Idiosyncrasies of Senate Races Could Play to Dems’ Advantage

January 6, 2022

Three things make the midterm elections next November so pivotal. The first is how wafer-thin the Democratic majorities are in the Senate and the House. It’s a reflection on just how evenly divided the country is as a whole.

The second is the volatility that exists today in our national elections. According to Gallup, President Biden’s job ratings at this point in his presidency are the second-worst of any elected incumbent in the post-World War II era, ahead only of Donald Trump’s. Biden has a very real chance of becoming the fifth consecutive president to preside over the loss of both the Senate and the House while in office. In fact, in seven of the last eight elections (four midterms and four presidential years), party control of the presidency, the Senate, the House or some combination thereof have flipped—a pattern unprecedented in American political history.

The third is how consequential a change in party control of the government can be. The days of Democrats being a center-left party while Republicans were center-right, leading to substantial policy overlap between the two, are over. Today there are few major issue areas where there is any agreement at all. Party control flipping back and forth has turned public-policy development into a ping-pong game, ricocheting from the far left to the far right and back with a distressing degree of regularity.

At this point it would seem to take divine intervention, Republican self-destruction, or both to save the House Democratic majority. With every seat up simultaneously before voters every two years, the House is an amazingly accurate barometer of the prevailing political mood—something quite remarkable given how few congressional districts are actually competitive in any given election. Just as the nation’s founders intended, the synchronization between the swings of the electorate and where the parties stand in the House is breathtaking.

With only a third of the chamber’s seats up in any election, the Senate is a different ball game, its dynamics far more idiosyncratic than those in the House. When a party has an unusually strong election one year, capturing a large number of Senate seats from the opposition party, it usually means that six years later, when that class of Senate seats is next up, that party may find itself defending seats that God may not have intended for that party to ever win.

Fewer races overall (and fewer still of the competitive variety) also means that unique circumstances and events in a single state can have a huge effect on which party is gaining or losing Senate seats, or for that matter, capturing, losing, or holding a majority. That is how Presidents Nixon and Reagan could win 49-state reelection victories while their party had a net loss of two Senate seats the same night, and how Democrats could score a net gain of 40 seats in the House in 2018 while suffering a net loss of one Senate seat that same night. A year ago, Democrats lost 11 seats in the House while gaining three Senate seats. Bottom line: House and Senate results are hardly synchronized.

Of the nine Senate races currently thought of as competitive, the Democratic nominee is clear in seven. Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada are incumbents. In Florida, Rep. Val Demings is strongly favored to win the right to challenge GOP Sen. Marco Rubio. In Ohio, Rep. Tim Ryan will likely capture the Democratic nod. Finally, Cheri Beasley looks to be in the driver's seat in North Carolina, where Sen. Richard Burr is not seeking reelection. The picture is far murkier in Pennsylvania, for the open seat currently held by Sen. Pat Toomey.

Conversely, while it certainly looks likely that Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker will be the GOP nominee against Warnock in Georgia and former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt will take on Cortez Masto in Nevada, it remains unclear who the GOP nominees will be against the vulnerable Kelly and Hassan, or in the three open seats.

The remaining question mark (on both sides) is in Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson has not indicated whether he will seek reelection. The Democratic nomination is up in the air either way; if Johnson steps aside, then the GOP line will be up for grabs as well.

With the likely matchups determined in only three of those nine states at the moment, neither side has a natural advantage. Who will face whom in those other six, which party will nominate strong candidates or more-problematic ones, matters a huge amount.

Neither party is losing a lot of sleep worrying about the open seat in Alabama, where Sen. Richard Shelby is retiring, or the one in Vermont, where Sen. Patrick Leahy is not seeking reelection. The former is safely Republican, the latter safely in Democratic hands. A tenth race is not yet considered competitive, but both sides are warily eyeing Missouri. Republicans are nervous about whether the current front-runner for their party’s nomination, former Gov. Eric Greitens, is sufficiently damaged from a scandal that forced his resignation. While several Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination, some in the party are increasingly intrigued by Lucas Kunce, a former Marine who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Judge Advocate and a Yale graduate with law degrees from both the University of Missouri and Columbia University.

So Democrats’ hopes in the Senate remain alive, but they could use some help from former President Trump and his party faithful. Trump could split the party badly in his efforts to purge the GOP of any elected officials who have not pledged and exhibited sufficient fealty to him. GOP primary voters could also nominate exotic candidates who can’t win swing districts and states, much as they did during the tea-party movement in 2010 and 2012.

It has been a long time since many Democrats went to church, but given their challenge in the House this year, a little prayer might be helpful for them—and probably would not do them any harm in the Senate, either.


The article was originally published for the National Journal on January 3, 2022. 

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