Republican retirements in the Senate could help President Biden buck a trend of unfavorable midterm elections for the party in the White House — or produce an upper chamber GOP conference even friendlier to former President Donald Trump than the existing one.
The 2022 elections are expected to set up primaries between Trump-friendly populists and more establishment, business-wing Republicans in the mold of the Senate minority leader, who has reportedly told associates he would like to turn the page on the former president. Only seven Republican senators voted to object to the electoral vote tally of at least one state won by Biden, compared to over 130 GOP members of the House.
So far, only three incumbent Republicans have said they will not seek reelection next year. But Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Richard Burr of North Carolina all represent relatively competitive states. Their departures may make it at least marginally more difficult for the GOP to recapture the Senate, which they just barely lost in a pair of runoff elections in Georgia earlier this month.
Republicans are expected to defend 20 seats to the Democrats’ 14. There is no Democratic incumbent seeking reelection in a state redder than Georgia, where Raphael Warnock beat Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler 51% to 49% — the larger of the two runoff margins there. Trump also lost Georgia to Biden by a slim margin, though he blamed voter fraud for the outcome and sparked a feud with the state GOP.
Still, it is possible that the national environment will shift toward Republicans. The party made gains in 1994 under President Bill Clinton and in both 2010 and 2014 under President Barack Obama. Democrats similarly won control of the House in 2018 in a rebuke to Trump.
None of the retiring Republicans are considered to be Trump enthusiasts. Toomey said the former president committed “impeachable” offenses on Jan. 6, when violent protesters stormed the Capitol in response to Trump’s claims that the presidential election was stolen. He was also one of just five Republican senators to vote against dismissing the charge of incitement against Trump on Tuesday.
Neither Portman nor Burr went that far. But both are considered friendly to the party’s leadership class, whose relationship with Trump was always complicated and deteriorated further following the Capitol attack. Portman complained, “It has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy” and boasted he has “consistently been named one of most bipartisan senators.” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a top GOP centrist, praised him as “an exceptional senator” in a statement following his announcement.
Portman’s seat is one that could certainly get Trumpier.
“The presidential general election battlegrounds staples of Ohio and Florida in the 2000s have moved into GOP strongholds,” said Republican strategist Nicholas Everhart. “Contrary to statewide campaigns in Ohio leading up to 2014, the real battle for the open U.S. Senate seat is not the general election but instead the Republican primary.”
“Aside from a handful of poorly run Supreme Court races and Jim Renacci’s disastrously underperforming U.S. Senate race in 2016 versus Sherrod Brown, Republicans have dominated at the statewide level in Ohio,” added Everhart, who is based in the state. “That domination has only been exacerbated by the new GOP Trump coalition of suburbs/rural voters combined with ancestrally white working, blue-collar regions in the Northeast and Southeast regions of the state.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, a leading Trump ally, has left open the possibility of a run.
Lara Trump, the wife of the former president’s son Eric, has floated a bid for Burr’s Senate seat in North Carolina. She emerged as a popular surrogate for her father-in-law’s reelection campaign.
A former head of the conservative group Club for Growth and two-time GOP primary challenger to pro-abortion rights centrist Sen. Arlen Specter, who later switched to the Democratic primary, Toomey found Trump a poor fit for his free-market philosophy. When then-Rep. Lou Barletta, a populist immigration hawk aligned with Trump, was the 2018 GOP nominee for the Senate in Pennsylvania, he lost by 12 points. Yet that was a good cycle for Democrats, and Barletta was running against Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a big family name in the Keystone State.
“Always harder to win an open seat versus reelecting an incumbent,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican consultant in the commonwealth. “There will be vigorous primaries on both sides. Just relying on normal off-year dynamics and demographics won’t be enough.”
“The 2016 version of this race was the most expensive Senate race of all time at that time, so imagine how much money will be in this race,” Nicholas added. “No one is talking about either of the ’16 Democratic candidates this time, Katie McGinty or Joe Sestak.”
The battle over Trump and the direction of the GOP will loom large in races all over the country next year. Former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is running for governor of Arkansas with Trump’s blessing. Her father is former Gov. Mike Huckabee. The 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, with Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming the most prominent among them, could face primary challenges. Republican senators who vote to convict the former president may be next.