The 2022 Midterms, Part II: Setting up the Senate

Last week, in a post I could have subtitled Doomed Democrats, I outlined the party’s nearly impossible uphill climb to hold on to their House majority. To me, it looks like Republicans taking the chamber is a lock.

But what of the Senate? In many ways, the Senate is the more important chamber. It is the Senate that has advice and consent on major presidential appointments, most notably the federal courts. A Republican-controlled Senate, for example, could deny any of President Biden’s Supreme Court nominations, as we saw in the last 11 months of President Obama’s administration, to say nothing of lower federal court nominations as well.

Meanwhile, a Republican Senate and House gives the party control of Congress. Although Biden would hold a veto pen in his hand, which may or may not have the strength to finish signing his name before his 4:00 dinner, that doesn’t mean a Republican-controlled Congress would be powerless. Swinging with Congress’s new ideology would be its appetite for oversight over the executive branch. If Republicans control both chambers, neither would be particularly likely to look into President Trump’s role in January 6. Meanwhile, a majority of both chambers would be quick to look into any Biden-related controversies, particularly ones involving his son, Hunter.

Another consequence of a Republican Senate majority: say hello, once again, to the man that keeps Democrats up at night, someone who invades their dreams before later squashing them — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, for my money the most effective leader of either chamber that I can remember.

So yes, with the House a lost cause, the race for the Senate is all the more important, with the federal courts, political investigations, and the office of Senate Majority Leader hanging in the balance. With that in mind, let’s break down the race for the Senate in 2022.

As always, I’m hoping to make you the most informed objective attendee at your upcoming social gatherings — gatherings to which I am no longer invited, which is likely due to my past objectivity. For clarity’s sake, you should understand the three essential parts of analyzing a Senate election map:

  • 1. The Senate’s current composition
  • 2. What seats are up for re-election
  • 3. Which of those seats are actually competitive

Part 1: Current composition:

Red = 2 Republican senators; Blue = 2 Democratic senators; Purple = one of each; light blue = independent that caucuses with Democrats
  • Democrats: 48
  • Independents: 2 (both caucus with Democrats, effectively giving them 50)
  • Republicans: 50
  • Wrinkle: Vice-President Harris serves as a tie-breaking vote, meaning Democrats have control of Congress at 50-50.
  • Number of seats Democrats can lose to retain majority: 0
  • Number of seats Republicans must add to attain majority: 1
  • Number of Democratic-held seats NOT up for re-election: 36
  • Number of Republican-held seats NOT up for re-election: 30
  • Number of Senate seats up for grabs in 2022: 34
    • Number of those 34 seats that areDemocratic: 14
    • Number of those 34 seats that areRepublican: 20

Quick history lesson: the Constitution set up three “classes” of Senators, each with about one-third of the chamber’s total. Fearing tumultuous elections, the founders designed the Senate so only a single “class” is up for re-election every two years, with the other two classes remaining safe until their turn is up. Since senators’ terms are six years and Congressional elections are every two years, each third of the Senate (the “class”) has its turn over a six-year cycle.

Of the 64 Senate seats not up for re-election in 2022, Democrats control 36 and Republicans 30. In the race to a majority, that’s an important starting point. The two parties are fighting over the 34 seats that are up for re-election in 2022.

Part 2: What seats are up for re-election?

This year, the “Class 3” senators up for re-election. They are found in these states:

In this map, the blue states have a Democratic-held Senate seat up for re-election and the red states have a Republican-held Senate seat up for re-election. If the color is light, that senator is running for re-election. If the color is dark, that means that senator is retiring, making it an “open” seat.

These Senate seats make up 34 of the Senate’s 100. These are Senate seats last elected in the 2016 election (an election that was otherwise unremarkable, merely resulting in a reality TV star gaining access to the nuclear launch codes).

Since Democrats start the race with 36 incumbents whose Senate terms are not up this year, they need to win 14 of the 34 available seats to get to 50 plus Vice-President Harris as a tiebreaking vote. (I’ll leave aside Democrats actually wanting to get to 52 so they won’t need to rely on Democratic senators Manchin and Sinema, two senators Democrats somehow despise more than they do any Republican.)

Since Republicans start the race with 30 incumbents whose Senate terms are not up this year, they need 21 of the available 34 to get them to a clean majority of 51.

Part 3: But which of those seats are actually competitive?

The answer: not many.

To break down the 34 elections, the gold-standard Cook Report stands ready to help. Its Senate ratings page is one of the most instructive bookmarks we can have as the year careens toward November.

The Cook Report has determined that of the 34 available Senate seats, we pretty much know how 25 of them will end up:

Considering how deeply blue or red those states are, all of those projections stand to reason. In the past, I’ve always felt comfortable allocating safe states as Cook does, and never once has it led us astray.

Equations now start to develop:

  • Democrats: 36 incumbents + 10 safe seats = 46 as new starting point
  • Republicans: 30 incumbents + 15 safe seats = 45 as new starting point
  • Available: 9 seats
    • Democrats need 4 to get to 50
    • Republicans need 6 to get to 51

Here, we see how important Democratic control of the vice-presidency is. Although the two sides start fairly evenly — 46 to 45 — the different goalposts for each side make that narrow Democratic lead more pronounced, with them needing only four of the nine remaining seats for a technical majority while Republicans need six for a mathematical one.

The remaining nine races gives us our answer — which of this year’s Senate races are actually competitive? These:

  • Arizona: Mark Kelly (D) defending
  • Florida: Marco Rubio (R) defending
  • Georgia: Rafael Warnock (D) defending
  • Nevada: Catherine Cortez Mastro (D) defending
  • New Hampshire: Maggie Hasan (D) defending
  • North Carolina: Richard Burr (R) retiring
  • Ohio: Rob Portman (R) retiring
  • Pennsylvania: Pat Toomey (R) retiring
  • Wisconsin: Ron Johnson (R) defending

Cook further ventures that the New Hampshire seat “leans” Democratic while the Florida and Ohio seats “lean” Republican, which would tie the starting point — 47 to 47 — with just 6 seats classified as “toss ups,” 3 held by each party:AZ, GA, NV,NC, PA, WI. However, since we’re still over nine months from the election, it would be premature to award those “lean” states.

Also premature would be analysis of the polling and state-specific circumstances. I’ll save that for later. For now, consider yourselves as informed as you need to be: you know the states up for re-election, you know the states that will actually be competitive, and you know how many of those states each party has to win. Not bad for a random Monday in January. You can now socially gather with confidence. Give everyone my best.

See you next time.


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