AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
Last week, I examined the landscape for Democrats in 2022 at the state level, where the failures of the Biden administration, along with a deteriorating economic and public safety situation have left the party on the defensive in formerly “safe” states like Maine, Minnesota and Oregon. But it is not only at the state and local level where Democrats are being faced with difficult choices. The Democratic Senate majority is not a majority at all, but rather 50 seats with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote ensuring control. The loss of a single vote would cost Democrats the ability to advance Biden’s agenda, including judicial and executive nominees, and might doom any future Supreme Court pick.
The need to avoid even a net loss of a single seat therefore limits just how much Democrats can afford to triage unwinnable races in the Senate as well. If, as was the case in 2014, Democrats were entering November with 55 seats, they could concede two and still hope to win a majority. By and large they did so that year, losing Arkansas, Montana, and West Virginia by 18%, 17%, and 24% respectively. They still lost the majority, but given the nature of the year it was close and came down to a 1% margin in North Carolina, and 2% margins in Alaska and Colorado. They managed to hold Virginia by less than a percentage point and New Hampshire by 3%.
Democrats cannot afford to write off any seats this year for another reason as well: In 2024, 23 of the 33 seats up for election will be defended by Democrats or Democratic-aligned independents. The only even semi-plausible targets for Democratic gains in 2024 would be Texas (Ted Cruz) and maybe Florida (Rick Scott), and both are very longshots indeed. That means if Democrats lose the Senate majority in November 2022, they will not have a serious shot at regaining it until 2026.
Worse, the 2024 map requires Democrats to defend seats in Arizona, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and West Virginia, all of which could be expected to be vulnerable if Joe Biden – or whoever replaces him should he step down or not run – loses the presidential election. Therefore, Democrats cannot afford to forego any opportunities this year, no matter how bad the climate.
The two offensive opportunities they remain invested in are Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) has reserved $3 million (out of $33 million in total ad money) for each race.
In Wisconsin, incumbent two-term Senator Ron Johnson is running for a third term. Democrats have never accepted Ron Johnson’s defeat of liberal icon Russ Feingold in 2010 as anything but a fluke, even after Johnson defied the polls, which almost uniformly showed him losing, to win his 2016 rematch by an almost identical 50-47% margin. Johnson, as an outspoken conservative in a closely divided state, will always have a close race, and to some degree continuing to target him is recognition of how motivating the effort will be for local Democratic activists who the party needs to try and “save” their statewide ticket, including Governor Tony Evers, rather than a serious belief Johnson will lose.
Pennsylvania is, by contrast, an open seat race, leaving no candidate with an incumbency advantage. Much like Wisconsin, Democrats are already heavily invested in the gubernatorial campaign in Pennsylvania, meaning that investing in the Senate election may help them with more than one race. Republican Pat Toomey is retiring, and both primaries feature candidates who have frustrated the party establishment. On the Democratic side, the national party begged Congressman Connor Lamb, an ostensible moderate, to jump into the race, but he is languishing up to 30% behind the eccentric Lt. Governor John Fetterman, a nearly seven-foot-tall figure who was a Bernie Sanders supporter, yet dresses like a biker, and who once chased an unarmed black jogger with a firearm. Fetterman is weird, and divisive. He has struggled to gain the support of Democratic officials even as he has rallied their voters. Yet the Republican field is odd too. The one-time frontrunner, Sean Parnell, dropped out after his divorce proceedings became public, and the race is between the Trump-endorsed and famous Dr. Mehmet Oz, former Bridgewater executive David McCormick, and Kathy Barnette, an African American Army veteran who has picked up grassroots support. Both of Toomey’s races were razor thin victories, including in the GOP wave year of 2010. As in Wisconsin, a viable candidate probably is assured 46-47% of the vote, so, with 2024 math on their minds, Democrats are invested heavily in the race.
Yet outside those two states, Democratic challengers who have the benefit of neither a contested gubernatorial race nor a high media profile have been all but thrown to the wolves. When the DSCC made their $33 million reservation, $0 was earmarked for North Carolina, where former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cherry Beasley is running for an open seat. Nor did they invest in Ohio, where they recruited Congressman Tim Ryan, Florida where another Congresswoman, Val Demings, is challenging Marco Rubio, or Iowa, where former Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer is running against Chuck Grassley. They have quietly conceded those races as lost causes.
Beyond the Hail Mary efforts in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, it is all defense for Democrats. It is possible to make out at least three lines of defense. The first are front-line efforts in swing state territory such as Arizona ($7.7 million), Georgia ($7 million), and Nevada ($8.4 million), followed by New Hampshire ($4 million). What stands out here is not the money being spent in Arizona and Georgia, where Senators Mark Kelly and Raphael Warnock are running for reelection. Both investments are proportionally small, given the size of the states and their media markets, compared to the other two, New Hampshire and Nevada.
These latter two are small states. New Hampshire admittedly is part of the expensive Boston media market, but neither Atlanta nor Phoenix is cheap. Proportionally, $4 million into New Hampshire is probably a greater investment than what is being put into either Arizona or Georgia, and it is even more stunning given that Republicans have struggled to secure a candidate against incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassen. Popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu declined to run, and the leading GOP candidate lost to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen by 17% in 2020. Biden won New Hampshire by 7% in 2020, well over his national margin, and it is a testament to how bad Democrats think things may get in the suburbs that they are investing so heavily there. New Hampshire should not be the type of place “the emerging Democratic majority” needs to defend, unless COVID-19 and concerns about education and inflation are badly eroding votes among their core supporters, college educated whites (New Hampshire ranks tenth out of the 50 states with 38% of adults having a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 15% with advanced degrees).
Nevada raises a different set of concerns for Democrats. While the Democratic nominee has won the state in every presidential election since 2008, the margins have been shrinking. Joe Biden carried the state over Donald Trump by 2.39%, below the 2.42% margin Hillary Clinton achieved in 2016. Democratic strength in Nevada has depended on the heavily Hispanic culinary unions in Las Vegas, and the service sector has been among those hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions and now inflation. The wider erosion of Latino support for Democrats is likely to hit Nevada harder than almost any other state in the country. Democrats, seeing their electoral base in the state dissolving before their eyes, cannot do anything but pray and spend enormous sums of money to try and protect incumbent Senator Catherine Cortez Masto from a challenge by former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt. Laxalt, a firebrand conservative, lost the 2018 governors race by 5%, and polls have shown him tied or leading Masto. If there is a state which seems headed for an Iowa-style realignment, where the bottom falls out of the Democratic ticket regardless of spending or candidate strength, it seems likely to be Nevada where it happens.
Republicans are making a probing effort in Colorado, where incumbent Michael Bennet is up for reelection. Colorado has been a state which has been tough for the GOP, with Biden defeating Trump by almost 14% in 2020. Incumbent Senator Cory Gardner lost reelection by 9% in 2020. While it has some similarities with Virginia, one difference is that while state Democrats in Virginia were unpopular, Democratic Governor Jared Polis defied his party on COVID-19 restrictions and seems to be cruising for reelection. The GOP effort in Colorado is thus real but very tentative.
There is also a GOP effort in Washington. The GOP has gotten into the 40s in statewide elections on multiple occasions, but Washington, like Colorado, seems to be one of the few places Democrats are in decent shape. Oregon has an unpopular Democratic state party, but Republicans have failed to land a strong candidate.
If those are the key defensive lines, it is a testament to increasing polarization that the playing field is so narrow. The problem is that for Democrats, they are playing a game where they need a perfect flush. While limiting their losses to one of Georgia or Arizona and then losing Nevada would be a respectable result given national polling, it would still likely cost them the Senate for at least four if not six years. It would cripple the Biden presidency and ensure a GOP ascendency on the judiciary. Even their best case, holding all of their seats, and gaining Pennsylvania or Wisconsin would still see them almost certain to lose the Senate after 2024. In the Senate, the Democratic Party is simply playing to not lose too badly in 2022. There is no winning to be had.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.