Democrats’ Hopes For Holding the Senate Just Got a Big Boost.
Yesterday’s announcement by Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire that he would seek a fourth term as governor rather than challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan for her senate seat in D.C. came as a big relief for Democrats—and an unwelcome surprise for Republicans. The news doused what should have been a celebratory election bonfire for the GOP following their victory in Virginia.
For weeks, Republicans had been acting like Sununu was their guy: a popular politician with stellar, moderate credentials who was going to handily defeat the Democratic incumbent and hand control of the Senate back to Mitch McConnell. Sununu even attended a gathering of senate candidates at the Republican Jewish Coalition convention in Las Vegas, leading many to assume it was not a matter of whether but when he would announce.
So when Sununu got up before local television cameras and threw cold water on that idea, the GOP was left sore and bitter. It wasn’t just the fact that he wasn’t going to run, it was the way he delivered the news. He didn’t bother to give McConnell a call, or to at least tip off Sen. Rick Scott whose job it is as the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee to make sure things like this don’t happen. Scott only recently declared, with confidence, that Sununu would “want to get to D.C. and make a big difference there.” Sununu nixed that idea in his press conference, clearing he had no desire to “slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results”—a direct dig at the way the GOP has been handling itself over the past year or more.
Sununu’s announcement left party organizers stunned and without a strong alternative recruit, having banked for months on Sununu’s run. “Unbelievable,” tweeted Josh Holmes, a long-time advisor to Mitch McConnell. One possible replacement is former Sen. Kelly Ayotte—but she actually lost her seat to Hassan in 2016, so the choice might be less than a strong one.
With only four Democratic Senate seats considered vulnerable in 2022—New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona—the loss of Sununu in the race against Hassan in New Hampshire changes the math considerably. Any new, lesser-known candidate will likely have a tough time unseating her, and a repeat of Ayotte is unlikely to garner much enthusiasm. Democrats feel confident they can hold Sen. Mark Kelly’s seat in Arizona, so Sununu’s announcement could mean that the GOP will need to focus on flipping Nevada and Georgia, narrowing their paths to a Senate majority from four states to two.
But even those two seats could prove difficult for Republicans: Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia has the help of Stacey Abrams in mobilizing African American voters and a coalition of liberal and progressive voters. Coter registration rates in the state have nearly risen to an astonishing 95 percent of eligible residents. In Nevada, conservative candidates decrying “socialism” and itching to fight a culture war over the power of Hollywood, Big Tech and the liberal elites will run smack into an increasingly bluer wall of voters in the Las Vegas area as well as Sen. Cortez Masto, a protege of Harry Reid whose voter turnout machine and formidable national fundraising record present real challenges.
Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping for a pick-up in Pennsylvania after Sen. Pat Toomey’s retirement. That state went for Biden in 2020 by over 80,000 votes, and Democrats are hoping big infrastructure projects with plenty of blue-collar jobs will lift economic conditions there. A Democratic pick-up opportunity also exists in Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson hasn’t confirmed that he is running again but in any case remains unpopular and is widely seen as out-of-the-mainstream because of his promotion of election fraud, opposition to vaccines, and myriad conspiracy-laden beliefs.
Formerly red senate seats are also up for grabs in Ohio and North Carolina due to the departures of moderates Rob Portman and Richard Burr, who both declined to seek reelection in the current Trumpism climate. And a Florida race where Marco Rubio must defend against a well-organized and well-funded Rep. Val Demings presents uncertainties as well.
Trump-backed Senate candidates in the upcoming GOP primaries may complicate the math further for their party in the general election. They already include two of the former president’s endorsed candidates, Herschel Walker in Georgia and Sean Parnell in Pennsylvania, whose spouses have accused them of abuse and even sought protective orders. They also include election fraud conspiracy theorists like Mark Brnovich, the Attorney General of Arizona who regularly touts the need for yet more audits.
Even in deep-red Missouri, the GOP fears that a Trump acolyte, former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, may turn off independent and moderate voters if he wins the GOP primary. Greitens boasts a massive war chest and strong MAGA ties. He brought Rudy Giuliani and Bernard Kerik to Missouri to campaign for him and hired Don. Jr.'s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, as his national campaign chair. But Greitens also arrives with a lot of baggage: He resigned his governorship midway through his first term in 2018 after allegations emerged that he sexually assaulted a woman.
With Sununu bowing out, moderate Republicans in PA, OH, and NC not running for reelection, and rising MAGA candidates with truly disturbing personal histories, the GOP may find itself putting out fires and playing mostly defense in the Senate in 2022. In a worst-case scenario for Republicans, their party could be left defending six red seats in PA, WI, OH, NC, MO and FL, while focusing on flipping blue seats in just GA and NV—all while fielding weak, unpopular or problematic candidates.
Of course, a whole year remains till the general election, and the primaries will decide the course of their destiny in many ways. But the Sununu announcement has certainly left the GOP wondering what the path to retaking the Senate realistically looks like.