The midterm elections are still 18 months away, but the fight for control of the Senate is already shaping what gets done in the nation’s capital this year.
In an evenly divided Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris gives Democrats the tie-breaking vote, every vote matters. That’s proven to be a crucial consideration for President Joe Biden as he tried to pass his Covid-19 relief plan and now his infrastructure and jobs proposals.
Looking ahead to next year, that means every Senate race matters. Republicans only need to flip one seat to take back the majority, while Democrats are eager to cushion their majority by picking off a few more seats currently held by GOP senators.
Democrats’ best opportunity to do that is in Pennsylvania, which CNN ranks the seat most likely to flip partisan control for the third month in a row. The top 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, polling and advertising spending data will also become factors. Our ranking first published in March and was updated in April.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, is not running for reelection, which means it’s up to the GOP to hold this seat without him. Biden carried the state by about 1 point last fall, making it a natural place for Democrats to try to flip a seat. Their next best chance to is in Wisconsin, another state Biden won that’s currently held by a Republican, Sen. Ron Johnson, who may or may not be running for reelection.
Republicans’ best opportunities to flip seats are in Georgia and Arizona – two traditionally red states that Biden carried last year where recently elected Democratic senators, Raphael Warnock and Mark Kelly, are now running for full six-year terms.
But the universe of competitive seats remains relatively small. Of the 34 seats up for election next fall, only eight are considered “battlegrounds” by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.
Still, the GOP’s fidelity to former President Donald Trump could complicate their ability to defeat Democrats in demographically changing Biden states. Even months after he left the White House, the ex-President looms over the GOP. Look no further than congressional Republicans’ unwillingness to establish a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. And across the country, primaries continue to look like Trump loyalty contests.
Republicans’ biggest problem right now, however, is that they lack candidates in those states to take advantage of what, historically speaking, could be a good Republican year, with the party out of power of the White House traditionally gaining seats in midterms of a new administration. They’re still waiting on challengers to Kelly and Warnock. At the very least, they’re giving two Democratic incumbents a head start on fundraising, which is also a factor in places like New Hampshire and Nevada, where big-name candidates eyeing the race haven’t yet gotten in and are freezing the fields.
Democrats, meanwhile, are excited about two Black women candidates (or almost candidates) in two states they’re trying to flip that fall a bit lower down the list. Cheri Beasley, the former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice, announced her candidacy for Senate last month, while Rep. Val Demings is planning a bid in Florida. Since Harris resigned from her seat to become vice president, there are no Black women in the Senate.
Across all these races, there’s still time for new candidates to jump in and presumed candidates to back out, which is why these rankings will be updated many times over the next 18 months.
Here is CNN’s third ranking of the 10 seats most likely to flip in 2022:
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
Pennsylvania remains the seat most likely to flip with Republicans trying to defend an open seat in a state that Biden won last fall. The primary fields on both sides are still in flux, with Republicans recently picking up a new candidate in Army veteran Sean Parnell, who ran for Congress last year but came up short against Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, who himself could launch a Sente bid. Even in a state that went for Biden, Trump loyalty is a salient factor in the GOP primary. Donald Trump Jr. quickly backed Parnell, while Jeff Bartos, who was already in the race, dredged up Parnell’s old tweets from the 2016 presidential primary. Having run with the GOP President’s backing in 2020, Parnell may occupy a Trumpier lane than Bartos, a wealthy businessman who loaned his campaign $400,000 during the first quarter, but Bartos carefully namedrops the former President in his announcement video. The Democratic field is crowded with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh and a handful of other state and federal elected officials still looking at the race. Republicans like their odds against Fetterman, the progressive former mayor of Braddock – and the biggest fundraiser so far. But the list of candidates trying to replace Toomey may keep growing, so expect plenty of drama in this top-tier race before we even get to the general election.
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
Warnock, who flipped this seat blue in a January runoff, is in the enviable position of raising money for his quest to win a full six-year term while waiting for a Republican challenger. He started the second quarter with $5.6 million in the bank. As CNN has previously reported, former NFL running back Herschel Walker – who doesn’t even live in Georgia – has frozen the GOP field because he has Trump’s backing. Other potential Republican candidates, knowing how important Trump’s support would be in a GOP primary, don’t want to run until they see whether Walker, a political novice, actually dives in. Rep. Buddy Carter, who has spoken to Walker, recently told CNN’s Manu Raju that the Texas resident won’t decide what he’ll do until the beginning of the summer. Carter himself is waiting on Walker, saying he’ll run if the Heisman Trophy winner doesn’t. Plenty of others could still jump in the race, too. State House Speaker David Ralston’s recent tweet about meeting with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rick Scott, the chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign committee, sparked chatter about his interest in the race, while former Sen. Kelly Loeffler, Warnock’s opponent in the January runoff, and Rep. Drew Ferguson may still be contenders. Meanwhile, former Rep. Doug Collins, who failed to make it to the 2021 runoff, announced in April that he would not run. But the hold up on the GOP side doesn’t mean Warnock is in for an easy race. And it remains to be seen how Georgia’s new restrictive voting law, which voting rights advocates say makes it harder for Black Georgians to vote, will impact Democrats’ winning coalition here. Republicans are excited that Warnock now has a voting record and won’t be running in the unique circumstances of a special election runoff, and they’re looking forward to weaponizing the business boycott of the state against Democrats, even though it was a GOP law that sparked the All Star Game and others to move.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
Johnson continues to be the biggest variable in this race: Will he run again? The two-term senator hasn’t said, but he’s generating plenty of other headlines, spewing misinformation about vaccines and conspiracy theories about the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. His antics are raising questions about whether it’d be easier for Republicans to hold this seat – in a state Biden narrowly won – without him on the ballot. His indecision is making it hard for any other Republicans who might be interested in the race – there’s talk about Rep. Mike Gallagher, for example – to make a move. Meanwhile, Democrats have a crowded field with Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and state Sen. Chris Larson, who announced Wednesday – and that could still grow if Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes gets in the race. Democrats feel good about their options here and like the idea of running against Johnson, whom they see as a damaged incumbent, just as much as they do about it being an open seat.
4. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
Republicans aren’t as worried about defending North Carolina as they are Biden states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but the open seat created by Burr’s retirement is giving Democrats an opening – potentially with more diverse candidates who could help them drive minority turnout. Cheri Beasley, the former state Supreme Court chief justice who narrowly lost reelection in 2020, announced her candidacy at the end of April and quickly secured the backing of EMILY’s List, a powerful player in Democratic primaries. The pro-abortion rights group touted Beasley’s 2008 experience as the first Black woman to win statewide in North Carolina. State Sen. Jeff Jackson and former state Sen. Erica Smith, whom Republicans tried to boost in the 2020 primary, were already running. Republicans got a new candidate, too: Rep. Ted Budd also launched his campaign at the end of April with a monster truck-studded announcement video that played footage of Trump praising him during the 2020 campaign. The conservative Club for Growth PAC threw its support behind the three-term congressman, who’s facing former Rep. Mark Walker – who’s been in the race since last year – and former Gov. Pat McCrory.
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
Kelly is running for a full six-term after winning the seat of the late Sen. John McCain last fall. Kelly only won by about 2 points last year, and Biden carried the state by an even narrower margin. Plus, the former astronaut now has a voting record. All of that should make this a competitive race. But Republicans have had trouble landing a candidate, and more than anywhere else, their lack of a big name here is concerning to some Republicans, in part because this should be a hotly contested race – one that the GOP needs to win if the party is going to have a realistic shot at the majority. Solar energy entrepreneur Jim Lamon became the first Republican to enter the race earlier this month. Others could still enter the race, like Rep. Andy Biggs, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Blake Masters, the president of the Thiel Foundation, Maj. Gen. Michael McGuire and state Attorney General Mark Brnovich, whom Trump criticized this week for not fully embracing the GOP-ordered audit in Maricopa County. But other statewide races seem to be attracting Republicans who aren’t eager to face the impressive Democratic fundraiser (Kelly raised $4.4 million in the first quarter), who’s known for his compelling personal story as the husband of Gabby Giffords, the former congresswoman who was shot and wounded in a mass shooting and has since become a vocal gun violence prevention advocate. Still, Republicans hope that whoever runs, this will be a policy rather than personality-driven race, with the National Republican Senatorial Committee launching digital ads attacking the Democrat on immigration earlier this month. But Kelly hasn’t shied away from the issue, criticizing Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress for not spending more time on the border crisis.
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
Republicans are also waiting for a candidate to take on Cortez Masto, a first-term senator. All eyes remain on former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who, as a former statewide elected official, Republicans hope would give them a good shot. Democrats will be eager to tie him to Trump and his efforts to overturn the election. But Biden only won the Silver State by about 2 points last fall, as did Cortez Masto in her first Senate race in 2016. Two years later, Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen carried the state by 5 points. So even though Nevada has been a blue state recently, both sides still view it as competitive. Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator, is fresh off a term as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, raising $2.3 million in the first quarter and starting the second quarter with nearly $4.7 million in the bank.
7. New Hampshire
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
The GOP anticipation is similar in the Granite State, where Republicans are eager for Gov. Chris Sununu to run against first-term Sen. Hassan, believing he’d give the Democratic former governor a real race. But Sununu has said he won’t make a move until the end of the legislative session, which is next month, so until he decides what to do, the Republican field is in a holding pattern. For sure, Sununu’s name and credibility as a statewide elected official would likely bump it up on this list of seats most likely to flip. But Democrats argue that at the federal level at least, New Hampshire has trended much more blue, even over the past four years. While Hassan and Clinton both won by less than half a point in 2016, Biden carried the state by 7 points and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen won reelection by nearly 16 points last fall.
Incumbent: Republican Rob Portman (retiring)
While an ever-growing field of Republicans dukes it out to replace Portman, the question in Ohio is whether Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan will be able to recreate Sen. Sherrod Brown’s magic. The three-term senator is the rare Democrat to recently win statewide in the Buckeye State, which has been trending more red. Ryan, who’s represented the Youngstown area since 2003 and briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last cycle, officially got into the race at the end of April, trying to appeal to blue collar voters who may have been swayed by Trump. “My experience has been just focusing on the workers, their families, the issues that are important to them,” Ryan told CNN at the time. With other prominent Democrats passing on the race, the congressman is the big name. But Republicans are excited about running against a 10-term lawmaker with a voting record in a state that’s been moving their way. First, though, they’ve got their own internal dynamics to sort out, with former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, former state party chair Jane Timken and several wealthy businessmen running. “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance has formed an exploratory committee, and while it’s not clear how much his Silicon Valley connections would endear him to Ohio voters, the $10 million super PAC commitment from Peter Thiel certainly wouldn’t hurt. While Democrats are gleeful to see Republican infighting here (mostly over loyalty to Trump), Republicans feel pretty comfortable that any of their candidates would be good enough in a state that voted for Trump by 8 points last fall.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio
By the numbers, Florida is a more competitive state than Ohio, but given that Ohio is an open seat with an already messy Republican primary, Florida remains at No. 9 for now, although that could change soon. Democratic Rep. Val Demings has shaken up this race with the news – confirmed by sources familiar – that she’s planning to run for Senate against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. Demings, who was a vice presidential contender for Biden, hadn’t made secret her aspirations for higher office, but it was long thought she was more seriously eyeing the gubernatorial race. First elected to Congress in 2016, she gained prominence as an impeachment manager during Trump’s first trial and she brings an interesting background as a former social worker and Orlando police chief. Another Orlando-area congresswoman, Rep. Stephanie Murphy, announced Monday she would not run for Senate in 2022, sparing Democrats a potentially expensive and damaging primary. Even if Republicans ultimately feel good about Rubio’s chances in a state Trump won by 3 points, they’re watching to see how much investment it will take from them and how much that spending in a very expensive state impacts their capabilities across the map.
Incumbent: Republican Roy Blunt (retiring)
Blunt’s decision not to run for reelection should not, on its own, have caused much of a headache for Republicans looking to hold onto this red state. But the candidacy of former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned from office following a probe into allegations of sexual and campaign misconduct, could give Democrats just enough of an opening that this race is on the list for the second month in a row now. Greitens’ candidacy – and his connections to Trump world – are concerning to Republicans, who worry that much like Todd Akin in 2012, he could endanger this seat if he’s the nominee and force other GOP candidates around the country to answer for him. That may be one reason why state Senate Republicans tried to create a runoff rule that would apply for next year. Attorney General Eric Schmitt is in the race and members of the congressional delegation could still join too, but the fear has been that having more candidates could split the anti-Greitens vote in a primary. But national Republicans may have actually gotten some good news with the campaign announcement of Mark McCloskey, who could appeal to similar voters as Greitens, potentially splitting the former governor’s base. McCloskey and his wife appeared in videos last summer pointing guns at demonstrators outside their St. Louis mansion. While much of the country watched in horror, the GOP embraced the couple, giving them a speaking slot at last year’s Republican National Convention.