The prospect for Democrats holding a filibuster-proof Senate after the 2022 midterm elections keeps getting better. That’s not conventional wisdom, nor a mainstream media narrative.
But it’s the math of U.S. Senate elections. It’s enhanced by the reality that Republicans have saddled themselves with cartoonishly wretched candidates in the states that are in play. That, of course, is courtesy of the insatiable ego of Donald Trump.
(Note to Raw Story readers: You will find no polling numbers in this article. They have proven increasingly unreliable and even if they were trustable, would mean little three months out from the election.)
The most underestimated factor is the electoral Senate map of 2022. Of the 35 seats on the November 8 ballot, Republicans must defend 21 and Democrats just 14. That’s the luck of the draw in a chamber for which only a third of the seats, roughly, are contested every two years. (The opposite scenario will likely be true in 2024).
So, the parties don’t enter this election with a 50-50 split in the Senate. They enter it with Democrats and their independent allies holding a 36-to-29 seat advantage over the Republicans. That’s the number of U.S. Senators not up for reelection in this cycle.
The Democrats also enjoy amazing electoral luck among the seats they are defending. No fewer than 10 of them are among their 14 strongest states from the 2020 election. President Joe Biden won all of them by at least a 13.5 percent margin over Trump.
They are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. Nine of them also have the advantage of incumbency; the only open seat to defend is in Vermont, the Democrats’ strongest state in 2020 which Biden won by a 35.4 percent margin.
Incredibly, none of the 12 states that Democrats won with their smallest margins—10 percent or less – have Senate races this fall. That means they come into the race with 46 seats in the bank.
It’s quite different on the Republican side. The GOP are expected to easily defend 15 of their 21 seats on the ballot, but of the six remaining, only two have incumbents and four are open seats that unlike Vermont, could be flipped.
The safe Republican seats are Alaska, Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma (both seats), South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah. Trump won all but Iowa by margins of 10 percent or more.
Iowa is an interesting case study in comparison to Colorado. Almost all of the experts and pundits rate Iowa as “Solid R” as compared to Colorado’s “Likely D” even though Biden carried Colorado by five more percentage points (13.5) than Trump carried Iowa (8.2) in 2020.
Even more striking is that Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado has far higher net approval rankings than Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa (his net positive ranking of plus-16 is more than double Grassley’s plus-7). Not to mention that Grassley will turn 89 in September. It’s a mystery that Iowa is considered safer for Republicans than Colorado is for Democrats.
But in keeping with the punditry’s conservative outlook, if one adds 15 safe seats to the Republicans’ initial total, the Democrats’ edge narrows to 46-44. That leaves 10 seats in play.
One of them is Missouri, which continues to be rated as “solid R” in many quarters because it is an increasingly red state which Trump won by 15.5 percent in 2020. But it could be an x-factor if disgraced ex-Gov. Eric Greitens wins Tuesday’s Republican primary – a longshot at this point but not impossible.
If that happens, Democrats have a serious opportunity to flip the seat thanks to Greitens’ toxicity across party lines –outside of the Trump base – and the presence of independent candidate John Wood. At the behest of former Sen. Jack Danforth, Wood, a moderate Republican, left his position as a top attorney for the House Select Committee investigating January 6 to enter the race as a spoiler against Greitens.
But even if the Democrats’ lead is whittled to 46-to-45 seats, the party still benefits from electoral math. That’s because of the power of incumbency -- one of the only remaining maxims of politics that everyone agrees upon.
In the past 40 years the reelection rate of Senate incumbents has dropped below 82% only three times (75% being the lowest). And it has been as high as 96.3%, according to data at opensecrets.org.
The Democrats have four incumbents up for reelection: Sens. Rafael Warnock (Georgia), Mark Kelly (Arizona), Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire) and Catherine Cortez Masto (Nevada). The Republicans have two: Sens. Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) and Marco Rubio (Florida).
It’s hard to imagine Warnock losing to former football star Herschel Walker, not even in conservative Georgia. In fact, that conservate streak might even help Warnock -- the dignified and powerful preacher from Dr. Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church – against Walker, a walking scandal with an unknown number of secret out-of-wedlock children and an assortment of bizarre conspiracy theories and resume lies that grows by the day.
In Arizona, Kelly is popular and moderate enough to suit the state’s conservative bent and his ability to win was proven in 2020. With Arizona Republicans fighting something of a civil war against their inner QAnon, Kelly should own a sizeable incumbent’s advantage over whoever emerges from the Republicans’ bruising August 2 primary.
In New Hampshire, Hassan had been a force in state politics as a state senator and governor, enough so that she could topple an incumbent, Sen. Kelly Ayotte in the tough year of 2016. She got a good break when Gov. Chris Sununu decided not to oppose her – as did Ayotte – and though she was once considered among the most vulnerable incumbents, she shouldn’t face a major challenge from whichever little-known GOP candidate emerges from one of the nation’s latest primaries on September 13.
Cortez Masto is likely the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent as former state Atty. Gen. Adam Laxalt poses a serious challenge, as the Washington Post reported recently. The race likely will be a tossup to the finish.
But the same can be said for the Republicans’ most vulnerable incumbent, Sen. Ron “Anon” Johnson in Wisconsin, among the most extreme Trump enablers in the Senate. Johnson got bad news last week when it became clear that progressive champion Mandela Barnes has outlasted some tough primary rivals and is certain to emerge Tuesday as his opponent.
Johnson is every bit as vulnerable in Wisconsin as Cortez Masto is in Nevada. As to the Republicans’ other incumbent – Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – the Democrats’ path to victory remains uphill. But Rep. Val Demings, nationally known from her performance as an impeachment manager during Trump’s first rodeo – and a prolific fundraiser – could make the race interesting.
Still, the Democrats’ best source of optimism rests in the three open Republican seats (not counting Missouri) that present an opportunity for Democrats to flip a seat for a net gain. And that’s where Trump may have come to the Democrats aid, since he is largely responsible for the primary victories of two macabre candidates.
They would be TV doctor and carpetbagger Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania -- by way of his real home in New Jersey -- and venture capitalist JD Vance whose campaign appears “missing in action,” as Raw Story reported last week. Despite Ohio’s growing redness, the Democrats have a solid moderate challenger with a national profile in Rep. Tim Ryan.
The Democrats also have a strong candidate in Pennsylvania with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman bringing a successful track record and serious fundraising ability to the race, as reported earlier in July by Raw Story. Fetterman would have a decent chance to fill the seat being vacated by moderate Sen. Pat Toomey even running against a normal candidate.
In North Carolina, Trump also endorsed the Republican candidate for Senate -- Rep. Ted Budd -- but Budd had lots of other conservative support and didn’t need Trump’s help like freakish candidates Oz and Vance did. Still, Budd also faces a formidable Democratic opponent in former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who may benefit from opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision to eliminate the right to abortion in America.
It all adds to a far better landscape for Democrats than the party seems willing to say out loud. And even sympathetic voices in the media continue to treat the 2022 Senate election as an uphill fight.
There’s no doubt that the House landscape clearly favors the Republicans because it’s much less race-specific and more dependent on overriding factors -- such as the historic likelihood that the party in power will lose lots of House seats. It would take a minor miracle for the Democrats to retain control of the House.
But in the Senate, there’s a strong likelihood that the party will retain control on the chamber. And a reasonable chance that it could get to the 52- or 53-vote level that would be needed to eliminate the filibuster on crucial matters.
Were it not for the well-documented political PTSD the party suffered from its shocking defeat in 2016, Democrats would be pumped up about their Senate prospects. That might even help create momentum to help save the party’s control of the House.
None of that can happen, though, unless Democrats start spending less time fretting about the conventional wisdom and more time looking at the facts.