Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the best political strategists in modern times, has long warned candidates and campaign strategists to never fall in love with the Senate map. That is, no matter which seats are up in a given election year, Senate races can be quirky and unpredictable. A late-breaking scandal or a messy primary can turn a ‘safe’ seat into a competitive one. Throw in a midterm electorate, usually primed to vote against the party in power, and even a ‘good’ map can prove to be a mirage.
Even so, the map is the best thing that Democrats have going for them in 2022. In fact, this is the first midterm election since at least 1994 that the party holding the White House doesn’t have to defend any state the president didn’t win in the previous election. All 14 seats that Democrats are defending this year voted for Joe Biden in 2020.
For a party that can’t afford to lose even one seat, not having to hold onto a state Trump carried — especially in a midterm year — is a big advantage. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending two states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that Biden narrowly carried in 2020.
The fact that fewer voters split their tickets between presidential and federal down-ballot races these days, means that this phenomenon of a party defending only seats its presidential candidate won the previous election is going to be more common.
But, it’s also true that since 1994 the party holding the White House has lost at least one seat it holds that was carried by the president in the previous election. This includes three midterm elections when the party holding the White House either gained seats in the Senate (2002, 2018) or didn’t lose any seats (1998).
Until 2014, the previous presidential margin provided little guidance as to how ‘safe’ that seat was in the midterm year, especially in a ‘traditional” midterm (read: not 1998 or 2002 when the president was overwhelmingly popular). Back in 2006, for example, Republicans were defending 15 seats; 12 of which were in states Pres. Bush had carried in his 2004 re-election campaign. If Republicans held their losses to just those states that John Kerry had won in the previous presidential race, Republicans would have held their Senate majority. But, it didn’t work that way. Instead, Republicans not only lost two blue states (Pennsylvania and Rhode Island), but also lost four red ones (Ohio, Montana, Missouri and Virginia). While Republican Senator Olympia Snowe out-performed Bush’s 2004 showing by almost 30 points, Montana’s Republican Sen. Conrad Burns underperformed in a state that Bush easily carried by 11 points.
In 2010, Joe Manchin won his West Virginia Senate race with 53 percent — an 11-point improvement over Barack Obama’s 2008 showing. Meanwhile, Democrats lost three states that Obama had carried with 54 percent of the vote or more in 2008; including Illinois, a state Obama had carried with 62 percent of the.
However, since 2014, these big swings — where a senate candidate over/underperforms the previous presidential vote — have become rare. In 2014 and 2018 the president’s party didn’t lose any of the seats they were defending that the sitting president had won by at least 53 percent two years earlier. But, they also didn’t hold onto any of the states that the president had lost two years earlier.
In 2014, Democrats lost all seven senate seats they were defending in states Mitt Romney had won in 2012. In 2018, Republicans had to defend just one seat that Hillary Clinton had carried in the 2016 election. They lost that Nevada Senate race by almost the exact margin Trump had lost it two years earlier.
That brings us to 2022. In states like Georgia and Arizona, the Democratic nominees can’t afford to drop even one point from Biden’s very narrow 2020 showing. In Nevada, a 3-point drop from Biden’s 2020 performance would put that seat in GOP hands. But, the silver lining — if history is a guide — is that Biden carried every other blue state held by Democrats up this year by at least 55 percent.
As our politics has become more and more nationalized, it’s gotten harder for an individual Senate candidate to perform much better (or worse) than the presidential nominee from his/her party. That’s both good news and bad news for Democrats. Democrats don’t need to ‘outperform’ Biden’s showing in order to hold the Senate. But, they also can’t underperform the president by even the smallest margin. And, if Biden’s job approval ratings are as anemic in November as they are today, that’s going to be a much bigger undertow for even blue state candidates to manage.
Clinton Midterms (1994 and 1998)
In 1994, Dems won all but one of the four Senate races in states Clinton lost in 1992. But, they lost FIVE races in states Clinton had won two years earlier: Maine (Open) Michigan (Open), Ohio (Open), Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
States won by Bush (R) in 1992
States won by Clinton (D) in 1992
✗ = Party in WH lost seat
In 1998, Democrats held all three of the states won by GOP nominee Bob Dole in 1996 (North Dakota, South Carolina, & South Dakota) and picked up two states won by Dole in 1996: Indiana and North Carolina. Dems also picked up a state won by Clinton in 1996 (New York).
Democrats lost three seats carried by Clinton in 1996 (Kentucky, Ohio and Illinois).
George W. Bush (2002/2006)
In 2002, Republicans held all three states carried by Al Gore in 2000 (Maine, New Mexic, Oregon). Republicans picked up one state carried by Gore (Minnesota), and one state carried by Bush (Georgia). Meanwhile, Democrats picked up one state (Arkansas) carried by Bush in 2000.
In 2006, Republicans lost two of the three states that Bush lost in 2004 (Pennsylvania and Rhode Island), AND lost four states that Bush had won in 2004: Ohio, Missouri, Montana and Virginia.
States won by Kerry (D) in 2004
States won by Bush (R) in 2004
Barack Obama (2010/2014)
In 2010, Democrats lost two of three states carried by McCain in 2008 — Arkansas and North Dakota (open). They also lost four states carried by Obama in 2008: Pennsylvania, Indiana (open) Illinois (open), Wisconsin.
States won by McCain (R) in 2008
States won by Obama (D) in 2008
In 2014, Democrats lost all seven of the states Romney had won in 2012: Alaska, North Carolina, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota (open), Montana (open) and West Virginia (open). They also lost two states Obama had carried in 2012: Colorado and Iowa (open).
States won by Romney (R) in 2012
States won by Obama (D) in 2012
In 2018, Republicans only had to defend one seat carried by Clinton in 2016. They lost that seat (Nevada). They also lost one seat carried by Trump: Arizona (open).
States won by Clinton (D) in 2016
States won by Trump (R) in 2016
Democrats do not have to defend any state carried by Trump in 2020. And, they have one open seat (Vermont) in a state carried by Biden.