Every election sets the stage for the next, and so the 2022 midterm cycle is already upon us – like it or not.
With Senate control about to be balanced on a knife-edge once Georgia certifies its runoff results (probably late next week), a House of Representatives in which Democrats hold only a narrow majority, and a swing to Democratic control of the executive branch, the incoming Biden administration will be eager to buttress its legislative support in a couple of years. It is certainly possible, but it will not be easy.
The path of least resistance will be in the Senate. There, Democrats will control the current congress with only a 50-50 partisan split, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to break any tie vote. Fourteen Democrats will be up for reelection in 2022. This number includes Raphael Warnock, who displaced Georgia Republican Kelly Loeffler in this month’s special election to complete the term of former Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned for health reasons. Republicans will be defending 20 seats. Those include at least two, presently held by Richard Burr of North Carolina and Patrick Toomey of Pennsylvania, whose incumbents do not plan to seek reelection. Republican Ron Johnson of Wisconsin may also be vulnerable, especially since he first announced but later withdrew plans to challenge his own state’s presidential electoral votes.
Among Democrats, I would rate only Warnock and Arizona’s Mark Kelly – who also won a special election – as notably vulnerable in 2022, and I don't think Kelly will be particularly easy to beat. Some see Democrat Michael Bennet as another target for a Republican flip, but given Colorado’s recent voting trends that seems less likely to me. The GOP will hope to recapture the Senate two years from now, but the prospects do not look especially good.
The House of Representatives is another story. A poor showing in November left Democrats with a cushion of no more than a half-dozen seats (one race was still undecided at this writing) that they could afford to lose while still keeping control of the chamber. A president’s party tends to lose more like two dozen in the first-term midterms. And Democrats in 2022 will be running in redrawn and reapportioned districts that will, on balance, favor Republicans.
Citing analyst Jim Ellis, Ballotpedia identified 28 House districts where the winner received 52% of the vote or less in 2020. Only four of those are held by Republicans. The disadvantageous electoral map is, to a considerable extent, fallout of the 2018 midterms, in which Democrats swept to House control by winning many suburban swing districts. They surrendered part of that bounty in 2020. Narrow victories in other places may in part have been due to a strong turnout of voters who opposed President Donald Trump. Democrats will have a big task to turn those voters out once again in 2022, when Trump will not be on the ballot and a Democratic administration will be promoting policies that voters in purple places do not always favor.
So it is plausible, and maybe more likely than not, that the Congress that follows this one will have a GOP majority in the House while the Senate winds up more firmly, but still narrowly, in the hands of Democrats. This would duplicate the situation President Barack Obama faced in the last two years of his first term, except that Supreme Court nominations and perhaps ordinary legislation (if Democrats eliminate the filibuster) will be able to get through that narrow majority.
A lot of political and policymaking drama will play out between now and Nov. 8, 2022, when voters will choose the next Congress. But the stage is set, and the cast of performers is mostly chosen.