“A lot happens in a year.” It’s a favorite phrase for politicos who don’t like the way the winds are blowing.
A year ago, it was Republicans saying that. Democrats had just celebrated winning the White House and holding the House, albeit with a slimmer majority than anyone had expected. (Securing the narrow Senate majority would come a couple of months later.)
But last week’s gubernatorial results in Virginia and New Jersey now have Democrats getting behind the mantra as they hope the national environment is more favorable to them this time next year. Republicans already had history on their side heading into 2022, and they’re feeling increasingly energized by President Joe Biden’s slipping approval ratings. One year out from the midterms, 58% of Americans say Biden hasn’t paid enough attention to the nation’s most important problems, and a majority disapprove of the way he’s handling his job, according to a new CNN Poll released Tuesday.
Biden’s party still had a small advantage on the generic congressional ballot among registered voters in the CNN Poll, but the five most competitive Senate seats are all in states that Biden carried by much smaller margins than he won in Virginia (10 points): Pennsylvania (1.2 points), Georgia (0.3 point), Wisconsin (0.6 point), Arizona (0.4 point) and Nevada (2.4 points).
And despite missing out on what would have been their top recruit – when New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced on Tuesday that he would not run for the Senate – Republicans are bullish on winning the Granite State, which Biden carried by a more comfortable 7 points last year. They’re even seriously talking up Colorado, which Biden won by 13.5 points – more than Virginia but less than New Jersey, which he carried by nearly 16 points.
Of course, the unspoken factor in all this calculating is candidates. With former President Donald Trump drawing Republicans in Senate primaries to the right, there likely won’t be a bunch of Glenn Youngkin-like candidates on the ballot next November. Virginia’s Republican governor-elect charted a course to winning back the suburbs without alienating Trump’s base that could very well work for some candidates in 2022 – but that’s only if they become the nominees. Youngkin was nominated at a party convention that doesn’t look much like the Trump loyalty contests that are today’s GOP primaries. And beyond perpetuating unfounded claims about election fraud, some of the former President’s chosen candidates are facing serious scrutiny over their personal lives.
That’s one reason why Pennsylvania – where one of those candidates is running – remains the seat most likely to flip partisan control, as it has been all year. GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring, giving Democrats their best pickup opportunity. 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.
While Republicans grapple with what their future looks like with Trump out of the White House but still very much engaged in politics, some Democrats have been raising huge sums of money as they fight to hold the Senate. That’s especially true for the newest incumbents – Sens. Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Mark Kelly of Arizona, who are running for full six-year terms next fall. Two incumbents first elected in 2016 – Sens. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez Masto – have raised comparatively less money but could be facing contests just as competitive next fall.
After Pennsylvania, the next three seats on the list – Georgia, Wisconsin and Arizona – remain unchanged. But things have shifted in the middle of the pack, with Nevada sliding above North Carolina and, now that Sununu is not running, above New Hampshire too.
Despite Americans’ concerns about the economy, the administration did get a double dose of good news at the end of last week, with an encouraging October jobs report and House passage of the infrastructure bill. Democrats are optimistic about passing the President’s broader social safety net and climate bill in the coming weeks, too, but it’ll be up to them and the President to sell it – especially if the benefits of the two plans won’t be fully tangible before November 2022. There’s the risk of those measures being overshadowed by headlines like this week’s about surging prices.
That there’s still a year to go “might be the only sliver of good news for Democrats,” Nathan Gonzales wrote in Inside Elections about the aftermath of Virginia and New Jersey. Indeed, as one Democratic strategist noted, the pandemic wasn’t even on anyone’s radar at this point in the 2020 cycle – so yes, a lot can change in a year. But the clock is ticking.
Here are the seats most likely to flip one year from now:
Incumbent: Republican Pat Toomey (retiring)
Pennsylvania still takes the top spot. Biden carried the state in 2020, and it’s an open seat since GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is not running for reelection. Both of those factors made it an early target for Democrats looking to solidify their majority. But now there’s the added element of a messy GOP primary – one that’s causing some consternation among Republicans who think Trump’s chosen candidate could jeopardize the seat should he win the nomination. Army veteran Sean Parnell’s personal life was dragged out into the open by rival Jeff Bartos, and an ugly custody battle with his estranged ex-wife is making headlines in the state. She has alleged that Parnell choked her and injured their children, claims that he denies. Parnell raised about $1 million in the third quarter but has canceled two fundraising events in the past two weeks, CNN reported Tuesday. Bartos raised $653,000, but $400,000 of that was a personal loan. Carla Sands, another rival candidate and Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, loaned her campaign more than $3 million. Concerns about Parnell, however, may be creating an opening for other candidates, with hedge fund manager David McCormick looking at the race. Democrats also have a crowded primary field – and Republicans are betting whoever they nominate will be too far left – but Republicans will need to sort out their own drama before they think about the general election.
Incumbent: Democrat Raphael Warnock
The biggest evolution in GOP primary dynamics over the past few months has to be in Georgia, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is now behind Trump-backed candidate Herschel Walker. His endorsement came after months of hand-wringing from establishment Republicans that Walker wouldn’t be a viable candidate because of his troubled personal history, including accusations that he threatened and abused women. McConnell had even tried to recruit former Sens. Kelly Loeffler or David Perdue into the race. But Trump’s early encouragement of Walker’s candidacy made it hard for other Republicans to see a path. Republicans who have come around to the former football player appreciate that he’s well known in the state and seem to view his openness about some of his mental health struggles as a positive. GOP leadership (No. 2 Senate Republican John Thune has also backed Walker) was impressed by his team, and he went on to raise nearly $3.8 million between late August and the end of September. Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, meanwhile, raised an astounding $9.5 million in the third quarter. Democrats see Walker as a flawed candidate and they feel good about Warnock’s image and fundraising prowess. But in a state Biden carried by less than half a point where Republicans have made it harder to vote, the national environment could sweep away even the most prepared incumbents.
Incumbent: Republican Ron Johnson
Another season has come and gone, and we’re still waiting for Sen. Ron Johnson to decide whether he’s running for a third term. If he does, he’ll be the only Republican running for reelection in a state that Biden carried last year. That makes him a top target for Democrats, who increasingly believe that his penchant for peddling conspiracy theories makes him a better opponent for them than if this were an open seat. Johnson raised about $906,000 and had spent about $317,000 in the third quarter. At a similar point in the 2016 cycle, before he went on to come from behind and win a second term, he had raised and spent much more, bringing in $1.4 million during the third quarter of 2015 and spending $652,000. Johnson’s approval rating was 36% (42% disapproval) among registered voters in a Marquette Law School Poll conducted in late October. Notably, more than half of voters (54%) said they don’t trust the senator much or at all for information on the pandemic. Biden carried this state by less than a point, however, so it’s the kind of place where the national environment will matter. His approval in the state slid from 49% in August to 43% in that same Marquette poll. On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes raised about $1.1 million and has racked up some big endorsements, with the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and End Citizens United//Let America Vote backing him last month. Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, who loaned his campaign $750,000 in the third quarter, is running TV ads showing himself in a hard hat while touting the commitments that he “helped build Fiserv Forum on progressive values.”
Incumbent: Democrat Mark Kelly
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly has been raising similarly impressive money as Warnock in Georgia, posting $8 million in the third quarter (which included a refund from a campaign vendor). But while Republicans feel like their field is somewhat settled in Georgia with Trump and McConnell now aligned behind the same guy, the primary in Arizona is still a free-for-all that’s causing some concern for the GOP. As the major statewide elected official in the race, Attorney General Mark Brnovich would seem to start with an advantage, but he raised only $564,000 in the third quarter, which would be mediocre money for a candidate in a competitive House district, let alone a top-tier Senate race. He’s also taking incoming fire from his GOP rivals. A super PAC backing Blake Masters, the president of the Thiel Foundation, is attacking Brnovich on the air on immigration. The motif here, as in the other ads against him from the Thiel-funded group, is that he’s been “opposing Trump.” Trump was scheduled to attend a fundraiser for Masters at Mar-a-Lago on Wednesday. Solar energy entrepreneur Jim Lamon ended with the most cash on hand at the end of the quarter, but much of that came from a $3 million personal loan, which doesn’t exactly represent a wide base of support, while retired Maj. Gen. Michael “Mick” McGuire raised just $250,000. And there’s now another Republican in the race: Justin Olson – a member of the Arizona Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities – announced his campaign last month. Arizona has a late primary, so Republicans have until August to duke it out. But GOP outside groups are already attacking Kelly, hoping he’ll be sunk by Biden’s slipping numbers. Kelly outran Biden last year – winning 51.2% of the vote to the President’s 49.4%. But the former astronaut now has a voting record Republicans are eager to use against him.
Incumbent: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto
Nevada moves up a couple of spots on the list, in part because it’s one of the few races where next year’s matchup looks mostly settled: Former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt is likely to be challenging Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina senator. Laxalt may not have the strongest recent track record – he lost a gubernatorial bid in 2018 – but he has the backing of both McConnell and Trump, which allows him to look ahead to next November. Biden won the Silver State by just 2 points in 2020, so it’s fundamentally a less Democratic state than New Hampshire, and GOP inroads with Hispanic voters in 2020 could make this state even more competitive. Cortez Masto, meanwhile, could be hobbled by a divided state party. Republicans have tried to tie the former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chair, who raised $3 million in the third quarter, to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a preview of many more ads likely to be made about Democrats’ social safety net bill. Democrats have also run economic-themed messages, like a contrast ad from Senate Majority PAC that begins by praising the senator for passing Covid relief and then attacks Laxalt. But they’ve also tried to cast Laxalt, Trump’s former state campaign co-chairman, as an election conspiracist. Recently, he’s been leaning into Republican rhetoric on race and education, showing up at a school board meeting in Douglas County last month to call for banning critical race theory. Laxalt entered the race mid-quarter, raising about $1.4 million.
6. North Carolina
Incumbent: Republican Richard Burr (retiring)
Trump’s early endorsement of GOP Rep. Ted Budd hasn’t quieted this GOP primary, with former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker still running – and a new candidate, Marjorie Eastman, entering the race last month, saying, “I am the only political outsider, veteran and woman in this race.” The conservative Club for Growth, which helped Budd emerge from a 17-way primary when he first ran for the House in 2016, has been spending money on TV through its political arm to reinforce that he is Trump’s candidate. Budd and McCrory each raised about $1 million, while Walker brought in only about $122,000 during the third quarter. The March primary will be the first real test of the power of Trump’s endorsement in 2022. Democrats also have a primary. Cheri Beasley, the former state Supreme Court chief justice, raised $1.5 million in the third quarter – ahead of state Sen. Jeff Jackson ($902,000) and far ahead of former state Sen. Erica Smith ($129,000). Beasley also has the backing of EMILY’s List and End Citizens United//Let America Vote. Democrats supporting her are enthusiastic about the prospect of an African American woman who’s a former statewide elected official driving out rural and minority voters, whom the party has had trouble turning out in the past. But whether that would be enough in a midterm election in a state Biden lost in 2020 remains uncertain. Republicans feel good that North Carolina’s reddish tinge will keep it safely in their hands next year, and they’re feeling even better about those odds if the national environment looks the way it does right now.
7. New Hampshire
Incumbent: Democrat Maggie Hassan
Finally, a decision. Gov. Chris Sununu’s announcement that he would forgo the race disappointed national Republicans, who had been salivating over taking out Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan. Had he run, this seat would have shot near the top of the list of seats likely to flip. Republicans have long maintained that Hassan would be among the most vulnerable incumbents even without the governor running, but as of now they don’t have an A-list candidate. Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost to Hassan by about 1,000 votes in 2016, does not seem interested. Trump has already praised retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who came up short in the 2020 primary, but having raised just five figures in the third quarter, he’s unlikely to be the candidate to take out Hassan. GOP optimism in this state – which has trended increasingly blue at the federal level – has had to do with Hassan’s declining popularity. An October UNH poll, for example, captured a 12-point drop in her already-negative net favorability from September. (Sununu’s favorability had also dropped but his net rating was still positive.) After not being on the ballot for five years, Hassan started reintroducing herself to voters on TV in September. End Citizens United has also been up on TV for her. Democrats are gearing up for a tight race here given the state’s track record of electing Republicans statewide, but they’re hopeful that the Senate contest is much more likely to track with the state’s recent presidential performance. And they’re breathing a giant sigh of relief that Sununu is staying put.
Incumbent: Republican Marco Rubio
Rep. Val Demings raised an eye-catching sum in the third quarter: nearly $8.5 million, which is about $2.5 million more than GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, although he ended the quarter with a cash-on-hand advantage. Florida was always going to be tough and expensive terrain for Democrats. There’s excitement that Demings is keeping the money race competitive for now, but big fundraising hauls haven’t always been the best indicator of in-state support (see the Texas Senate race in 2018 or the South Carolina race in 2020). That’s not to discount Demings’ impressive profile, however: The African American former Orlando police chief could blunt some GOP attacks trying to tie her to the national left.
Incumbent: Republican Rob Portman (retiring)
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan received the endorsement last month of the man whose success he’s trying to replicate – Sen. Sherrod Brown is the rare Democrat to win Ohio at the federal level in recent years. It’ll be a difficult path to follow, but Ryan raised $2.5 million in the third quarter while the Republicans continue to fight among themselves over loyalty to the former President. The political arm of the conservative Club for Growth and USA Freedom Fund, for example, have been hitting “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance over his past criticism of Trump. Both groups have backed former state Treasurer Josh Mandel, who has run and lost against Brown. Also running are former state party Chair Jane Timken, businessmen Mike Gibbons and Bernie Moreno, and state Sen. Matt Dolan – the rare GOP candidate backing the infrastructure deal negotiated by retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman.
Incumbent: Republican Roy Blunt (retiring)
Missouri is somewhat of an outlier on this list because Trump carried it by 15 points – a far more comfortable margin that either he or Biden carried the other nine states. There’s no question it’s a red state, and if presidential performance is increasingly the best indicator of Senate outcomes, it looks pretty hard for Democrats to flip. But the reason Missouri holds the No. 10 spot is mostly about one man: disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned from office following a probe into allegations of sexual and campaign misconduct. Should he become the GOP nominee in Missouri – which is more likely because of how many candidates are in the primary and could split the vote – he risks creating a Todd Akin situation for the GOP. The 2012 Senate nominee’s “legitimate rape” comments cost Republicans the Missouri Senate seat and imperiled GOP nominees across the country. To take advantage of that scenario, of course, Democrats need a candidate. Marine veteran Lucas Kunce raised the most money of any candidate from either party – $849,000 in the third quarter – but it’ll take more than money to make this race competitive next fall.