“Georgia and Arizona have demographically been blue states. We just finally put together a winning strategy to turn it into an electoral blue state,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to the Biden campaign in Georgia.
“The challenge for Democrats is: You’ve won the election battle and shown you can run a good campaign,” Johnson said. “Warnock and Kelly ran excellent campaigns. Now you have to show the folks in your state that you can govern.”
After Georgia and Arizona, Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), the outgoing chair of the party’s campaign arm, are the only other Democratic incumbents in swing states, and the remainder of Republicans offensive opportunities look like long shots right now.
Meanwhile, Democrats have three clear offensive opportunities to bolster their majority: Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two states Biden carried, and North Carolina, where he and a Democratic Senate challenger both lost narrowly in 2020.
Pennsylvania and North Carolina will be open seats, since Republican Sens. Pat Toomey and Richard Burr have already announced their retirement. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has yet to say for certain if he’ll run again, but his seat will be a top Democratic target either way.
The list of clear swing states starts out narrower than in the most recent Senate cycles, with most incumbents facing relatively straightforward paths to reelection.
But unlike the 2018 or 2020 maps, which tilted heavily against Democrats regardless of political environment, the upcoming terrain is more in their favor: Biden won six of the seven likeliest battlegrounds, including two held by Republicans, and Democrats aren’t defending a single incumbent in a state Biden lost.
“Don’t get me wrong: It’s a midterm, and I’m terrified,” said one Democratic operative who works on Senate races. “But the map is in a different place than I would have thought even a month ago.”
Other than their three main targets, additional offensive opportunities may be hard to come by. Democrats haven’t won a statewide federal election since 2012 in Florida or Iowa, and Biden lost Ohio by 8 points.
Democrats are hoping that the disarray of the Arizona GOP and the internal Republican fights in Georgia could help solidify their standing. Trump’s promise of backing a primary challenge against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp could further fuel those tensions into next year.
“Republicans just lost two competitive races in Georgia and their majority because they were out of touch on the issues that matter most to hardworking families like beating this pandemic, passing adequate economic relief and protecting our democracy against conspiracy theories and violent insurrectionists,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the DSCC.
Democrats tried to stretch the Senate map in 2020 after candidates raised historic amounts of money through small-dollar donors. A key question for the party this cycle is whether that cash-flow will continue with Trump out of office, and whether it puts any additional seats in play. Republicans still won most of the races that came on the map last year thanks to fundraising — including double-digit victories in states like South Carolina and Kentucky that were more expensive than the GOP would have preferred.
“One of the takeaways from Democrats in the Senate in 2020 is that candidates, including challengers, were especially effective in raising money from the grassroots, even in red states against traditionally comfortable Republican incumbents,” said J.B. Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, the Democrats top Senate super PAC. “We had races that were made competitive in part because the candidates and the grassroots made them competitive.”
But Democrats are also looking at some potentially crowded primaries in their top-tier targets. In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is exploring a run, while a number of other candidates, including members of the congressional delegation, weigh their options. In Wisconsin, Outagamie County executive Tom Nelson is already running; state Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Milwaukee Bucks Senior Vice President Alex Lasry are considering launching bids, and others could be in the mix as well.
And in North Carolina, former state Sen. Erica Smith, who lost a Senate primary last year, has said she plans to run again, and state Sen. Jeff Jackson has said he’s exploring a run. Plenty of other candidates could enter the fray there, and the primary fields and the national parties’ preferences aren’t likely to be resolved for months.
In the 2020 cycle, the DSCC endorsed candidates in almost every primary and got their preferences in most. But the organization hasn’t even selected a new chairman yet — Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) has emerged as the favorite for the post — so it isn’t clear whether the party will be as aggressive in primaries this time around. And some Democrats expect more knock-down, drag-out battles.
“Are the days when the [DSCC] can come in and clear primaries over with? I think the answer is probably yes,” said one operative who works on Senate races.
Republicans, led by National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.), made their strategy clear out the gate, issuing a press release criticizing Democratic senators over Biden’s immigration proposals, and singling out Warnock, Kelly, Hassan and Cortez Masto.
“Rick Scott has had a lot of tough political fights, and he’s always come out on top,” said Chris Hartline, an NRSC spokesman. “He and the NRSC will spend every day for the next two years highlighting the radical policies of Senate Democrats: open borders and amnesty, higher taxes, job-killing regulations and bigger government.”
Still, there’s also recognition within the party that it will be a tough cycle and recapturing the chamber is not a given, even with the midterm winds potentially in their favor.
“I think we have an opportunity to win [the Senate] back, but I don’t count it as an easy cycle,” said Steven Law, president of Senate Leadership Fund, the top GOP super PAC focused on Senate races. “We’ll have tough political terrain to defend, and a few pick-up opportunities … I don’t consider it a cake walk. It’s going to take a huge amount of effort, but we think it’s within range.”
Elena Schneider contributed to this report.