore possibly temporary), but things at least have the potential to get interesting if Grassley steps down.


SENATE 2022 SUMMARY


Until anything happens that changes the political landscape in a dramatic way, we are looking at a midterm election cycle that may not have a whole lot of movement at all, at least in the Senate. At the moment, the most likely outcome is a swing of only 1 or 2 seats, in either direction, though that could start poking up higher if things begin to get wavy. Nevertheless, it’s actually quite important for the democrats not only to hold their majority, but also to pad that majority as best they can, and that’s not only for the purpose of advancing Biden’s agenda. The bigger concern is the Senate election in 2024, when the democrats will be defending 23 (!) of the 33 seats on the ballot, with very few legitimate targets, and a number of incumbents with bullseyes on their backs.


“Oh my God,” you may be exclaiming, “Who’s already thinking about the 2024 election?”


Actually, who isn’t?