The Sweep: Democrats Take the Senate, but For How Long?

Plus, a look ahead to the 2022 Senate map.

Welcome to 2021—an election year for some states and a short break for Georgians who will be back at it in no time, hearing ads about their newly elected senator, Raphael Warnock, who is back up in 2022. 

Campaign Quick Hits

Least shocking statistic you will read today: Nine of the top 10 highest-spending advertising Senate races were in the 2020 election cycle and more money was spent on advertising in the Perdue/Ossoff race than any Senate race in our nation’s history at $253 million. 

Yes, Virginia, there is a governor’s race: Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced that his 2021 Virginia gubernatorial campaign had raised $6.1 million in 2020, ending the year with $5.5 million cash on hand. He was already the odds-on favorite to win the primary—and the general election for that matter—but his fundraising prowess continues to astound. In 2017, Ralph Northam won the Democratic primary with a total of $6.4 million. By this point, he had raised only $3 million and had $2.2 million on hand.  And the only person ever to have outraised Northam in the history of Virginia elections? Why, yes, it was Terry McAuliffe in 2013. 

New man on the Minnesota Vikings: Minnesota’s Democratic Gov. Tim Walz is watching his 2022 back in a state that may or may not be creeping redder. Minnesotans last elected a Republican governor—Tim Pawlenty—in 2006. But in 2016, Trump lost the state by only 1.5 percent (although he lost it by just over 7 points in 2020). The more interesting question for now will be which way Republicans decide to go. President Trump’s personal friend, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he is 90 percent to 95 percent likely to run for governor next year. Lindell said that he has spent “more than $1 million of his own money” to uncover evidence that Donald Trump won the 2020 election “and that he has been working closely with former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn on probing allegations of election fraud.” There are plenty of other candidates, though, both from the usual ranks of elected officials and at least a couple Minnesota Vikings: Matt Birk and Chad Greenway.

A constitutional tail wag: I am keen to tell young communications professionals that their job is not just retrospective (“Oh, hey, so I got caught with a prostitute last night so I’m gonna need you to spin that for me”). They should be in the room as decisions are being made (“Sir, if you decide to visit a prostitute tonight, we have three options of how we would spin that if you get caught so let’s walk through those”). But—and this is the really important part—it is always a communication director’s job to sell the right choice reached for the right reasons. Decisions small or large should never be based on the communications strategy or because the comms person in the room says it’ll be easier to spin or more popular. It’s her job not to let the communications strategy tail wag the policy dog! 

With that in mind, I was struck by the statements sent out by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and Jerry Moran—both of whom voted with Trump 90 percent of the time in the 115th Congress—yesterday. 

“The founders entrusted our elections chiefly to the states—not Congress. They entrusted the election of our president to the people, acting through the electoral college—not Congress. And they entrusted the adjudication of election disputes to the courts—not Congress,” wrote Sen. Cotton in an op-ed for his hometown newspaper. 

And Moran who wrote for his paper, “Voting to object to the electoral process without a constitutional basis to do so may be expedient and lead to short-term political benefits for some, but would risk undermining our democracy — which is built upon the rule of law and separation of powers. No victory for one’s cause today can be worth what we would lose tomorrow.”

That’s the way it should be done. Make a decision—even an unpopular one with your voters—and then give your constituents the best arguments for why you made it. That’s what makes this a representative republic. We don’t elect people to vote in our place. We elect people who will study the issue, read the bill, follow their conscience and let the chips fall where they may at the next election. 

Georgia: It’s Finally Over

One could argue that 2020 actually came to an end on January 6, 2021. Democrats will control both Congress and the White House in just a few weeks, as perhaps more than 100 of Republicans in Congress will raise meritless objections today to the electoral votes sent in by the states. 

With 50 seats in the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris will be the tie-breaking vote and as long as Sen. Joe Manchin—the most conservative Democrat in their caucus approves—Biden is cleared for take off. No doubt the Biden team held off on announcing its pick for attorney general, for example, to see how these races turned out. And Mitch McConnell will once again have to grow accustomed to the title of minority leader.

So what actually happened in Georgia? It’s very simple: In a special election with wildly high turnout, Democrats slightly overperformed and Republicans underperformed. Let’s break down some of what we know.

About 4.5 million people voted in the two races—90 percent of the turnout in November, an unheard-of percentage for a special election. The last Senate runoff in Georgia was in 2008 when Saxby Chambliss won reelection and turnout was just above 53 percent of  that year’s presidential election. 

But to look at how turnout actually broke down, we should dig into the Perdue/Ossoff race, in which Sen. David Perdue led challenger Jon Ossoff by 88,000 votes in November, missing the 50 percent cutoff to avoid a runoff by just fewer than 14,000 votes. Based on their November results, Perdue is now running at 89 percent turnout from his voters but Ossoff is running at 93 percent. And that’s how special elections are won or lost. After that, the rest is just details. 

But diving into some of those details: Seven in 10 voted early—either by mail or in person. Not surprisingly, the trends on how voters voted held from November: The two Democrats held a 35 point lead with mail-in voters, and the two Republicans held a 25 point lead with Election Day voters. 

An interesting nugget on spending in these races: Republicans outspent Democrats overall. But the Democrats’ campaigns actually spent quite a bit more than their Republican counterparts—$160.1 million to $99.8 million. It was outside Republican groups that made up the difference, outspending Democrats $171.2 million to $58 million. Given the limitations placed on outside groups—they can’t coordinate their activities or messaging with the campaigns themselves—it’s becoming clear that the money is coming in at a highly diminished return. And remember that Democrats outspent Republicans in all nine Senate races that they lost in November.

And in the end, it wasn’t even all that close. Sen. Kelly Loeffler lost her seat by more than 53,000 votes—more than  four times as many votes as separated Biden and Trump. As of publishing, Ossoff leads Perdue by more than the Biden-Trump margin as well. 

The “why” will be debated by pundits and operatives alike until November 2024. Did Trump’s election fraud rhetoric cause some of the most staunch Republican base voters to stay home? Did Georgia’s black voters turn out in higher numbers because Rev. Warnock was set to make history as its first black senator? Is the population growth in Georgia—and specifically in and around Atlanta—irrevocably shifting Georgia’s voting pattern blue?

No doubt you have your own thoughts on why Democrats were able to win both seats. A lot of pundits will tell you they are certain they know. In the end, though, elections are made up of a whole lot of factors, and it will take us until 2022 and 2024 to definitively be able to pull any of them apart.

2022 Senate Races: An Introduction

We’ll be spending a lot of time in this newsletter on the various 2022 races—none more than the Senate races, I imagine. But before we take a deep dive into any given race, we need to set the stage. 

Thanks to the results last night, Republicans enter this Congress with 50 seats and 50 senators will caucus with the Democrats (remember Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King are technically independents). But, of course, Senate elections aren’t spaced out evenly. Senators are divided into “classes” based on the year of their election and the Class 3 Senate seats are up for election in 2022. As of now, there are 34 races—with seats that are currently held by 14 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

Knowing nothing else, those are bad numbers for Republicans. It means they will be on defense in a lot more states. But it gets worse as you dive into where those seats are.  Seats controlled by Republicans in Florida, Iowa, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin will all be up. And Democrats really have only Arizona, Nevada, and New Hampshire to worry about. Oh, and Georgia, of course, with Raphael Warnock completing the final two years of the term of retired GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson. 

All in, Republicans really have three races that could easily flip to the Democrats—North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—and Democrats could have a tough time defending New Hampshire, which I think could be more vulnerable than even Georgia at this point.  

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of all of the races with any potential to change hands:

Florida: Republican Marco Rubio will almost certainly be running for reelection. That’s good news for Republicans. He won only 52 percent of the vote last time, but that was after a last-minute decision to run for reelection when his doomed presidential run had left him fairly bruised. He still managed to beat his Democratic opponent by nearly 7 points. Plus, the trends in the state were good in November. It’ll be an expensive race and could be competitive if Democrats find the right candidate, but it’s safe to bet Republicans can hold onto this one. 

Iowa: Republican Chuck Grassley won with 60 percent of the vote last time and would no doubt be able to do it again … if he runs. And that’s a dilemma. Do Republicans encourage the 87-year old Grassley to step down so that his would be-replacement is running in a midterm election, which generically favors the GOP? Or roll the dice and run the risk that Grassley dies in office—leaving the governor to name his replacement but potentially setting up a Senate race in 2024, potentially with Democratic incumbent Joe Biden at the top of the ticket, which could boost Democratic turnout big time. Bottom line: If Chuck runs, he wins—but Republicans are just putting off a tighter race down the road.

Missouri: Republican Roy Blunt won reelection in 2016 with just under 50 percent of the vote in 2016, beating Secretary of State Jason Kander by 3 points. Trump carried the state by 16 points this last time around, and the state has been trending redder and redder since John McCain pulled out a win with 3,903 votes in 2008. The state last elected a Democrat in 2012, when Claire McCaskill won the incumbent lottery by getting Todd “legitimate rape” Akin as her opponent. There’s no reason to think Blunt is in trouble, assuming he runs.

North Carolina: Republican Richard Burr currently holds the seat but he has announced his retirement, which means this race may be the most contested open seat of the cycle. Burr won it in 2016 by just more than 5 points but he was forced to step down as the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee the day after the Department of Justice executed a search warrant related to insider trading allegations around his stock sales in the weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic tanked the stock market in March. Trump carried North Carolina by less than 2 points; the state reelected Republican Sen. Tom Tillis but also elected a Democratic governor. This will be a race where candidates matter as will the popularity of the Biden administration.

Ohio: Republican Rob Portman shocked a lot of folks when he won reelection in 2016 by nearly 20 points against former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland in what was supposed to be “one of the most competitive Senate races in the country.” Given that blowout and that Trump won the state by 8 points in November, the only question is whether Portman’s luke-warm stance on Trump cuts into his margins. Even if Tim Ryan, the Ohio congressman who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2020 were to run, this is a safe seat for Republicans unless something drastically changes.

Pennsylvania: Here’s a big problem for Republicans to hold the Senate. Pat Toomey won reelection in 2016 by 1.5 percent against Katie McGinty, the largely unknown chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. And worse: Toomey has already announced his retirement. Can Republicans hold onto it? Sure. Will they? It’s hard to see a path without every card coming up aces.

Wisconsin: Yet another potential loss for Republicans. After being left for dead by the party establishment (and its money), Ron Johnson beat former Sen. Russ Feingold by nearly 4 points in 2016. But a lot has changed in six years. Back in 2016, in the heat of the campaign, Johnson told a home state paper that “he would not run for a potential third term” in 2022. Now, he won’t say whether he’s planning to run again. Currently, he’s chair of the senate’s chief oversight committee but he would have been forced to give up his gavel because of term limits even if Republicans had held onto the chamber. He hasn’t wasted his time, though. At his direction, the committee has investigated Hunter Biden, Hillary Clinton, and allegations of election fraud in 2020.

Arizona: Democrat Mark Kelly isn’t getting much time off. After winning the special election in November to unseat Martha McSally by slightly more than 2 points, he’s up again in 2022. Republican could have an edge because midterms are lower turnout races and they tend to favor the party out of the White House. Bill Clinton lost 10 Senate seats in 1994; Barack Obama lost 6 in 2010. But George W. Bush and Donald Trump both picked up two Senate seats in their first midterms. Biden carried the state by .3 percent. If a well-known candidate like the term-limited Gov. Doug Ducey decides to run, this could flip to Republicans. Then again, Ducey has had some of the lowest approval ratings of any governor in the country and attacks from Donald Trump almost certainly haven’t helped him—although ignoring the president’s phone call while certifying his state’s election results for Biden was a particularly strong move.

Nevada: Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto is up for reelection after beating GOP Rep. Joe Heck by just more than 2 points in 2016. It’s unclear who Republicans can field this time or how much energy they are willing to put into the seat given how many times they’ve lost it. Nevada is a weird state with one population center that heavily favors Democrats and then every other county is varying shades of red. Even so, I like how Larry Sabato over at UVA put it in his initial read on this race, “In some ways, Nevada is to Republicans what Florida is to Democrats: an elusive and frustrating target.” 

New Hampshire: Democrat Maggie Hassan unseated GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in a nail-biter in 2016 that came down to 1,017 votes. The popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu, has won reelection twice and may be looking for a fresh challenge. If he runs, this will be a top-tier race for both parties.