Five big questions as the GOP tries to win back the Senate in 2022

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The head of the Senate Republican reelection arm is very optimistic about his party’s chances next year of winning back the Senate majority they just lost in the 2020 cycle.

Looking to the 2022 midterm elections, National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) chair Sen. Rick Scott of Florida recently predicted that “as long as we get our message out, raise our money and get good candidates, we’re going to have a hell of a ’22.”

The Senate is currently split 50-50 between the two major parties, but Democrats hold a razor-thin majority in the chamber due to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris through her constitutional role as president of the Senate.

Looking at the electoral map, Republicans are playing plenty of defense. They’re defending 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs in next year’s midterm elections – including having to protect five open seats where GOP incumbents are retiring. But the NRSC also sees strong pickup opportunities in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and New Hampshire.

Here are five key questions that could determine whether the GOP wins back the majority or if the Democrats keep and possibly strengthen their control of the chamber.

Will Biden’s approval ratings hold up?

Midterm elections are often heavily influenced by public perceptions of the president’s performance, especially in down-ballot races. Just as the 2018 midterms were very much a referendum on then-President Donald Trump, the 2022 contests may be all about his Democratic successor in the White House, President Biden.

President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Brussels Airport in Brussels, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Biden is en route to Geneva. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Scott told Fox News and other news organizations two weeks ago that “I think it’s clear that Biden’s honeymoon is over. It was pretty short.”

But Biden’s approval rating remains well above water. An average of the latest national polls compiled by Real Clear Politics put Biden at 51% approval and 44% disapproval, while an average compiled by FiveThirtyEight had Biden at 52%-42%.

Where the president’s approval ratings stand next summer, in the final stretch to the 2022 midterms, will likely be a crucial factor in determining the outcome of the elections.

Veteran Republican strategist Brian Walsh emphasized that the approval rating’s a “major factor, particularly in a president’s first term, when traditionally the opposing party picks up congressional seats in the midterms.”

Issues – of course – also matter. And with crime and inflation currently on the rise, the GOP’s starting to hammer both Biden and congressional Democrats over those issues. They’re also targeting Democrats over the surge this year in migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border and culture wars issues such as critical race theory and transgender rights.

“There’s no question that crime is rising issue on the minds of voters,” Walsh who served as NRCC communications director during the 2010 and 2012 cycles, noted. “But I also believe that it also comes down to old-fashioned pocketbook issues – taxes and spending.”

He warned that “if Democrats overreach and raise taxes and dramatically ramp up spending on big government programs… I think that would help drive Republican turnout.”

And he pointed to “the extent that Democrats overreach in the way that they did during the first two years of then-President Obama’s first term,” which helped contributed to the Republican wave in 2010, when they won back the House and took a big bite out of the Democrats’ Senate majority.

Will Johnson run for reelection in Wisconsin?

Republicans are already defending open seats in the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and North Carolina – as Sens. Pat Toomey and Richard Burr are retiring rather than run for reelection next year. 

They may have to defend a third open seat in a crucial swing state, as Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has yet to say if he’s seeking a third term in the 2022 midterms. Johnson vowed in 2016 to only serve two-terms, but he’s left open the possibility of running again. 

“I’m undecided,” he told reporters a month ago during a Milwaukee Press Club virtual event. 

And Johnson reiterated that he felt no pressure to decide anytime soon, repeating that he didn’t launch his first Senate campaign in 2010 until seven months before the election. 

Biden narrowly won Wisconsin in last November’s presidential election.

There’s less GOP concern over longtime Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who’s also yet to say if he’ll run for reelection next year.

Republican insiders say its likely that Grassley, who’s 87 but who recently showed off his physical prowess by taking on Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas in a push-up competition, will run again in 2022. 

And in a state that Trump carried by eight points last year, there’s less concern among Republicans of holding the seat if Grassley decides to retire.

Will Sununu challenge Hassan in New Hampshire?

Senate Republicans – including Scott and longtime Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell – have been vigorously courting Republican Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire to launch a Republican challenge against first-term Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sununu’s predecessor as governor.

But Sununu – who enjoys strong poll numbers and who Senate Republicans see as the strongest candidate to defeat Hassan next year – appears to be in no rush to make a decision.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, right, waves as N.H. Gov. Chris Sununu introduces him at the annual Hillsborough County NH GOP Lincoln-Reagan Dinner, Thursday, June 3, 2021, in Manchester, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The general consensus was that Sununu would make up his mind on whether he’d launch a Senate campaign, run for reelection as governor, or not run at all and return to the private sector, after the end of the state legislative session and last week’s signing of the state’s next two-year budget.

But Sununu has dashed those expectations, saying in two recent radio interviews that “I won’t make a decision for a really long time.”

“I’m really going to enjoy having a summer and fall … of just being a governor,” he emphasized in one of the interviews.

Sununu, whose coattails from his landslide reelection victory last November helped the Republicans win back majorities in both chambers of the state Legislature as well as the Executive Council, has earned the right to make his decision and announcement on his own timetable. But the governor’s political team tells Fox News that they and Sununu are cognizant that others are waiting for a signal, and that once the governor announces his next move, the other dominoes will quickly fall.

If Sununu doesn’t run for the Senate, sources close to former Sen. Kelly Ayotte – who lost her 2016 reelection bid to Hassan by just 1,017 votes – tell Fox News it’s doubtful she’ll launch a Senate campaign. But they say Ayotte may possibly run for governor if Sununu doesn’t seek reelection.

There are fewer GOP concerns in Nevada, where Scott said he expects former Nevada Attorney General Adam Laxalt to launch a Republican challenge against Democratic first-term Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto.

Will Herschel Walker launch a campaign in Georgia?

Republicans see Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia as one of the most vulnerable Democrats running for reelection in 2022.

Warnock defeated appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler by a razor-thin margin in Georgia’s twin Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5, to serve the final two years of the term of former GOP Sen. Johnny Isakson, who resigned in 2019 due to health reasons.

Many in the GOP are waiting for signals from Herschel Walker. The former star professional football player and college gridiron legend in the Peach State – he won a Heisman Trophy and helped steer the University of Georgia to a college football national championship – has been encouraged by Trump to run for the Senate. 

The former president has said he would endorse Walker if he runs. And last week Trump said in a radio interview that Walker would run.

Walker teased in a tweet last month that he’s got “Georgia on my mind” and said in an accompanying video that he’s “getting ready.”

But Georgia Republicans are getting anxious.

“We’re all waiting to see if Herschel is going to run or not run. I’d be lying to say we weren’t getting antsy,” Georgia based GOP consultant Chip Lake told Fox News recently. “It’s time that Herschel lets us know he’s running or lets us know he’s not running. Because as every day goes by, Raphael Warnock is raising more money.”

If he runs, Walker would have to move to Georgia from Texas, which he currently calls home. And some Georgia Republicans are concerned about a possible political train wreck if Walker declares his candidacy.

Pointing to Walker’s well-publicized battle with mental illness, a Republican strategist in Georgia who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely said, “We don’t know what a Herschel Walker candidacy looks like. What type of a candidate is he going to be? How is going to handle being thrown into the fire? Is he going to be quick on his feet?”

Four-term Rep. Buddy Carter is one of the Republican politicians waiting on Walker. Carter has said he’ll launch a Senate campaign if Walker decides not to run.

Three Georgia Republicans have already jumped into the race. The most prominent is state Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, who declared his candidacy earlier this month. Two military veterans who are not well-known, Kelvin King and Latham Saddler, launched Republican Senate campaigns earlier this year.

And Loeffler may also run again, telling Fox News two weeks ago that “I have not ruled anything out.”

Will Trump’s impact help or hurt the GOP?

The former president remains incredibly popular with GOP base voters, according to public opinion polling, and retains immense clout over Republican politicians more than five months after the end of his tenure in the White House. This as Trump continues to play a kingmaker’s role in GOP politics and repeatedly flirts with another presidential campaign in 2024.

“He cuts both ways. There’s no question that he helps turn out a lot of new voters that traditionally hadn’t voted or hadn’t voted for Republicans,” said Walsh, a partner at Plus Communications. “On the other hand, he also alienated a number of college-educated suburban voters.”

Former President Donald Trump, right, announces his endorsement of N.C. Rep. Ted Budd, left, for the 2022 North Carolina U.S. Senate seat as he speaks at the North Carolina Republican Convention Saturday, June 5, 2021, in Greenville, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward)

Trump has already weighed in in some competitive Republican Senate primaries – such as in backing Rep. Mo Brooks in Alabama, Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina, and challenger Kelly Tshibaka over incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska – and vows to make more endorsements. 

“There’s no question that President Trump is the gorilla in the room in terms of endorsement. His endorsement does matter,” Walsh said.

“On the other hand, you want to make sure that the strongest candidates are emerging from these primaries and I think it’s a real question whether some of these candidates are being properly vetted,” he added.

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