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Why Democrats might keep the majority in the Senate next year after all

Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, is up for reelection in November.Julia Nikhinson/Bloomberg

If history is any guide, this year’s midterm elections could be a great one for Republicans. Historically, the party that does not control the White House does very well in the midterms, picking up dozens of seats, on average, between the House and the Senate, which is often enough to take the majority.

Add that history to Republican momentum, the fact that President Biden is seeing low approval ratings, and the fact that Republicans re-worked some congressional districts’ lines, and you have the potential for 2022 to be a uniquely big year for the GOP.

However, in the one place where mathematically it would be the easiest for Republicans to see a significant pickup, the US Senate, there are growing signs that Democrats might be able to hold on to the slimmest of all margins and keep control of the chamber.


To be clear: this is not to suggest that Democrats are likely to hold the Senate. But an analysis of key states shows it is unclear whether Republicans will be able to flip the single Senate seat needed to give themselves the majority.

The stakes are high. While a lot of Biden’s domestic agenda is stalled on Capitol Hill anyway, keeping the Senate in Democratic control would mean, at the very least, that Biden wouldn’t have to veto Republican bills, and that nominees for the Cabinet and federal judiciary would likely get a vote for at least another two years.

Most campaign experts and big political donations are going to Senate contests in nine states this year, which essentially make up the Senate battleground. Republicans need to take over one seat currently held by a Democrat to gain the majority. Democrats, because of the tie-breaking vote held by Vice President Kamala Harris, need to keep the status quo.

So, indeed, the entire question of Senate control can come down to one particular state’s contest.


Here is where things get interesting. Among the nine seats, four are held by Democratic incumbents. The other five are held by Republicans, and three of them are open seats, meaning the incumbent is not running. The bottom line: Democrats are defending fewer seats, and they’re doing so with incumbents.

Specifically, in the four Democratic seats of Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and New Hampshire, the Democratic incumbents are far outpacing their less-than-top-shelf Republican opponents.

In New Hampshire, Republican Governor Chris Sununu passed on a run against first-term Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan. Two establishment Republicans, largely unknown outside of political circles, jumped into the contest last month and now must contend in an expensive primary against each other.

In Georgia, Democratic incumbent Senator Raphael Warnock is raising more money than any other Senate candidate in the country, while his main Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, has largely not been publicly campaigning and many of the headlines in local media have been about domestic violence accusations he has admitted were true.

In Nevada, Republicans recruited the candidate they wanted, Adam Laxalt, but he has yet to shake a primary challenge before he can start to take on Democratic freshman Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. The latest poll showed Cortez Masto leading Laxalt by 9 points.

And in Arizona, Democratic Senator Mark Kelly has huge fund-raising and name identification advantages over his Republican opponents. Republicans, it should be noted, appear unsatisfied with the field and are still trying to convince Governor Doug Ducey to run for the seat even though President Trump often attacks him.


Meanwhile, in the five competitive races where Republicans need to hang on to their seats (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Ohio) it isn’t obvious that they will, though polling suggests Republican victories are currently more likely than not.

But again, the battleground will be in the Democratic contests where Republicans need to oust the incumbent.

Underneath all of this analysis today is Biden’s approval rating, which is not in a good spot. Given the mix of inflation, foreign affairs, and a depressed base, it is hard to see how things will get much worse for Biden in the next nine months. Indeed, if his numbers go anywhere, it could be up a few points — after a Supreme Court nominee is picked and especially if the country really turns a corner on the pandemic.

Should that happen, Democrats will go from a toss-up position today on keeping the Senate to being slightly favored to do so.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.