Johnson, Thune signal GOP’s rising confidence

Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.)
Greg Nash

The decisions by Republican Sens. John Thune (S.D.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) to run for reelection after publicly being on the fence for months about whether to retire from Congress reflect a growing confidence among Republican lawmakers that they’ll find themselves back in the majority next year.

Both senior Republican lawmakers announced their decisions over the weekend, ending weeks of heavy speculation about their plans.

Thune’s future, in particular, had been a hot topic of discussion among political pundits who wondered if his public disagreements with former President Trump and Trump’s threat to retaliate against him in this year’s primary would prompt him to retire instead of pursue a chance to become the next Senate GOP leader.

But the prospect of serving next year in a new Senate Republican majority is proving too tempting to pass up.

Thune on Monday said the seemingly growing likelihood of winning back the Senate majority in a few months was a significant factor in his decision.

“The political environment is going to be really good for us. The Democrats have overreached, people are going to want a check and balance. The question is, of course, in all these states [where] we have open seats if we can nominate electable people. If we do and we have quality candidates, then I think the sky’s the limit,” he said.

Thune said the chance Republicans will control the Senate agenda in 2023 was “a big consideration.”

“You never know some of these things for sure. It can change in a hurry, but at least the trajectory we’re on, right, and what seems to be baked in in terms of people’s views of the current administration and their agenda sets up really well for us,” he said.

Thune spoke to Johnson before the Wisconsin senator announced his own decision to run for reelection and said winning back the majority “is a big motivation for him as well.”

 “Anybody who is up this time and decides to run again is thinking long and hard about the possibility that we could be in the majority and what a difference that could make for the country,” he said.

Republicans feel they have a strong wind at their backs heading into Election Day.

President Biden’s approval stands at 43 percent, only a few points above where Trump was at a similar point in his presidency. GOP lawmakers feel further emboldened by the strong performance of Republican candidates in the Nov. 2 election in Virginia, where Glenn Youngkin (R) won the governor’s race in a state that Biden carried by 10 points a year before.

“The midterms are going to be great for Republicans. History points to midterms being good for the party out of power, and you’re seeing members like Thune and Ron Johnson deciding to run because they want to be around and back in the majority,” said Brian Darling, a Republican strategist and former Senate aide.

“Most Republicans in the Senate think there’s a good chance that they take back the majority, and it seems a slam dunk that Republicans take over in the House,” he added. “It’s a great environment. The presidential poll numbers are really low.”

Political handicappers for months have rated Republicans as having a better chance of picking up the House, where Democrats hold a tenuous six-seat edge.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suffered another setback Monday when Rep. Ed Perlmutter (Colo.) became the 26th House Democrat to announce he would not be seeking reelection in the fall.

Democrats are seen as having a better chance of holding onto their narrow Senate majority because they only need to defend 14 seats compared to the 20 seats Republicans must defend.

Democrats also have incumbents running for the most vulnerable Democratic-held seats in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire and are seen as having a good chance to win an open seat in Pennsylvania, where Sen. Pat Toomey (R) is retiring.

Other senior Republicans announced their intention to retire earlier in the election cycle, including Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Richard Burr (N.C.) and Richard Shelby (Ala.).

But those announcements were seen more as a reflection of their long Senate careers and desire to move on to the next chapters of their lives than a statement on the political environment.

In recent weeks, however, the sentiment is growing that Republicans could win back both the Senate as well as the House later this year.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics shifted three Senate races in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada where Democrats were favored to the “toss-up” category in November.

“If the environment doesn’t change, I think the Democrats are defending enough vulnerable Senate seats that you probably expect the Republicans to win at least one of them,” said Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball.

“Conventional wisdom is that the House flips before the Senate, which I think is probably right, but I think both majorities are very much in peril given the political situation,” he said, noting that “there’s opportunity for that to change” in the next ten months before Election Day.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made no secret of the fact that he’s optimistic about a Republican takeover of the Senate later this year.

“I think we’re going to have a good environment,” McConnell told reporters last month, pointing to the results in the recent Virginia and New Jersey elections.

He said it’s “very difficult to explain the outcome in New Jersey in any other way than it was a referendum on the Biden administration,” pointing out that Biden carried the state by 16 points in 2020 and yet the little-known and underfunded Republican candidate for governor, Jack Ciattarelli, came within 3 points of defeating incumbent Phil Murphy (D).

“If you look at the nature of their problems, the open border, the raging inflation, the rise in crime, I think the likelihood of their dilemma getting much better in a year is pretty slim. Secondly, you know the history. There are only three times in American history where the party of the president has actually gained seats two years into a first term,” McConnell observed.

Ross K. Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, who has held several Senate fellowships, said if the election were held tomorrow “the Democrats would take a beating.” 

Baker, however, said the outcome of the 2022 midterms are tough to predict 10 months out because of a number of wild cards, not the least of which is the influence of Trump, who is battling McConnell, Thune and other members of the GOP establishment.

“A lot depends on the personal idiosyncrasies of Donald Trump and what he does on the sidelines of American politics,” he said. “He’s someone who is completely unpredictable.”

Baker also said the number of COVID-19 infections and inflation numbers — both of which are souring the public view of Biden’s presidency — could improve.

“The interpretation of how the administration is handling COVID as of the first week of 2022 may be very different in how things look in October of 2022. The inflation, for example, may abate as the supply chains become unfrozen,” he said. “So much is in flux.”

Tags Donald Trump Ed Perlmutter Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden John Thune Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pat Toomey Phil Murphy Richard Burr Richard Shelby Rob Portman Ron Johnson Roy Blunt
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