A Wicked Early Look At U.S. Senate Races in 2022

In two recent posts, I…

I conclude this “wicked early” look at the 2021-22 elections with an examination of Democrats’ prospects in the 34 United States Senate (“Senate”) elections currently scheduled for November 8, 2022 – when they will defend their slender majority: a 50-50 tie broken by Vice President Kamala Harris.[1] As with the 2021-22 gubernatorial elections, this is a view from 30,000 feet: what the “fundamentals” say about how likely it is Democrats continue to control the Senate in January 2023.

“Fundamentals” are the sum of…

  • State partisan lean (using my 3W-RDM)
  • Estimated incumbency advantage (see below)
  • National partisan lean, measured by the “generic ballot” question: some variation of “If the election for were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or some other candidate?”

To estimate incumbency advantage in Senate elections, I first calculated an “expected margin of victory” for the Democratic nominee in the 35 such elections held in 2020, the 35 held in 2018 and the 34 held in 2016. “Expected margin of victory” is state 3W-RDM plus the difference between the Democratic percentage and Republican percentage of all Senate votes cast in each election cycle:

2020 = D-1.9 percentage points (“points”)

2018 = D+9.9 points

2016 = D+0.9 points

For 2020 elections, I…

  • Used results from the Georgia Senate runoff elections
  • Used number of votes cast for all Republican candidates, for all Democratic candidates and for all third-party candidates in the Louisiana Senate “jungle primary”[2] held on Election Day
  • Treated Libertarian nominee Ricky Dale Harrington, Jr. as “Other” in the Arkansas Senate race, despite no Democratic nominee

For 2018 elections, I…

For 2016 elections, I…

After subtracting actual margin from “expected” margin, I calculated three averages of these differences within each election year:

  1. Races with Democratic incumbents
  2. Races with Republican incumbents
  3. Open-seat races

Within each biennial election cycle, then, incumbency advantage for Democratic Senate candidates is the first average minus the third average (D+17.0 in 2020, D+0.9 in 2018, D+6.5 in 2016), while Republican Senate incumbency advantage is the second average minus the third average (R+4.4, R+2.6, R+3.6). It is not clear why Republican Senate incumbents have a more stable – and lower overall – estimated advantage than their Democratic counterparts.

The estimated effect of incumbency for each party heading into 2022 is this calculation using all 104 elections: +5.5 points for Democrats and +3.3 points for Republicans. If an incumbent has served less than a full four-year term – for example, Democrats Mark Kelly and Raphael Warnock won special elections in 2020 while Democrat Alex Padilla was appointed to the Senate seat vacated by Harris, and will face reelection in 2022 – I multiply incumbency advantage by approximate percentage of term served.


Turning to the elections themselves, I mimic the 2021-22 gubernatorial elections post by exploring three different scenarios:

  • Democrats win national House vote by 3.5 points, as current polls suggest
  • Democrats and Republicans split national House vote, assuming a sharp break by undecideds toward the out party
  • Republicans win national House vote by 3.5 points, in line with recent elections

Election data – unless otherwise specified – come from Dave Leip’s invaluable website.

2022 Senate elections – 14 Democratic incumbents/open seats:

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected/apptd
Brian SchatzHIYes29.05.53.538.051.3%2012
Patrick LeahyVTYes28.95.53.537.928.2%1974
Chris Van HollenMDYes26.25.53.535.225.2%2016
Alex PadillaCAYes24.91.83.530.22021
Chuck SchumerNYYes20.25.53.529.243.4%1998
Richard BlumenthalCTYes13.95.53.522.928.6%2010
Patty MurrayWAYes13.75.53.522.718.0%1992
Tammy DuckworthILYes13.35.53.522.315.1%2016
Ron WydenORYes10.15.53.519.123.3%1996
Michael BennetCOYes5.75.53.514.75.7%2009
Maggie HassanNHYes1.25.53.510.20.1%2016
Catherine Cortez-MastoNVYes-
Mark KellyAZYes-
Raphael WarnockGAYes-

After losing nine Senate seats in 2014, Democrats are only defending 14 seats in 2022, and they are on very favorable turf to do so. Not only did Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr. win all of these states in 2020, their average partisan lean is D+12.4 – D+15.6 if you exclude trending-Democratic-but-still-Republican-leaning Arizona and Georgia. Moreover, not a single Democratic incumbent is retiring, reflecting confidence they will retain their majority.

Ten of these 14 incumbents – Senate President pro tempore Pat Leahy of Vermont, aiming for a ninth Senate term at the age of 82, and those in Hawaii, Maryland, California, New York, Connecticut, Washington, Illinois, Oregon and Colorado – are heavy favorites to win reelection; even if Republicans have a monster night in 2022 – winning the national House vote by an astonishing 7.0 points – and even Michael Bennet of Colorado would still be a 7-3 favorite.

That leaves four remotely vulnerable seats. Going in reverse order of retention likelihood, we find two swing-state incumbent Democrats seeking a second term: Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Catherine Cortez-Masto of Nevada. Even in a relatively pro-Republican environment, both would be moderately favored – likely winning by low single digits. The wild card in New Hampshire is popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu, who, despite being a safe bet to win reelection in 2022, is being heavily recruited to run against Hassan, herself a former governor. Hassan won by just 1,017 votes in 2016, defeating first-term Republican Kelly Ayotte. Sununu’s entry would make this race a pure toss-up – an epic battle of political heavyweights. In Nevada, meanwhile, former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who lost the 2018 gubernatorial election by just 4.1 points in a strong Democratic year, is reportedly gearing up to run. Laxalt, like Sununu, is the son of a former governor, making him a potentially formidable opponent.

History and “fundamentals,” finally, suggest Kelly and Warnock are moderate underdogs for reelection, especially if we only credit them with one-third the estimated incumbency advantage. Even in the unlikely event Democrats re-run their 2020 turnout, and their opponents are weakened – either distracted by the ongoing Arizona 2020 ballot “audit” or lacking election experience, like former National Football League and University of Georgia Herschel Walker – both men are toss-ups at best. That all said, the worst-case scenario is that they only have a 1-in-6 chance of winning – equivalent to a single number coming up on a fair die roll.

Bottom line: Democrats will lose between zero and four Senate seats, with one-to-three likeliest.

2022 Senate elections – 20 Republican incumbents/open seats:

NameStateRun 20223W-RDMINCNat LeanTotalLast marginFirst elected/apptd
Pat ToomeyPANo-
Ron JohnsonWI???-2.4-3.33.5-2.23.4%2010
Marco RubioFLYes-5.5-3.33.5-5.37.7%2010
Richard BurrNCNo-
Rob PortmanOHNo-
Chuck GrassleyIA???-9.8-3.33.5-9.624.4%1980
Lisa MurkowskiAKYes-15.8-3.33.5-15.632.7%2002
Tim ScottSCYes-15.9-3.33.5-15.723.6%2013
Roy BluntMONo-
Todd YoungINYes-19.6-3.33.5-19.49.7%2016
Jerry MoranKSYes-21.3-3.33.5-21.129.9%2010
John KennedyLAYes-22.3-3.33.5-22.121.3%2016
Mike LeeUTYes-27.6-3.33.5-27.441.1%2010
Richard ShelbyALNo-
John ThuneSDYes-29.6-3.33.5-29.443.7%2004
Rand PaulKYNo-30.3-3.33.5-30.114.6%2010
John BoozmanARYes-30.3-3.33.5-30.123.6%2010
Mike CrapoIDYes-34.8-3.33.5-34.638.4%1998
John HoevenNDYes-35.4-3.33.5-35.261.5%2010
James LankfordOKYes-37.8-3.33.5-37.643.2%2014

Like Democrats, Republicans are defending Senate seats on extremely favorable turf: the average partisan lean of these 20 states is R+20.2, but take away the swing/lean Republican states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida, and it jumps to R+24.3. Which makes all the more puzzling why six Republican Senators have already announced plans not to seek reelection in 2022 – and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and seven-termer Chuck Grassley of Iowa have not yet announced either way. It is a truism that an early wave of retirements by elected officials of one party presages an electoral walloping for that party – but in this case that is the Republicans, who only need to net one seat in what should be a good year for Republicans to win back the Senate.

For all that, though, I anticipate easy Republican wins in Oklahoma, North Dakota, Idaho, Arkansas, Kentucky, South Dakota, Utah, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana and South Carolina. And as much drama as former president Donald J. Trump and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell may cause in the Republican Senate primary in Alabama – where Democrat-turned-Republican Richard Shelby is retiring after six terms – the Republican nominee is still heavily favored to win. And we should probably add R+9.8 Iowa to this list, especially if Grassley runs for reelection.

Which brings us to two wild-card races: Lisa Murkowski’s reelection bid in Alaska and the open seat left by Roy Blunt’s retirement in Missouri. Murkowski – seeking her fourth full term in office – would normally be a shoo-in to win reelection in R+15.8 Alaska. However, Alaska will use a “jungle primary” for the first time in 2022 – and Murkowski, who has drawn the ire of Trump and his allies for her relatively moderate voting record, will face a stiff challenge from Republican Kelly Tshibaka, a former commissioner of the state Department of Administration. If Murkowski finishes in the top two, she would likely prevail in the runoff. But if the runoff is between, say, Tshibaka and Independent 2020 Senate nominee Al Gross – anything is possible.

In Missouri, meanwhile, the spanner in the works is former governor Eric Greitens, who resigned amid criminal clouds in June 2018 – then announced his Senate candidacy on March 22, 2021. Blunt only won reelection by 2.8 points in 2016 – a relatively neutral year – so despite Missouri being R+19.0, Greitens as the GOP nominee could make this race a toss-up. Possibly. Maybe.

On balance, however, Republicans are still more likely than not to win all 15 of these seats. And the “fundamentals” suggest they should also be favored to retain the seat being vacated by Rob Portman in R+9.8 Ohio, although the announcement by Ohio House Member Tim Ryan that he is running for the Democratic nomination decreases that probability to perhaps “only” 2-1.

Tim Ryan may be the only Democrat who could win an open Senate seat in Ohio in 2022.

Similar hope accrues to the recent announcement by Florida House Member Val Demings that she will seek the Democratic Senate nomination against two-term Republican Marco Rubio. Florida has drifted from being a true swing state to one 5.5 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, and Rubio will have the advantages of incumbency and (probably) a pro-Republican environment. Nonetheless, Demings has an expanding national profile after reportedly being on Biden’s vice-presidential short list and serving as a House Manager in Trump’s first impeachment trial. Thus, like Ryan in Ohio, a Demings nomination likely reduces the odds to “only” 2-1 against.

Could Val Demings defeat two-term Republican Marco Rubio in Florida in 2022?

This brings us, finally, to the three most winnable elections for Democrats according to the fundamentals: North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Despite being 5.8 points more Republican than the nation as a whole, North Carolina – where three-term Senator Richard Burr is retiring – poses a strong pickup opportunity for Democrats (even in a bad year for them overall) because of what will likely be a messy and chaotic nomination process. While this could happen on the Democratic side, where former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is an early front-runner, I argue fear of losing the Senate makes them more likely to unite early around Beasley or some other candidate.

If Johnson seeks a third term in 2022, the combination of incumbency, Wisconsin’s Republican drift and a likely pro-Republican environment makes him something like a 3-1 favorite. But if he does not run, this race is much closer – though still far from a likely Democratic pickup. One problem is a lack of star power on the Democratic side – and no clear signal from Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes whether he will run for the Senate or seek reelection. Even then, this race would begin as a toss-up.

And, just as in 2020, control of the Senate may come down to Pennsylvania, where Pat Toomey is retiring after two terms – and two very narrow victories (2.0 points in 2010, 1.4 points in 2016). Effectively a toss-up, this is the Democrats’ best chance to pick up a state – especially if Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman wins the nomination, though state representative Malcolm Kenyatta – a young, openly-gay, black progressive – could drive base Democratic turnout.

Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman could join fellow Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey in the Senate in January 2023.

As could State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta

Bottom line: There is no obvious Republican loss, only good-to-solid opportunities in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin; less-good opportunities in Florida and Ohio and hard-to-decipher long shots in Alaska and Missouri. These races effectively come down to a battle between historic trends – which suggest Republicans should win all of these races – vs. Republican division/Democratic unity – giving Democrats a realistic shot at winning from one to five seats. This suggests a practical pick-up range for Democrats of zero-to-three seats.

Overall outlook. The fundamentals – a Republican-leaning map (median 2022 Senate election = R+6.5 state), a rough balance in incumbency and what should be a pro-Republican environment – say Democrats have an uphill battle to retain the Senate in 2022. Democrats have two seats more likely than not to flip – Arizona, Georgia – and two other vulnerable seats – Nevada and New Hampshire, while the best Democratic pickups opportunities – Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio – still lean Republican. That said, Democrats have no open seats, while Republicans have at least six, which historically signals Democratic strength. And Democratic candidate recruitment has strongly outclassed that of Republicans – who would apparently rather fight proxy Trump-McConnell battles than nominate strong candidates.

In short, anything from Democrats losing a net four seats to Democrats gaining six seats is broadly plausible…though a range of a net loss of three to a net gain of three is as narrow as I am willing to go at this point. Make of it what you will that the midpoint of this range is status quo—and continued Democratic control of the Senate.

Until next time…please wear a mask as necessary to protect yourself and others – and if you have not already done so, get vaccinated against COVID-19! And if you like what you read on this website, please consider making a donation. Thank you.

[1] Two Independents – Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont – caucus with Democrats.

[2] All candidates run in same election regardless of party; if no candidate tops 50%, top two finishers advance to runoff

6 thoughts on “A Wicked Early Look At U.S. Senate Races in 2022

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