It’s only January 2021, but three Republican senators have already announced their intentions to retire in 2022. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina said back in 2016 that his current term would be his last, and Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania revealed last October that he would not run for reelection either. Then, on Monday morning, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio joined them, saying in a statement that “[I]t has gotten harder and harder to break through the partisan gridlock and make progress on substantive policy.”
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These retirements could be a helpful development for Democrats, too, as they provide the party with potential openings on what was already a decently favorable Senate map for them. Although the Senate’s rural bias still makes the chamber advantageous to Republicans overall, the 2022 Senate map doesn’t force Democrats to compete on red turf nearly as much as the 2020 map or killer 2018 map did. In fact, no Democratic senators are running for reelection in states won by former President Donald Trump in 2020, while Republicans are defending two seats in states won by President Biden: the open seat in Pennsylvania and Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat in Wisconsin. (To make matters worse for Republicans, Johnson is considering retirement as well.)
3 GOP retirements so far
Senate seats up in 2022 and their incumbents, by state’s presidential margin in 2020
|State||Incumbent||Party||2020 Presidential Margin|
|NV||Catherine Cortez Masto||Democratic||D+2.4|
|MD||Chris Van Hollen||Democratic||D+33.2|
However, the GOP may have one big advantage in 2022: a Republican-leaning national environment. As we saw in 2018 (and 2014, and 2010, and 2006, and…), midterm elections are usually bad for the president’s party. If that pattern holds true in 2022, the 2020 presidential results are probably not the best barometer of the partisanship of these states. Indeed, 2020 was actually a Democratic-leaning year, with Biden winning the national popular vote by 4.5 percentage points. So there’s a good chance that states will be at least a bit redder in 2022 than they were in 2020.
That could make these retirements less of a blow to Republicans than they first appear. What’s more, by announcing their retirements so early, Burr, Toomey and Portman are giving the GOP as much time as possible to recruit potential candidates, shape the field of candidates in a strategic way in the invisible primary and raise more money for the open-seat campaign. And in Ohio specifically, Republicans still look like heavy favorites. Even in the Democratic-leaning environment of 2020, Trump won Ohio by 8 percentage points, implying that its true partisan lean1 is probably even more Republican-leaning. Ohio is simply not the quintessential swing state it once was; dating back to the 2014 election cycle, Democrats have won just one out of 14 statewide contests in Ohio — and that was a popular incumbent (Sen. Sherrod Brown) running in a blue-wave election year (2018).
However, one thing that could give Democrats hope — not only in Ohio, but also in Pennsylvania and North Carolina — is if Republicans nominate a far-right candidate. Burr, Toomey (who said Trump “committed impeachable offenses” by inciting an extremist mob to ransack the U.S. Capitol) and Portman (a former member of the George W. Bush administration) are not members of the Trump wing of the GOP and likely would have retained some support from swing voters had they run for reelection. But now, the Republican nominees could be Trump loyalists. Indeed, one reason for the retirements may have been the threat of a pro-Trump primary challenge — or at least distaste for the idea of continuing to serve in Trump’s Republican Party. Toomey, Burr and Portman are retiring at a conspicuously young age — 59, 65 and 65 years old, respectively. (A more typical retirement age for a senator is in their 80s.)
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And there are already rumblings about Trump-aligned candidates running in competitive Senate races, such as Lara Trump (the former president’s daughter-in-law) in North Carolina. Along those lines, Rep. Jim Jordan, who loudly advocated for overturning the results of the 2020 election and may have also turned a blind eye to sexual abuse as a wrestling coach at the Ohio State University, may be a weak enough candidate to give Democrats an opening in Ohio. (Democrats do have a couple potentially strong candidates waiting in the wings, such as Rep. Tim Ryan or Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.) However, other, more establishment Republican names are also being floated, such as Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, Attorney General Dave Yost and Secretary of State Frank LaRose. In addition, former Treasurer Josh Mandel has $4.3 million left in his campaign war chest from a past campaign, and Rep. Steve Stivers is also reportedly considering a bid. So mark your calendars for May 3, 2022 — the Republican primary here could be a free-for-all.