Sununu exit underscores uncertain GOP path to gain Senate majority

Senate Republicans harboring visions of securing a majority in next year’s midterms suffered a blow Tuesday when perhaps their most valuable potential recruit, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), said he would not challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).

But a year before Election Day, both Republicans and Democrats have reason to cling to optimism — and harbor deep doubts — about their chances of claiming control of the U.S. Senate. The GOP path to a majority will not be smooth, the Democratic bulwarks are not fully fortified and a challenging year lies ahead for both parties.

“We have to win these seats one by one by one,” said Martha McKenna, a Democratic strategist who served in top roles at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). “These are local races.”

For Republicans, Sununu’s decision to forgo a race is a substantial blow. He won reelection in 2020 with 65 percent of the vote, 20 points higher than former President Trump’s performance in the same election. The GOP suffered a second setback Tuesday when former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who lost to Hassan by just over 1,000 votes six years ago, made clear she too would not run.

“We will continue to focus on our family, professional careers and electing Republicans here at home,” Ayotte said in a statement, hours after Sununu’s announcement.

But Republicans have the opportunity to win back several Democratic-held seats, including two lost in special elections in the last year — one held by Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), the other by Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). 

“We have great candidates running across the country while Joe Biden and the Democrat Party’s numbers are crumbling everywhere,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

Republicans will also challenge Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Hassan is unlikely to get a free pass.

“I frankly think Republicans stand to win 53, 54 seats in the U.S. Senate, and that includes New Hampshire,” Sununu told reporters as he took himself out of the race. “It’s not just Chris Sununu who can win this seat.”

The GOP sees the wind in their sails after off-year elections in which their party’s nominee recaptured control of Virginia’s governorship for the first time in a dozen years, and at a moment when President Biden’s approval rating has sunk to its lowest point.

“There’s a lot of challenges for the Democratic Party. There’s history; it’s the off year; there’s always a headwind. What’s different for the Democrats this time is they’re not unified, which is unusual when the party has the White House,” said Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the NRSC. “Normally there is a greater sense of unity. I don’t see that really getting repaired any time soon.”

But Republicans are on defense, too, in states that Biden won or narrowly lost in 2020. In three of those states — Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Georgia — along with Ohio, where Trump won by a wider margin, Republican primaries have already descended into a cavalcade of negative advertisements and ill will.

The crowded primaries, several of which have devolved into a competition for Trump’s attention, raise uncomfortable comparisons to contests in 2010 and 2012, when archconservative Republicans like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Rep. Ken Buck (R) in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Richard Mourdock in Indiana and then-Rep. Todd Akin (R) in Missouri all lost general election races after winning Republican primaries over more palatable rivals.

“There is certainly no Glenn Youngkin running in any of these Senate primaries across the map,” said David Bergstein, a spokesman for the DSCC, referring to Virginia’s governor-elect. “Senate races do not always move with the national environment.” 

Democrats are not immune to their own crowded primaries, in an era in which party leaders on both sides have lost the ability to effectively choose their nominees. The Democratic infighting on Capitol Hill is a microcosm of a larger fight for the soul of the party between factions that traded blame over the Virginia loss. 

The next front in that fight is likely to play out in the party’s own Senate primary contests, in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In those states, archetypal Democratic candidates that party leaders once favored are running against progressive and populist contenders who, in some cases, are raising money at a torrid clip.

Another crowded field of Democrats are vying for the right to take on Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), whose poll numbers are suffering in a state Biden narrowly carried. And Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) is mounting a credible challenge to Sen. Marco Rubio (R), albeit in a state that has trended toward Republicans in recent years.

Recent midterm elections have not been kind to a president’s party, with the notable exception of 2018, when Republicans netted two Democratic seats at the same time they lost control of the U.S. House. But if Democrats can cling to any hope, it is that the midterm elections are a year away — a year in which money from the bipartisan infrastructure bill will begin flowing, Democrats seem on course to pass a massive reconciliation measure and the economy continues to rebound.

All of that, Democrats hope, will conspire to raise their fortunes — and Biden’s approval ratings.

“His numbers will improve as a couple of things happen: We get construction projects and construction jobs moving, we get the cybersecurity and broadband jobs going. Parents are breathing a sigh of relief as younger kids are getting vaccinated and you have less of a lump in your throat as kids go off to school every morning,” McKenna said. “The numbers are going to improve as we move into a year of action.”

Republicans see the next year heading in a very different direction: Voter perceptions of economic strength do not match what economists say is a robust recovery, and Republicans interpret voter sentiment on the Democratic reconciliation package as sharply negative, which they see buoying their odds.

“We’re outraising the Democrats every month because voters across the country are rejecting the Democrats’ failed policies and agenda,” the NRSC’s Hartline said. “We’re very confident that next November we’ll be celebrating a new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate.”

Tags Catherine Cortez Masto Chris Sununu Donald Trump Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Kelly Ayotte Ken Buck Maggie Hassan Marco Rubio Mark Kelly Michael Bennet Raphael Warnock Ron Johnson Val Demings
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