Better candidates may not be enough for Democrats to retain the Senate

The contest this year for control of the evenly divided Senate comes down to “candidates,” where the Democrats have an advantage, versus “the climate,” which may prove lethal for them. 

As the fall field takes shape in a half dozen Senate races that will determine the majority next year, Democrats have stronger candidates, or the Republican standard bearer is more flawed. However, with raging inflation, high gas prices and President Biden’s low approval numbers — and given the historical pattern of midterm setbacks for the party that controls the White House — better candidates may not much matter.

Republicans seem almost certain to take back the House, where the Democrats hold an edge of only five seats. The GOP advantages in gerrymandered redistricting alone makes up that difference.  

There are four Democratic-held Senate seats under challenge.

New Hampshire’s Sen. Maggie Hassan got a break when popular Gov. Chris Sununu decided not to run.

Nevada’s Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto faces a tough challenge from Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt.

Georgia’s Raphael Warnock, the pastor at Martin Luther King’s church, has proven an effective Senator and fund-raiser; his opponent, former Georgia football great Herschel Walker has been embroiled in personal controversies, shows little grasp of issues and has been caught in lies. The race still is close. 

Arizona’s Mark Kelly also has made a mark and is a prolific fund-raiser. None of his possible Republican opponents — the GOP primary is Aug. 2 — would be confused with the iconic late Sen. John McCain. One, in an Easter ad, depicted himself as a savior; another raised the possibility of banning contraceptives, and the current Attorney General, pandering to Trump, continues to peddle the disproven charge of voter fraud in 2020.

If Democrats lose one or two of these seats, Democrats will need to win a couple Republican-held seats.

One Republican incumbent in deep trouble is Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson, whose poll numbers are terrible. The question is can Democrats nominate a more appealing challenger on Aug. 9? 

Two states that went for Trump — Ohio and North Carolina — have strong Democratic candidates: Rep. Tim Ryan in the Buckeye state and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in North Carolina. In Ohio, the GOP nominee, J.D. Vance flipped from a Trump critic to Trump cheerleader; on Ukraine, he charged that Biden sought a conflict with Vladimir Putin because the Russian didn’t “believe in transgender rights.” In North Carolina, Republican candidate Rep. Ted Budd, a gun shop owner, has embraced Republican Senate campaign chair Rick Scott’s economic plan, which would boost taxes on some lower- and middle-class Americans and sunset Social Security and Medicare every five years.

The Democratic edge in candidates in these two states could be offset by conditions and the advantage the GOP usually enjoys in these states in off-year elections.

Pennsylvania is in such chaos any forecast is impossible. Two Republicans — celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz and hedge fund executive David McCormick — virtually tied in the primary and now face a contentious recount; legal squabbles could stretch out for weeks, even months. In 1964 a similar situation on the Democratic side lasted until late August; in a year in which President Lyndon Johnson won the state in a landslide, Republicans barely carried the Senate seat.

The maverick Democrat, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, won a huge primary victory; however, he suffered a stroke four days before the election, and the campaign has not been transparent about his condition.

The slim Democratic hopes for retaining the House majority vanished with the latest redistricting. A Democratic gerrymandering in New York was thrown out by the state courts, while a Republican gerrymandering slipped by in Ohio, in part due to a legal blunder by Democrats.

The upshot, including few other states, says David Wasserman of the Cook Report and the expert on Congressional elections, is “a swing of seven or eight seats” for the GOP. Wasserman now predicts a GOP gain of 20 to 35 House seats in November.

One striking illustration is in Ohio. In Toledo, Republicans gerrymandered Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s district from one that Biden carried by 19 points to one that Trump won. Kaptur now faces a serious challenge from Jason Majewski, who attended the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, painted a huge picture of Donald Trump on his front yard and embraces the nutty QAnon conspiracy theories.

The bottom line for Democrats: If by October, inflation declines to 5 percent or less (about the same as the growth rate in wages) and Biden’s job approval moves above the low 40s (possible only if other Democrats start talking about what he has accomplished rather than what he hasn’t done) they have a shot — with better candidates — to hold the Senate.

There is no margin for error.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for The Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Adam Laxalt Biden Biden approval rating Catherine Cortez Masto Cheri Beasley Chris Sununu David McCormick Democratic candidates Democratic control of US Senate Gerrymandering Herschel Walker Inflation J.D. Vance John Fetterman Maggie Hassan Marcy Kaptur Mark Kelly Mehmet Oz Raphael Warnock Rick Scott Ron Johnson Senate races Ted Budd Tim Ryan

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