Looking to the 2022 midterm elections, National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chair Sen. Rick Scott of Florida recently predicted that “as long as we get our message out, raise our money and get good candidates, we’re going to have a hell of a ’22.”
The Senate is currently split 50-50 between the two major parties, but Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the chamber due to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris through her constitutional role as president of the Senate.
Looking at the electoral map, Republicans are playing plenty of defense. They’re defending 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs in next year’s midterm elections – including having to protect five open seats where GOP incumbents are retiring. But the NRSC also sees strong pickup opportunities in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire.
Here are five key questions that could determine whether the GOP wins back the majority or if the Democrats keep and possibly strengthen their control of the chamber.
Will Biden’s approval ratings hold up?
Midterm elections are often heavily influenced by public perceptions of the president’s performance, especially in down-ballot races. Just as the 2018 midterms were very much a referendum on then-President Donald Trump, the 2022 contests may be all about his Democratic successor in the White House, President Biden.
Where the president’s approval ratings stand next summer, in the final stretch to the 2022 midterms, will likely be a crucial factor in determining the outcome of the elections.
Veteran Republican strategist Brian Walsh emphasized that the approval rating’s a “major factor, particularly in a president’s first term, when traditionally the opposing party picks up congressional seats in the midterms.”
Issues – of course – also matter. And with crime and inflation currently on the rise, the GOP’s starting to hammer both Biden and congressional Democrats over those issues. They’re also targeting Democrats over the surge this year in migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border and culture wars issues such as critical race theory and transgender rights.
“There’s no question that crime is rising issue on the minds of voters,” Walsh who served as NRCC communications director during the 2010 and 2012 cycles, noted. “But I also believe that it also comes down to old-fashioned pocketbook issues – taxes and spending.”
He warned that “if Democrats overreach and raise taxes and dramatically ramp up spending on big government programs… I think that would help drive Republican turnout.”
And he pointed to “the extent that Democrats overreach in the way that they did during the first two years of then-President Obama’s first term,” which helped contributed to the Republican wave in 2010, when they won back the House and took a big bite out of the Democrats’ Senate majority.
Will Johnson run for reelection in Wisconsin?
Republicans are already defending open seats in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina – as Sens. Pat Toomey and Richard Burr are retiring rather than run for reelection next year.
They may have to defend a third open seat in a crucial swing state, as Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has yet to say if he’s seeking a third term in the 2022 midterms. Johnson vowed in 2016 to only serve two-terms, but he’s left open the possibility of running again.
“I’m undecided,” he told reporters a month ago during a Milwaukee Press Club virtual event.
And Johnson reiterated that he felt no pressure to decide anytime soon, repeating that he didn’t launch his first Senate campaign in 2010 until seven months before the election.
Biden narrowly won Wisconsin in last November’s presidential election.
There’s less GOP concern over longtime Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who’s also yet to say if he’ll run for reelection next year.
Republican insiders say its likely that Grassley, who’s 87 but who recently showed off his physical prowess by taking on Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas in a push-up competition, will run again in 2022.
And in a state that Trump carried by eight points last year, there’s less concern among Republicans of holding the seat if Grassley decides to retire.
Will Sununu challenge Hassan in New Hampshire?
Senate Republicans – including Scott and longtime Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell – have been vigorously courting Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire to launch a Republican challenge against first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sununu’s predecessor as governor.
But Sununu – who enjoys strong poll numbers and who Senate Republicans see as the strongest candidate to defeat Hassan next year – appears to be in no rush to make a decision.
Trump has already weighed in in some competitive Republican Senate primaries – such as in backing Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama, Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina, and challenger Kelly Tshibaka over incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska – and vows to make more endorsements.
“There’s no question that President Trump is the gorilla in the room in terms of endorsement. His endorsement does matter,” Walsh said.
“On the other hand, you want to make sure that the strongest candidates are emerging from these primaries and I think it’s a real question whether some of these candidates are being properly vetted,” he added.
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