Midterms 2022, Four Weeks Out: The Senate

Last week, I reaffirmed my prediction that despite some modest momentum in Democrats’ direction, the GOP would still win the House at November 8’s midterm elections. I found that Democrats haven’t made enough progress to overcome the fundamentals working in Republicans’ favor. There is simply too much gravity pulling against the Democratic Party, and since the power of the abortion issue isn’t quite that of nuclear force or electromagnetism, I expect gravity to prevail.

But the Senate is different. Rather than being a reflection of the national political climate, as House elections tend to be, Senate elections are quirkier. Whereas all 435 House districts have elections every two years, which gives us a biannual litmus test of which party Americans hate least, senators’ staggered six-year terms mean that only about one-third of those seats are up for re-election in each federal election. This year, 35 Senate seats are up for grabs:

Wikipedia chose to put a big square in the middle of Oklahoma to reflect a special election to replace a retiring Senator‘s seat, an election that’s in addition to Oklahoma’s normally scheduled Senate election. For a second I hoped the square instead represented a proposed solar panel field to power the country. We should do that right? Why do you think the founders created the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment? It was obviously to create a big solar panel field in the middle of Oklahoma.

Of course, unlike men, all Senate elections are not created equal. Of these 35 contests, most lack drama, as they take place in solid red or blue states. We can therefore limit our analysis to the competitive races, saving all of us some time, me most importantly.

As I did back with my Senate previews earlier this year, I find it most useful to start with equations that help us identify how many safe seats each party has, so then we know how many of the remaining seats they need to win to earn their majority.

The first key number is how many seats each party has that are NOT up for re-election this year. For the Democrats, it’s 36, and for the GOP, it’s 29. Those numbers combined are 65, leaving us our 35 seats up for re-election in the 100-person chamber.

Of the 35 contests, 24 of them are considered “solid” for one of the parties, according to the Cook Report:

That’s 9 Democrat seats (which, on top of their 36 not up for re-election, brings them to 45) and 15 Republican seats (bringing them from 29 to 44).

The Cook Report’s next most confident tier shows us the “likely” races. Democrats don’t have any in that column, whereas Republicans have one: Senator Mike Lee out of Utah is likely to win six more years despite a weird race where his main challenger is a fellow Republican turned Independent who has been endorsed by a state Democratic Party that didn’t nominate its own candidate, a gambit so defeatist that it could only have been devised by Utah Democrats.

If we add all of the above together, we get the following set of equations:

  • Democrats: 36 returning + 9 solid + 0 likely = 45
  • Republicans: 29 returning + 15 solid + 1 likely = 45
  • Remaining: 10

Whoa! Feel the drama. It’s 45 apiece with an even ten to go. As of writing this paragraph, I truly don’t know which side I expect to win. I’m basically the Michael Scott of pundits.

Michael Scott Sentence GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

I’m as eager as you are to see where we end up.


For the remaining ten seats, we have to read the tea leaves. Lucky for you, I minored in tealeafology in college, so you’re in good hands.

Let’s first recognize that the goalposts for each party are different. Since the Democrats start at 45 safe seats and have Vice President Kamala “Tiebreaker” Harris (her legal name), they only need five of the remaining ten seats to get to 50 plus the VP to retain their Senate majority. The Republicans, although they also start at 45 safe seats, need six of the remaining ten to get to an outright majority of 51.

With that in mind, let’s look at The Ten Seats That Will Determine the Fate of the Senate. (I’m still workshopping the name.)


The Ten Seats That Will Determine the Fate of the Senate

Here’s a list of the 10 seats, gorgeously color-coded to show which party currently occupies them:

  • Arizona — Senator Mark Kelly (D)
  • Colorado — Senator Michael Bennet (D)
  • Florida — Senator Marco Rubio (FL)
  • Georgia — Senator Rafael Warnock (D)
  • Nevada — Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D)
  • New Hampshire — Senator Maggie Hassan (D)
  • North Carolina — Senator Richard Burr (R) — retiring
  • Ohio — Senator Rob Portman (R) — retiring
  • Pennsylvania — Senator Pat Toomey (R) — retiring
  • Wisconsin — Senator Ron Johnson (R)

Reflecting the even battle, of the 10 seats, each party currently holds five. If both parties hold on to the seats they currently have, then the 50-50 status quo continues, a fact so self-evident I feal dumber having written it. The quest, therefore, is for a party to “flip” seats controlled by the other party while minimizing the number of their own seats flipped. If each party flips the same number of seats — for example, if Democrats flip two Republican seats and Republicans flip two Democratic seats — then the status quo prevails and Democrats keep control of the chamber at 50-50, with Vice President Harris breaking ties.

Boiled all the way down, the question is whether Republicans can flip at least one more seat than the Democrats flip. Meanwhile, the Democrats would love to not only hold on to their 50 seats, but also add a seat or two to minimize the frustrations caused by their moderate senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.

So what will happen? Let’s find out.

Time for some tiers.


Tier 1: Far-fetched Flips

Of the remaining ten seats, the Cook Report considers three of them as Republican “lean” states: Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio. I think the website’s classification for these three are too timid.

PPFA considers all three as likely Republican holds. Considering it’s a Democratic president’s midterm year, it’s hard to imagine how Florida, North Carolina, and Ohio go Democratic. They’ve been light red states even in presidential years, with all three voting for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020 despite the nation voting Democratic by the popular vote. Now in a midterm with an incumbent Democratic President whose approval rating is deep under water (and all the political gravity that entails), it would make little sense for them to turn blue, even with the Dobbs variable. All three of these states’ Republican candidates lead the polls, albeit narrowly, and I expect them to grow their leads in in the final month. If we’re a week out and they’re still hanging around, we can take a closer look.

On the other side of the aisle, the Cook Report has identified a couple Democratic “lean” states that I also feel are a bit safer than that. One is Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. Biden won the state by 13 points two years ago, and the three polls from the last month show Bennet with leads of six to ten points. Bennet is surviving midterm gravity.

So, too, is New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan. The polls show Hassan with an average lead of 6.6 points, so it’s a likely hold for the Democrats. Unlike other Democratic senators lower on this list, she’s improved her position in the fall. It’s helped that the Republicans nominated Dan Bolduc, the 2020 election denier who then changed his mind after he won the primary before then later casting doubt on the election again, the rarely attempted and impossible to execute flip-flop-flip.

If my analysis in the above five states is correct, Republicans actually start at 48 (45 safe seats + 3 PPFA-awarded seats) with five states to play. Republicans winning three of those five gets them from 48 to 51, the outright majority they need to take control of the chamber. Democrats start at 47 (45 safe seats + 2 PPFA seats), and they also need to win three of the remaining states to get them to 50 plus the Vice President.

That’s right: with five states to go, I think it’s essentially a race to three.

These “Final Five” states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — will need a post of their own. This time, you won’t have to wait a week. Tomorrow, I’ll predict how they’ll go. I hope to see you then.


Today’s featured image was lifted from Senate.gov after they confiscated my photo from when I stormed the chamber with Viking horns on my head and paint splattered across my body.

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