Hindsight 20/22: As Key Senate Republicans Announce Retirement, Parties Chart Plan for Midterms


Image Courtesy of Architect of the Capitol 

By Justin Lamoureux 

The presidential race might remain fresh in the minds of many Americans, but each party’s foremost political strategists are looking ahead. With less than 21 months remaining before the congressional midterm elections, the clock is ticking. And, with Democrats maintaining a slim majority in the House of Representatives – and an even narrower advantage in the Senate – the stakes could not be higher for either party. 

Let’s start by taking a look at the House: the Democrats currently hold a 10-vote majority over their GOP counterparts. While plotting to retain such a thin edge would prove challenging during any election cycle, this race presents Democrats with a noteworthy roadblock in the form of redistricting. This routine process is expected to conclude long before the midterms, but delays arising due to the pandemic have effectively immobilized both parties during a critical time for organizing and developing a strategy. 

 While it remains too early to make credible judgments regarding either party’s prospects, Democrats face numerous “red flags” moving forward. Traditionally, midterm elections are less than generous to the president’s party. Conventional wisdom aside, however, the party faces potential strategic threats; several states crucial to Democratic hopes – including New York, California, and Illinois – each appear poised to lose a seat in the redistricting process. What’s more, having control over a majority of state assemblies where U.S. House districts will be redrawn gives Republicans a noteworthy advantage in the process. 

Control over the House carries tremendous political weight, but at the moment, all eyes are on the Senate. With the Democrats’ majority being entirely contingent on a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, the upper chamber could be even harder to defend if the political tide moves against the party. There are, however, signs of hope for the incumbent party. For starters, three Senate Republicans who represent key battleground states – Richard Burr of North Carolina, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Rob Portman of Ohio – have all revealed plans to forgo re-election bids. This gives Democrats a larger window of opportunity to expand their Senate majority and strengthen their organization moving forward. 

Experts currently anticipate a Senate map with nine competitive races in the next midterms. These contests can be evaluated from three different angles: region, current party makeup, and political rating. Categorizing each race in this way can help us better understand the overall nature of the election itself and each party’s prospects. 

The next battle for control of the Senate will be focused on two different regions: The “sun belt” (i.e., the south), and the “rust belt” (i.e., the industrial midwest). Five of the most competitive races – Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, and Nevada – are located along the “sun belt.” Three, meanwhile, are situated on the “rust belt”: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Ohio. It should be noted that states in each region proved critical to Biden’s electoral college victory last November. There is also one regional outlier: New Hampshire, located in heavily Democratic New England. In terms of political composition, these seats are essentially split between the two parties in this Congress. Republicans currently hold five (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina), while Democrats control four (Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and New Hampshire). Two of these Democratic seats – Georgia and Arizona – were acquired by the party during special elections last year. 

Each party has its own path to gaining (or expanding) the Senate majority. Democrats’ most viable pickup opportunities lie in the “rust belt” states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Biden narrowly won both states in the presidential race, and the party hopes to retain favorable demographic trends (ex.: increased strength among college-educated and suburban voters) moving forward. For Republicans, meanwhile, the “sun belt” represents a land of opportunity. Their best (and most obvious) opportunities to gain seats would be Georgia and Arizona; with strong candidates – such as former Senator Kelly Loeffler in Georgia – considering bids, the party has a chance to offset recent demographic changes that have moved the electorates of both states in the opposite direction. 

Of course, there is always a possibility that one party will have a stronger than expected national performance. In the event of a “blue wave,” Democrats could also flip states like Ohio, North Carolina, or Florida, which are seemingly competitive but nevertheless lean Republican. Conversely, in the event of a “red wave,” Republicans might be able to execute victories in Nevada or New Hampshire, where statewide races are competitive, but the Democrats hold a clear advantage.

The midterm elections also constitute somewhat of a litmus test for each party. For Democrats, the challenge will be retaining support in traditionally amicable parts of the country, while expanding political inroads made across new territory in a potentially hostile electoral climate. Republicans, meanwhile, will be tasked with reconciling different attitudes within their own party; specifically, the legacy (and future role) of former president Donald Trump. More than anything else, this next election will determine which perceived faction of the Republican Party is dominant: Those who seek to distance themselves from Trump (such as Lisa Murkowski, who voted to convict Trump in January and is now up for re-election), or those who see no end to the party’s embrace of Trump (such as Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has been affiliated with the QAnon Movement). With primary challenges to those who dissented from Trump expected, and the legacy of his retiring critics (in particular, Senators Burr and Toomey) in question, this battle could play a defining role moving forward.

Granted, nearly two years remain before Americans will return to the polls and cast their ballots once again. These are not ordinary times, and a multitude of political developments could unfold that completely alter the dynamics of the next big campaign. Looking ahead, though, one thing is certain: with a host of obstacles facing each party, the next midterms will have implications for the nature of American politics itself.

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