By Simone Pathe, CNN
As the calendar turns to 2022, Senate races are about to kick into much higher gear, with ad spending increasing ahead of the first primaries in May and just a few more fundraising quarters for candidates to prove they’re serious
The biggest storyline to watch heading into 2022 is the resolution of contested GOP primaries. In at least six of the 10 states on this list, Republicans are facing unsettled fields — some more problematic for the party than others — that may go a long way toward shaping their ability to harness a favorable political environment.
Developments in these states over the past month have been mixed for the GOP. Some Republicans feel like they dodged a bullet in Pennsylvania, where the candidate backed by former President Donald Trump dropped out. But in New Hampshire, they’re disappointed the governor isn’t running for Senate. The power of the ex-President’s endorsement is still an open question in some places, but as Republicans across the country scramble for his blessing, primaries look very much like the Trump loyalty contests of 2018 and 2020 — except with the added (and increasingly dangerous) litmus test of election denialism. Candidates are repeating various versions of Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 election to curry favor with the former commander in chief.
But as elections in Virginia and New Jersey last month showed, the national environment is significantly worse for Democrats than it was just months after President Joe Biden’s victory and after Democrats flipped two Georgia Senate seats. Rising inflation and a pandemic that is once again raising questions about Americans’ ability to gather this holiday season are contributing to a gloomy mood that’s overshadowed any enthusiasm about Washington having passed a bipartisan infrastructure deal.
Three-quarters of Americans say they are worried about the state of the economy in their own community, according to a new CNN poll released Wednesday. More than half disapprove of the way Biden is handling the economy.
The party in the White House typically suffers losses in the first midterm of a new president’s term. Next year isn’t looking any different, with longtime House Democrats already heading for the exit — a tell-tale sign of veteran lawmakers who aren’t eager to be in the minority.
But at the close of the so-called off-year, the Senate map doesn’t look all that different from this spring, when CNN first ranked the seats most likely to flip. The top three seats, for example, remain the same: Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin. The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip are based on CNN’s reporting and fundraising data, as well as historical data about how states and candidates have performed. As the cycle heats up, more polling and advertising spending data will become factors.
Here are the seats most likely to flip next fall:
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
The biggest shakeup over the last month was the departure of Army veteran Sean Parnell — a relief for Republicans who had begun to worry that the headlines from the Trump-backed candidate’s custody battle could seriously hurt his ability to win a general election. (Parnell suspended his campaign after a judge awarded his estranged wife primary physical custody and sole legal custody of the couple’s three children.) His exodus has made room for ambitious Republicans who smell an opportunity, like Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiothoracic surgeon and television personality. The Ohio native, who attended medical school in the state, has talked up the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a way to treat the coronavirus — despite the lack of firm scientific evidence that it is an effective treatment. “Washington got Covid wrong,” he says in a TV ad, vowing to “put America first.” A longtime New Jersey resident, Oz is not the only candidate or potential candidate who’s lived elsewhere, although it remains to be seen whether voters really care about that in such a nationalized political environment. David McCormick, a former official in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush, may soon enter the race, joining businessman Jeff Bartos, who helped publicize Parnell’s personal life issues after Trump passed him over for the endorsement, and Carla Sands, Trump’s ambassador to Denmark. With GOP Sen. Pat Toomey retiring, Democrats have long seen the Keystone State, which voted for Biden, as one of their top pickup opportunities. Democrats have a crowded primary of their own — and the GOP is excited about the prospect of facing top fundraiser Lt. Gov. John Fetterman — but the fundamentals of the state make this one harder for Republicans to hold than some others.
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
The intrigue in Georgia has shifted from the Senate race — where Republican Herschel Walker seems to have married the interests of Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — to the gubernatorial race, with former Sen. David Perdue announcing a Trump-backed primary challenge to GOP Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this month. McConnell had once sought Perdue or former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, both of whom lost January runoffs, to challenge Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who’s now running for a full six-year term. But Perdue’s gubernatorial candidacy underscores just how much the GOP Senate landscape here has changed (although Walker still faces a primary against Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and former Trump national security official Latham Saddler among others.) Some Republicans who had once balked at Walker running in the Peach State now seem impressed by his team and argue that his openness about his mental health struggles could be a positive attribute on the campaign trail. And the fact that Walker wouldn’t wade into the gubernatorial primary was seen as a sign he’s taking his race seriously rather than just bowing to the political whims of Trump, who has called Perdue and Walker an “unstoppable team.” On the Democratic side, news that 2018 nominee Stacey Abrams is running for governor again is exciting Democrats, who hope she’ll help drive minority turnout in a non-presidential year. High-profile names in the governor’s race ensure that Georgia will once again be the epicenter of the political universe in 2022.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
GOP Sen. Ron Johnson has plenty to say about Covid-19 these days — much of it misleading or offensive — but less about whether he’s running for a third term. As of now, he would be the only Republican senator running for reelection in a state Biden carried in 2020. While he keeps Republicans guessing, Democrats have assembled a crowded field that’s just as eager to take on the incumbent as run for an open seat. Biden only won this state by about half a point last year, however, after Trump won it by a similarly narrow margin in 2016. That makes it competitive terrain that may not be so favorable to Democrats if the national environment is against them. But whether he runs or not, Johnson, who’s already been endorsed by Trump, isn’t doing himself — or his party — any favors. His penchant for saying controversial things, while it may be resonating with GOP base voters, is giving Democrats a rich target as they try to peel off independents. And should he decide not to run for reelection, his prolonged indecision isn’t giving potential GOP successors the opportunity to start introducing themselves around the state.
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is running for a full six-year term after winning a special election last year. An astronaut and the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords, he has a compelling personal story and is an impressive fundraiser. The biggest advantage he may have right now, however, is a Republican field in disarray without an obvious candidate that can cut through the noise. Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who holds the most prominent statewide elected office of the bunch, doesn’t seem to be putting together the resources needed for a top-tier campaign. Trump hasn’t endorsed here, so the candidates will continue to snipe about who’s most loyal to him and his ideas about election fraud. But the primary isn’t until August, so whoever emerges as the nominee will need to quickly pivot to general election mode. Still, Biden became the first Democrat to carry the state since 1996 — and by less than half a point — so this state will likely be competitive regardless of the matchup.
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
This is one GOP primary that’s relatively settled, with former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt already having the backing of both McConnell and Trump. The grandson of the former governor and senator with the same last name, Laxalt is trying to unseat first-term Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the country’s first Latina senator. “Nevada is a purple state, and it’s always competitive,” she told CNN in a recent interview. Indeed, she only won by about 2 points in 2016, as did Hillary Clinton — a margin Biden replicated four years later. GOP inroads with Hispanic voters could make this seat more competitive — especially if Republicans are already focused on the general election campaign and not wasting all their time and money in as messy a primary as they are in other states — while the state Democratic Party is the one struggling with internal divisions. Democrats are trying to paint Laxalt, the former Trump campaign co-chair for the state, as out of touch with Nevadans. He’s questioned Biden’s victory in the state and opposes abortion. (Nevada has a history of Republicans backing abortion rights in former Gov. Brian Sandoval, who declined to endorse Laxalt when he unsuccessfully ran to succeed him.) And with major abortion rights cases before the Supreme Court, the issue could make it into more campaign ads than usual in 2022. But Republicans point to voters’ economic concerns, arguing that playing up abortion (the way Democrats infamously did in a 2014 Colorado Senate race) could backfire. Cortez Masto, however, has also been talking up her support for the bipartisan infrastructure law as a contrast between her and Laxalt.
6. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
North Carolina’s primaries had been among the earliest in the nation, but candidates now have a few extra weeks to make their case to voters, with the state Supreme Court delaying the nominating contests from March to May because of redistricting legal challenges. The Republican field is still reckoning with Trump’s early endorsement of Rep. Ted Budd, as the political arm of the conservative Club for Growth spends big to promote him as the former President’s chosen candidate. As CNN has reported, Trump enlisted Rep. Madison Cawthorn to try to convince former Rep. Mark Walker to run for the House instead since Budd allies think they’d have a stronger shot in a one-on-one race against former Gov. Pat McCrory, who occupies a more establishment Republican lane. Walker and his wife, seated in front of a Christmas tree and stockings, said in a video message released earlier this week that they’d be reviewing his options over the holidays. “On paper, it makes more sense for us to reengage in the US House and continue this fight,” Walker said, noting there was a “narrow path” to Senate victory. While Republicans continue to attack each other here, the Democratic field has essentially sorted itself, positioning Cheri Beasley — the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the state Supreme Court — as the likely nominee. Former state Sen. Erica Smith switched to a House race last month, and state Sen. Jeff Jackson dropped out Thursday, arguing that Democrats need to be united to have a chance of flipping this seat.
7. New Hampshire
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
Christmas came early for first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan last month when the Republicans who could have given her the closest race passed. Gov. Chris Sununu announced he’d run for reelection, which was quickly followed by former Sen. Kelly Ayotte taking herself out of contention. Ret. Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who raised just five figures in the third quarter, isn’t likely to have the GOP field to himself much longer. There’s no shortage of Republican names swirling around — with announcements likely coming in the new year — but that’s also what worries some Republicans: if there’s no field-clearing name like Sununu, candidates could be duking it out until the September primary. Republicans have always felt that Hassan was vulnerable, with or without Sununu, and although the Granite State has trended blue in recent federal elections, they’re optimistic a favorable national environment will put this one in play for them. Still, without a well-defined GOP opponent ready to take on Hassan, this race remains in the bottom half of the seats most likely to flip.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio
GOP Sen. Marco Rubio is running for a third term with the backing of Trump and is likely to face Democratic Rep. Val Demings. It’s an uphill climb for Democrats in a state that’s trended red in recent years, but Demings’ profile as the former Orlando police chief and her impressive fundraising are likely to keep Democrats at least competitive. She outraised Rubio by about $2.5 million in the third quarter, although he ended with more cash on hand. Whether she’s able to sustain that momentum (and whether it translates to on-the-ground support) will be key questions heading into the new year.
Incumbent: Republican Rob Portman (retiring)
This is another race where the retirement of a GOP veteran has given way to a messy primary. There’s a wide field of wannabe GOP successors to Sen. Rob Portman, except few of them want to actually replicate his tenure in Congress, where he was one of the lead negotiators of the bipartisan infrastructure law. Most are more interested in earning the endorsement of Trump (who trashed the infrastructure deal) and are attacking each other over their loyalty to the ex-President. Trump hasn’t picked a favorite here yet but has indicated he will eventually. Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, meanwhile, has been coalescing support to win his primary. Regardless of who emerges from the Republican primary, however, Ryan is in for a tough general election in an increasingly red state.
Incumbent: Republican Roy Blunt (retiring)
Trump has also suggested he’ll be endorsing in Missouri’s Senate race, where GOP Sen. Roy Blunt is retiring. The biggest concern has been that he’d pick disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned from office following a probe into allegations of sexual and campaign misconduct. Trump was noncommittal in an interview with Hugh Hewitt earlier this month, who implored him not to endorse the former governor. “Well, that’s an interesting opinion, that’s true. He’s right now leading by quite a bit,” Trump said. “I know, but he will lose the seat. We will lose the seat,” Hewitt said. “I understand that. Okay, some people feel that,” Trump responded. Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top official on Trump’s 2020 campaign and the girlfriend of Trump’s son, is the national chair of Greitens’ campaign. GOP Rep. Billy Long met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago last month, so he could be another potential endorsee. But the field keeps growing, with state Senate President Dave Schatz announcing his campaign last month. The fear is that an increasingly splintered field will only mean more votes for Greitens, who could jeopardize what should be a safe Republican seat much the same way Todd Akin did in 2012.
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