KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Republicans will be defending more Senate seats than Democrats in 2022, but both sides have some potential pickup opportunities — though a large gain for either party seems unlikely.
— Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) would have been an overwhelming favorite to win a third term, but even with his retirement, Ohio’s rightward lean makes it an uphill climb for Democrats.
— Democrats’ clearest path to gaining seats runs primarily though the Rust Belt, as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin seem to be their top offensive races, though they may finally get lucky in North Carolina.
— We rate four states — Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire — as Leans Democratic, and these seem to be the most obvious GOP targets.
— There will likely be more retirements this cycle, but they probably won’t change the fundamental picture.
Another first-term Democratic Class III midterm
A few weeks after the 2020 election, the Crystal Ball put out an early look at the 2022 Senate races. Since then, President Biden has been sworn in, and with dual wins in Georgia, Democrats went on to claim a 50-50 majority in the chamber, via Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote. As the 2022 election cycle begins in earnest, we’re putting out our initial Senate ratings.
The last time 2022’s Senate map, known more formally as the Class III map, was up in a midterm year, voters were rendering judgement on another Democratic president who had just taken over after replacing a Republican. In 2010, Democrats, during President Obama’s first midterm, were on the defensive, as they had a hefty 59-seat majority in the chamber. While Republicans ended up netting six seats that year, and reducing Obama’s majority in the chamber to 53-47, Democrats were overexposed: Three of their losses were in Arkansas, Indiana, and North Dakota — by today’s standards, it may seem baffling that they held those seats in the first place.
For 2022, the playing field should be much narrower. Republicans will hold 20 of the 34 states that are up to Democrats’ 14 — both sides have a few offensive opportunities, but a six-seat gain for either side, like we saw in 2010 with this class, seems unlikely.
Democrats have not had a truly good year with the Class III map since 1986, when they netted eight seats, to take the majority, during Ronald Reagan’s second midterm. With the chamber tied at 50-50, both sides have little room for error.
With that, here are our initial ratings:
Map 1: Crystal Ball 2022 Senate ratings
We’ll start by getting the biggest news of the week out of the way: With the retirement of Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), we see the Buckeye State’s Senate race as more competitive, but Republicans still start off as clear favorites. Had Portman run again, we would probably rate his race as Safe Republican. When he was last up, in 2016, Portman was one of the strongest overperformers in the nation — he won by a 21% margin as Donald Trump carried Ohio by 8%.
The problem for Democrats? In last year’s presidential contest, Ohio barely budged. Though there was some internal movement from 2016’s result — the suburbs generally shifted more Democratic while working class and rural areas continued to redden — Trump held the state by a 53%-45% vote. In an era where senatorial results are increasingly tied to a state’s presidential preference, Trump’s margins bode well for GOP prospects in Ohio, particularly with a Democrat in the White House (the president’s party often loses ground down-ballot in midterm elections).
There is no shortage of potential Republicans who could run to replace Portman. Aside from Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) Senate seat, the GOP holds all of Ohio’s partisan statewide offices, and has enjoyed a 12 to 4 advantage in the state’s House delegation since 2012.
For years, state Democrats have been waiting for Youngstown-area Rep. Tim Ryan (D, OH-13) to take the plunge and run statewide. This cycle, he may be forced into it, and he announced that he was considering running on Wednesday. With the state set to lose a House seat, Ryan could soon find himself without a constituency. For 2012, Republican mappers drew Ryan into a safe seat — but his district has since become much more marginal, and it could easily take in more GOP-leaning areas or be dissolved entirely.
With Portman out, we rate Ohio as Likely Republican.
Democrats look to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina
The sole Toss-up Senate race to start the 2022 cycle is Pennsylvania. A reformist conservative with an interest in fiscal issues, two-term Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) has long advocated for term limits. In the House, he stuck to his pledge to serve only three terms (he went on to lose a Senate primary in 2004), and he’s called for a two-term limit for senators — in October, he was again true to form and announced he’d retire.
Almost immediately after Toomey’s retirement news, Democrats began mentioning Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D-PA). A towering figure who looks uncomfortable in a suit (to the extent one would ever see him wearing one), he ran for Toomey’s Senate seat in 2016, but lost the primary. With a base in the Pittsburgh area — he was mayor of Braddock, a borough just east of the Steel City — he had better luck in 2018. Fetterman, along with four other Democrats, took on the then-embattled lieutenant governor, Mike Stack, in the primary. Stack finished a poor fourth place, but geography was decisive.
In Pennsylvania, a candidate’s home county is listed next to their name on the ballot — in statewide primaries, this makes for some intensely regional results. Against four candidates who were based in the Philadelphia metro area, Fetterman dominated in western Pennsylvania and got the nomination (Map 2).
Map 2: 2018 Democratic lieutenant governor primary, Pennsylvania
Fetterman likely won’t have the Democratic field to himself, and he may lack the geographic advantage he had in 2018. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D, PA-6), from the Philadelphia suburbs, is considering a Senate run; if she were the only candidate from that populous metro, she’d seem well-positioned. Meanwhile, on either of the state’s geographic extremes, Reps. Matt Cartwright (D, PA-8) and Conor Lamb (D, PA-17) could get tougher districts for 2022 — something that could push them to run statewide.
On the GOP side, Houlahan’s predecessor, former Rep. Ryan Costello (R, PA-6) is looking like a senatorial candidate. Though any number of other Republicans could run, Costello’s biggest obstacle is that the Philadelphia area is making up a declining portion of the state Republican electorate. According to historical voter registration data, in 2000, about one-third of registered Republicans in Pennsylvania lived in the Philadelphia metro area (the city proper plus the four “collar counties”) — as of June 2020, that number was down to less than one-quarter.
On another historical note, if the general election ends up a match between Fetterman and Costello, it would be the first open Pennsylvania Senate race since 1980 to feature a western Democrat and an eastern Republican. Either way, as the sole Biden-won state to feature an open seat Senate contest (at least for now), Pennsylvania seems like Democrats’ best pick-up opportunity.
Wisconsin is the only other Biden state that Republicans are defending this cycle. Originally elected in 2010 with support from the Tea Party movement, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) defeated then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), a progressive icon in the state. Johnson then, rather impressively, survived a 2016 rematch. In the heat of that rematch, he told voters he was running for his final term. Then, in early 2019, Johnson began backtracking on his pledge and now seems outright non-committal. If he retires, Republicans from the state’s House delegation or legislature will likely look at the race — though Johnson himself first won by running as a businessman with no prior elected experience, a template others could follow.
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black and has a base in Milwaukee, is seen as a top Democratic prospect and Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson is running. As with Rep. Ryan in Ohio, if longtime Rep. Ron Kind (D, WI-3) is dealt an unfavorable hand in redistricting, he could finally launch a statewide run. Kind had the closest race of his career in 2020, and his western district could easily absorb redder turf. Until the playing field here is more certain, we’re giving the incumbent the benefit of the doubt in Wisconsin, and keeping it at Leans Republican.
Though it’s an open seat, North Carolina joins Wisconsin in our Leans Republican category. In presidential and senatorial contests, the results in this light red state have often been close, but it’s wound up on the GOP side since 2010.
Former Rep. Mark Walker (R, NC-6), who was squeezed out of Congress due to a court-ordered redistricting last cycle, was the first major Republican in the race. A pastor who rose to chair the large Republican Study Committee during his time in Congress, Walker seems like a candidate who could be broadly acceptable to all factions of his party. Former President Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, is originally from the coastal city of Wilmington and is reportedly weighing a senatorial campaign. As an aside, Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, has also been mentioned as a senatorial candidate, in Florida — she’d be running in a primary against Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), though we don’t expect it to be one of the cycle’s marquee races.
On Tuesday, Jeff Jackson, a media-savvy state senator from south Charlotte, entered the Democratic primary. Jackson has been a fixture in state Democratic politics for several years, but his biography as a white male veteran with legislative experience may trigger comparisons, fairly or not, to the party’s most recent senatorial nominee, Cal Cunningham. During the 2020 campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) was criticized for the optics it created by heavy-handedly backing Cunningham over his main primary opponent, then-state Sen. Erica Smith, a Black woman. Smith is running again, though she didn’t do herself any favors with Democratic voters when she recently endorsed some Republicans.
Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to ever lead that court, was narrowly ousted last year and would be a potentially strong candidate. Though judicial races were non-partisan then, Beasley won a full term on the state Supreme Court in 2014, even as the late Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) was defeated (state judicial races have been partisan since 2017). Justice Anita Earls, another Black woman who currently sits on the state Supreme Court is also being mentioned.
Republican offensive opportunities are (mostly) in the Sun Belt
Republicans will be defending more Senate seats than Democrats in 2022, but they still have several pickup opportunities. Though the Crystal Ball doesn’t currently see any races as sure-fire flips, the four states that we rate as Leans Democratic seem like the GOP’s most realistic targets.
Fresh off of overseeing the DSCC’s successful effort to win back the chamber’s majority, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) is running for a second term. In recent cycles, Democrats have generally won Nevada by slight, but consistent margins. In fact, of the 50 states, it saw the least movement between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections — Biden’s 2.4% edge in the state was unchanged from Hillary Clinton’s margin. Essentially, Nevada may be to Republicans what North Carolina is to Democrats: a state that typically leans the other way, but is winnable under the right circumstances.
Whatever candidate Republicans end up running against her, it’s safe to say that Cortez Masto will want to make sure the famous “Reid machine” is firing on all cylinders in late 2022. Named for her predecessor, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), the Reid machine can hold Republicans at bay. When the Democrats’ vaunted Las Vegas-area turnout operation is strong — like in 2016, 2018, and 2020 — it keeps the state blue. But when it’s not — like in 2014 — Republicans can win in Nevada.
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), who’s just now unboxing materials as he moves into his new office, will be up again next year. Though he won his runoff concurrently with now-fellow Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-GA) earlier this month, Ossoff’s race was for a full six-year term, while Warnock was elected to serve out the last two years of the term that former Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) won in 2016. The good news for Democrats is that Warnock was the stronger performer — he prevailed by 2.1%, instead of Ossoff’s 1.2%, and got almost 20,000 more raw votes — so it seems like, of the two, he’d be better positioned for an immediate encore performance.
During the first phase of his 2020 campaign, Warnock had to navigate an all-party jungle primary (Georgia uses that method for special elections). This time, the race will feature the usual partisan primaries. Former Rep. Doug Collins (R, GA-9), who ran in the special Senate primary but was squeezed out of the runoff, may run again. In the House, Collins, who hails from northeastern Georgia, was a staunch Trump advocate — though with the former president looking to get involved in Peach State gubernatorial politics, Collins could enter that Republican primary as a Trumpier alternative to Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA). First-term Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, GA-14), who vocally occupies a space on the GOP caucus’ far-right, may find the bigger stage of the Senate more enticing. We’re giving Warnock the early advantage.
Another Democratic winner of a 2020 special election who must now run in back-to-back cycles is Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ). As the husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D, AZ-8) and with a background as an astronaut, he was arguably Democrats’ best Senatorial recruit of the 2020 cycle. Kelly defeated then-Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) to finish out the term of the late John McCain, who was last reelected in 2016.
An Arizona legend, McCain’s mavericky brand of Republicanism played well with the general electorate: He never lost a race in the state, and the state’s two Democratic senators cite him as their role model. But, to the delight of Democrats, the state Republican Party seems intent on going in a different, more Trumpian direction — McCain’s widow, who endorsed Biden, was among some prominent Republicans that the state party voted to censure this month (something she quipped was a “high honor”).
Arizona Republicans also censured their sitting governor, Doug Ducey (R-AZ), for some measures that he put into place to contain the COVID pandemic. At this time last year, the term-limited Ducey was seen as a leading potential Senate candidate. In 2018, as Democrats made gains across the board in Arizona, he was reelected by a comfortable 56%-42%. But Arizona has not contained the pandemic well — according to Johns Hopkins University, the state has, at times, had the highest infection rate of any region in the world. In mid-2020, polling from OH Predictive Insights put him among the nation’s least popular governors, and Ducey recently ruled out a 2022 Senate run (though there is plenty of time for him to change his mind, as politicians often do).
Kelly was one of 2020’s top fundraisers, raking in just short of $100 million for the cycle. This made his final 51%-49% margin over McSally seem a bit underwhelming, as he was typically posting more comfortable, though single-digit, leads in polling. Still, in the presidential race, Arizona was the closest state in the country, by raw vote margin — Biden claimed it by 10,457 votes. Given that most Democrats in competitive Senate races ran behind, or only slightly ahead of, Biden, it’s possible that McSally could have prevailed against a Democrat who lacked Kelly’s star power.
The final state the Crystal Ball puts in the Leans Democratic category is New Hampshire. Aside from Illinois, a seat that Republicans were always going to have trouble holding, the Democrats’ only senatorial pickup in 2016 was the Granite State. Then-Gov. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) ousted first-term Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) by just over 1,000 votes — it was the closest senatorial race of that cycle.
Hassan’s successor in the governor’s mansion, now-Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) may be looking to continue the Concord-to-Washington talent pipeline. Shortly after the 2020 election, one of Sununu’s advisors sent a tweet that implied his boss was considering a Senate bid. If he runs for Senate and wins, four of New Hampshire’s five most recent senators would have also served as governors.
Last November, New Hampshire saw an uncommon level of ticket splitting. The state’s other senator, Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), was reelected by a 57%-41% vote — the best showing for a Democrat in the popular vote era — and Biden carried the state by a still-robust 53%-46%. But Granite Staters gave their Republican governor 65% of the vote. Voters further strengthened Sununu’s head in 2020 by giving him a GOP legislature — during his previous term, Democrats held majorities in both chambers of the state General Court.
Still, Republicans may not want to govern too aggressively. With his party in control, any perceived GOP overreach could weaken Sununu’s crossover appeal. Likewise, over the past decade, former or sitting governors have struggled to win Senate races in states that lean towards the other party in presidential elections. Of the former governors serving in the current Senate, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is the only Trump state Democrat while no Republicans represent Biden states.
For her part, Hassan is no electoral slouch. It’s not easy to defeat popular incumbent senators, and in 2016, Ayotte had a 58% approval rating when she lost to Hassan — this also marked only the second time that a woman incumbent was defeated by another woman (the first was the 2008 North Carolina Senate race).
A word on a few Safe states — and retirements
Before the last election cycle, we would probably have started Colorado off as Likely Democratic instead of Safe Democratic. But it just isn’t the purple state that it was a decade ago. In fact, Biden’s better-than 55%-42% margin made him the best-performing Democratic nominee there since Lyndon Johnson. Thinking shorter-term, Colorado was one of 14 states where Biden outperformed Obama’s 2008 result. Though he lost some ground in the state’s two rural congressional districts, Biden improved by over 10 percentage points in the 6th District, in suburban Denver — even the historically conservative 5th District, home to Colorado Springs, moved six points more Democratic between the years (Map 3).
Map 3: Colorado, 2008 vs. 2020 by congressional district
Biden’s strength in the Centennial State was a drag on then-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), who lost last year’s contest by a nearly double-digit spread to now-Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), a former governor. Hicklenlooper was briefly a 2020 presidential contender, but didn’t get very far, and pivoted down to his state’s Senate contest.
The Democrats’ large 2020 presidential primary field that also featured another Coloradan: Sen. Michael Bennet, who’s up for reelection this cycle. Bennet first won a full term in 2010 — his narrow victory that year was a bright spot for Democrats — but was reelected by a somewhat unimpressive 50%-44% in 2016. His previous two general election foes, now-Rep. Ken Buck (R, CO-4) and former El Paso County Commissioner Darryl Glenn, haven’t ruled out runs.
Colorado’s electorate isn’t entirely made up of Denver-area liberals, but it’s starting to vote more like a Pacific Northwest state. Republicans certainly seem to have better targets — and as Hicklenlooper’s result shows, having a failed presidential run on his resume may not be a huge liability for Bennet. But do keep an eye on Colorado — if 2022 turns into another bad Democratic year along the lines of 2010 and 2014, we might see the race activate.
Going even further northwest, in 2020, the Last Frontier passed an electoral reform measure that we can see benefitting Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Measure 2, which voters narrowly approved, established an all-party primary where the top four candidates advanced to a ranked-choice general election. Murkowski is a moderate Republican who has cobbled together some diverse coalitions to claim pluralities in her previous campaigns. Though Trump promised to campaign against her, Murkowski would probably be the candidate who’s palatable to the broadest segment of the electorate, and thus would earn the most first or second-place votes.
Finally, it’s still very early in the 2022 cycle. While there will almost certainly be more retirements, it’s unlikely that those departures would massively change the overall Senate picture. For Republicans, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), who are both approaching 90, seem like strong possibilities — Republicans would still be favored to hold both seats. Senate President pro tempore Pat Leahy (D-VT) was briefly hospitalized on Tuesday evening. While we wish Leahy well, he could feel some pressure to forgo seeking a ninth term in deep blue Vermont.
With a 50-50 Senate, the majority is absolutely up for grabs. But the structure of the map gives the Democrats a fighting chance to hang on, or even establish a clearer majority — something Republicans did in 2018, albeit on a map that was much more favorable to them than this one is to Democrats.