Midterm Senate campaigns are a nasty, expensive exercise, and 2022 will push them to new heights.
Democrats lead the chamber — split 50-50 when factoring in the two independents who caucus with them — with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. Churning out President Joe Biden’s agenda and other progressive legislation has been a challenge with centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to appease.
Republicans, meanwhile, have history on their side and see Biden’s falling poll numbers working in their favor. But retirements by several reliable vote-getters and former President Donald Trump’s polarizing presence are potential hazards on any road back to the majority. Trump already is a major factor in primaries where he’s endorsed a candidate or where the hope of his endorsement has dictated how the candidates behave and communicate. And he has been a relentless critic of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, dividing the party and complicating the Kentucky Republican’s recruitment efforts.
At stake is control of the Senate floor — what legislation is considered and which of Biden’s executive and judicial nominees, including a hypothetical Supreme Court vacancy, are allowed to come to a vote.
Elections for 34 of the 100 seats are on the ballot next year. Most won’t be competitive. (Look for Democratic holds in states like California and New York, where Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is seeking another six-year term, and GOP holds in states like Idaho and the Dakotas.)
These are the 10 races most likely to determine which party takes the Senate.
The top 5 battlegrounds
For a few months, Georgia was the center of the American political universe. Biden painted the state the lightest shade of blue after decades of Republican wins, and Democrats flipped two Senate seats to capture control of the chamber. Now one of those winners, Sen. Raphael Warnock, is defending the seat he won in a special election in a potentially tougher political climate. A former pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, Warnock has been a progressive voice in the Senate, advocating for voting rights and economic aid to struggling Americans.
His likely opponent is Herschel Walker, a University of Georgia football hero who won the Heisman Trophy in 1982. Senior Republican strategists were skeptical of Walker’s candidacy, particularly after a report by The Associated Press, examining extensive records, highlighted a “turbulent personal history” that included threats to the life of his ex-wife, curious financial claims and business partners troubled by his unpredictable behavior. But once a “Complete and Total Endorsement” came down from Trump, the writing was on the wall. McConnell threw his support to Walker, all but anointing him the Republican nominee.
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, who won a special election in 2020, faces re-election for a six-year term next fall. A retired NASA astronaut and Navy pilot, he outperformed Biden by more than 40,000 votes in a historically red state that has become one of the most competitive in the country. He’ll need every advantage to hang on in what’s shaping up to be a tough year for the Democratic Party. And for now, it is unclear whom he’s running against.
The GOP primary is crowded and shaping up to be contentious, with early surveys showing state Attorney General Mark Brnovich in the lead. Among the candidates in contention is Blake Masters, a venture capitalist who is fully embracing phony election fraud theories, proclaiming in a recent video, “I think Trump won in 2020.” Polling is sparse, but Kelly currently has the edge. The Washington Republican establishment has sought to recruit Gov. Doug Ducey, who says he’s not interested. Trump has vowed not to endorse the term-limited Ducey after he certified Biden’s narrow victory in the 2020 election and refused to endorse his fabricated theories of widespread fraud.
Democrats have their best chance at a Senate pickup here next year with an open seat left by the retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has dominated the fundraising race and is leading his chief rival, Rep. Conor Lamb, in primary polls. Also in the race are Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
The GOP primary has already been a roller coaster, with the Trump-endorsed Sean Parnell dropping out last month amid a custody battle and abuse allegations from an estranged spouse, which he denies. Days later, the celebrity physician Dr. Mehmet Oz jumped into an already crowded Republican primary. And David McCormick, a hedge fund manager with roots in the state who is married to former Trump administration adviser Dina Powell, has launched an exploratory committee and $1 million ad push to introduce himself, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
In a hypothetical matchup, a survey by Fetterman’s pollster, Data for Progress, found him leading Oz by just 2 points — 44 percent to 42 percent — among likely voters.
Nevada is shaping up to be one of the most competitive races. Barring a shock, the matchup is set: first-term Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto is set to face the Republican former state attorney general, Adam Laxalt, who is endorsed by Trump and the favorite of the party establishment in Washington. Laxalt has dabbled in fabricated claims of a tainted 2020 election and, as co-chair of Trump’s Nevada campaign, challenged the results in the state after Biden won.
Democrats may be on a winning streak in Nevada races for federal office, but it’s close. Cortez Masto won her race by about 2.5 points in 2016, and Democrats have carried the state by less than 3 points in the two last presidential contests. Republicans have made the state competitive by running up their margins in the vast rural stretches outside the deep-blue Las Vegas metropolitan area, where Democrats need big turnout to be successful.
The Senate contest in this bellwether state is shrouded in a mystery: Will Republican incumbent Ron Johnson run for a third term? He has held his cards close to the vest and, earlier this month, punted again when NBC News asked if he’ll run. While Johnson defied skeptics in his 2010 and 2016 bids, Democrats see an opening to paint him outside the mainstream with his transformation into a culture warrior and his flirtation with the nativist “great replacement” theory. If Johnson bails, Kevin Nicholson, who lost a 2018 Senate primary, is almost certain to run, and other names from Wisconsin’s congressional delegation will be mentioned as well.
In the Democratic primary, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes has sought to solidify his early position, releasing an internal poll in the fall that shows him with a commanding lead, ahead of Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. Barnes has touted endorsements from House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., while Nelson has won the support of the Wisconsin chapter of the Sunrise Movement, a group of young progressives. Also running are state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Alex Lasry, a senior vice president with the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA franchise co-owned by his father.
Wisconsin has been a nail-biter in recent presidential elections. Trump won the state by less than 1 point in 2016 and lost it by less than 1 point in 2020.
5 other big races to watch
This open seat — Republican Sen. Richard Burr is not seeking re-election — will test both parties in a Southern state with racially diverse areas and a mix of suburban and rural voters.
Mirroring dynamics elsewhere, Trump has factored heavily in the Republican primary, endorsing Rep. Ted Budd over former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker. Walker recently acknowledged in an interview with The Associated Press that, at Trump’s urging, he is considering dropping out and running for a House seat instead. McCrory, who has statewide name recognition, has shared internal polling that shows him leading a three-candidate race.
The Granite State was the GOP’s best chance to flip a Democratic seat next year — until popular Gov. Chris Sununu, the target of aggressive recruiting, decided against running. Republicans didn’t really have a plan B, even as polls showed Sen. Maggie Hassan vulnerable in her re-election bid.
Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who lost a Senate primary in 2020, is running again. But some top Republicans in the state think so little of his candidacy that they’ve been considering whether to run themselves or draft others, including 2020 nominee Corky Messner, state Sen. Chuck Morse, former U.S. Rep. Frank Guinta, Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith, state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and businessman Bill Binnie.
The Buckeye State’s GOP Senate primary might be one of the most expensive contests of 2022 — even before factoring in the general election. A bunch of wealthy candidates, almost all of them preening for a Trump endorsement that has yet to come, are fighting for the nomination to succeed Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is not seeking re-election.
Internal polls shared by several GOP campaigns have consistently shown Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer who lost a 2012 Senate bid, with a lead. The primary also features “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance, former state GOP Chair Jane Timken, investment banker Mike Gibbons, car dealer and blockchain entrepreneur Bernie Moreno and state Sen. Matt Dolan. Loyalty to Trump has been the top issue, with Mandel embracing the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and Vance and Moreno flip-flopping away from past Trump criticism.
Given Ohio’s strong Republican lean — Trump won it twice by 8 percentage points, and Portman was re-elected in 2016 by more than 20 points — the GOP nominee will be heavily favored to win the general election. On the Democratic side, Rep. Tim Ryan is the front-runner in a primary that also includes Morgan Harper, a progressive attorney running to Ryan’s left.
Sen. Marco Rubio hasn’t given up his presidential ambitions, but first the Republican must win a third term. So far he has avoided a formidable primary challenger and trouble on his right, setting up what’s expected to be a general election campaign against Democratic Rep. Val Demings.
Demings, a former police chief who was among the contenders to be Biden’s running mate for vice president in 2020, has posted impressive fundraising numbers. But Florida has become an increasingly red state in the Trump years, and a St. Pete Polls survey in November found Rubio leading Demings, 51 percent to 44 percent.
A seat in deep-red Missouri probably shouldn’t be competitive. But Democrats would like their chances a whole lot more if GOP voters nominate Eric Greitens — a former governor who left office mired in scandal — to succeed Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican not seeking re-election. The Republican field also includes state Attorney General Eric Schmitt, Reps. Vicky Hartzler and Billy Long and attorney Mark McCloskey, best known for waving a gun at Black Lives Matter protesters outside his St. Louis home in 2020. A poll of likely GOP primary voters this month by the political news service Missouri Scout found Greitens and Schmitt locked in a close race, with Hartzler a distant third.
Democrats have at least a half-dozen candidates in the mix, including Scott Sifton, a former state legislator. Marine veteran Lucas Kunce has earned some buzz in national progressive circles. But two of the state’s most familiar and formidable Democrats — former Gov. Jay Nixon and former Secretary of State Jason Kander — are staying on the sidelines.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski is up for re-election, and the GOP mainstay will have to answer for her vote to convict Trump at his second impeachment trial.
The former president has endorsed another Republican, Kelly Tshibaka. Adding to the intrigue: a nonpartisan primary that will send the top four vote-getters to a general election that will be determined by ranked -choice ballots. As red as Alaska is in presidential elections, Murkowski could survive if Tshibaka can’t win a majority of first-choice votes and enough independents and Democrats pick Murkowski as their second.