Republicans dash to defend perilous 2022 Senate map

By Burgess Everett and John Bresnahan

Sen. Chuck Grassley will be 89 when the 2022 midterm campaign rolls around. Republicans are counting on him to run for an eighth term.

“I hope Chuck Grassley comes back. He’s very healthy and I hope he comes back really strong. That will be really important,” said incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott of Florida in an interview. “I don’t think Chuck Grassley is beatable.”

Grassley, who has been asymptomatic after testing positive for coronavirus, hasn’t decided. But his lock on Iowa’s Senate seat — and the prospect that he could retire — hits directly at the challenge facing Scott and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who must defend at least 20 seats to Democrats’ 13.

Ahead of another brutal fight for Senate control and a 2022 map tilted against the GOP, Republicans are racing to persuade their incumbents to run again. Leadership is already getting some positive results, with a number of GOP senators signaling they will run for reelection in battleground states.

The tough map for Senate Republicans is likely to have a huge impact on what, if any, deals McConnell makes with President-elect Joe Biden and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). And as in this last cycle, McConnell will be looking to protect vulnerable incumbents — both by moving legislation they support and saving them from having to cast tough votes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters during a press conference.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell speaks to reporters during a press conference.

“McConnell is a results-oriented leader,” said Senate GOP Conference Chair John Barrasso (Wyo.). “We’re gonna want to stay in the majority in 2022, and we’re gonna need to show the country we’re a party of governing, not grandstanding.”

Some Republicans have made clear they’re not sticking around. Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have already announced their retirement plans, and the GOP doesn’t want Grassley to join them. Ditto Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who said that he is undecided and has “got to see how things play out.”

Scott said he is optimistic Johnson is finding a groove in the Senate and will decide to run again in his swing state. Sen. Kelly Loeffler also will have to run again next cycle if she wins the current Georgia Senate runoff on Jan. 5.

Meanwhile, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said he’s doing all the things necessary to run for re-election even though he’s made no announcement. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said she will keep doing what “Alaskans expect me to do until they tell me not to do it anymore.”

Others facing potentially tough races were even firmer on their plans for the next election. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said “we’re off and running” in his bid for a third term in 2022. And Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said he plans to run, with the expectation of favorable terrain for Republicans with a Democrat in the White House.

“Normally the first midterm election after the presidential is good for the opposite party,” Portman said. “Donald Trump just won Ohio by eight points twice. I beat [Trump] by 13 points last time [in 2016]. Should be a good year for Republicans.”

Depending on the results in Georgia’s two Senate runoffs in January, Democrats could either have the majority or need one or two seats to take it back. That’s not certain by any means given the conservative lean to many of the states with Senate races in 2022. Pennsylvania’s open seat is probably Democrats’ best target for a pick-up, with Wisconsin and North Carolina not far behind.

“Democrats are focused on winning two competitive runoff elections in Georgia in less than 50 days,” said Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Republicans know Senators Loeffler and Perdue are on the verge of losing their seats and the Senate majority, and are clearly worried about losing even more seats next cycle.”

Democrats, however, have underperformed in Senate campaigns in recent cycles, despite winnable races and some huge fundraising advantages thanks to ActBlue, the online fundraising portal that's delivered historic sums from the grassroots.

For Republicans, getting their incumbents to run again might not be enough to keep control of the chamber. They need to go on offense too, and there are scant opportunities. So far, no Democrats have announced plans to retire and they don’t have any seats up in states won by Trump this year.

New Hampshire is one possibility for the GOP. Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan narrowly won in 2016 and said in a brief interview that she will soon make an announcement on her plans for next cycle.

Scott, a former governor, is leaning on his relationships with other GOP governors to try to lure them to the Senate and wants to see New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu make a run.

Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) is also running for reelection after winning a close race four years ago. Trump lost Nevada by only a couple percentage points earlier this month.

And Sen.-elect Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.) will have to run again in 2022. Scott said the GOP’s recent losses there won’t deter him from trying to recruit Gov. Doug Ducey. “I don’t think it’s logical that both the senators from Arizona are Democrats,” said Scott. The last time that happened was nearly 70 years ago.

Meanwhile, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) says he’s not interested in a Senate bid and seems more curious about a presidential race in 2024. But several Maryland Democratic sources say Sen. Chris Van Hollen (Md.) is “very concerned” about a potential Hogan candidacy and is watching Hogan closely.

“I think Larry could [run],” Scott said. “People perceive him to be a successful governor. And I think he likes the political process. I think he likes trying to do good things. You could see him doing it.”

The decisions senators make in the coming weeks won’t just animate the battle for the upper chamber but could reshape the Senate altogether. For instance, the two longtime dealmakers atop the Senate Appropriations Committee are still weighing whether to give it another go.

Eighty-year-old Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the longest-serving senator, said he will make up his mind on his future in the fall of 2021.

“I’ll talk to you after January,” added Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the 86-year-old chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “They’re trying to get me to run, but it’s my sixth term. Let’s talk after January.”

Shelby’s seat is in safely red Alabama, so McConnell and Scott wouldn’t have to worry about losing it. But there would be a long list of Republicans seeking to replace him, including former Shelby aides, state officials and several members of the Alabama congressional delegation. Vermont is also unlikely to be up for grabs if Leahy does retire.

In California, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' seat will be filled in January by the governor and that person will have to run again in 2022. Some Democrats think it's possible Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) could step down early from a term that ends in 2024.

As for Grassley, who follows the House speaker in the line of presidential succession, his decision will probably come sometime next year. Grassley’s colleagues think he’s leaning toward yet another campaign.

“He will probably make that determination soon,” said one Republican senator. “I am just operating under the assumption that he is running.”