The Sweep: They Only Need One

An early look at Senate races in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Alabama.

This week’s Sweep is all about (and only about) the GOP’s efforts to take back the Senate in 2022. We’ve got some great reported pieces below about the races in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Alabama. And then some more traditional punditry from me and Chris. 

Sarah’s Quick Take:

They only need one. And it sounds so easy. Since Richard Nixon, five of the seven presidents have lost at least one Senate seat in their first midterm—Obama lost six and Clinton lost eight. But kind of like how all politics is local, all campaign cycles are different. Republicans already have four big retirements to deal with,  in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Missouri—and that doesn’t count either Iowa’s Chuck Grassley (who is 87 years old) or Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson (who said in 2016 he wouldn’t run again), neither of whom have yet declared their intentions. Those four states will host bruising and expensive primaries, and it’s not hard to imagine 2022’s version of Todd Akin winning one of them. 

Chris’ Corner:

The midterm curse really applies only to the House … unless you’re a Democratic president. While presidents of both parties have been almost equally afflicted by first-term losses in the House—an average of 22 seats going back to Ronald Reagan—it’s different for the Senate. No Republican president has overseen first-term Senate losses since Gerald Ford in 1974, and he had some other stuff going on that fall. Meanwhile, every Democratic president since Lyndon Johnson in 1966 has seen his Senate conference shrink.

As Republicans have become the rural party and Democrats the urban party, it’s helped the GOP in the Senate. As Democrats never tire of pointing out, the Senate is not about representing individuals, but rather the states themselves. The Cook Political Report classifies 18 states as Democratic leaning, two (New Hampshire and Nevada) as dead even, and the other 30 as leaning Republican. If 60 percent of the states are at least a little Republican-leaning, that’s a nice head start for the red team.

But that’s not all that makes Senate midterms screwy. The Constitution divides the members of the Senate into three classes so that only a third or so are up for election in any cycle. That creates some weird electoral echoes over time. In 2008, Barack Obama brought eight new Democratic senators with him. The bill didn’t come due on that one until 2014, when Republicans gained nine seats, including three of the same ones Obama had helped turn blue six years earlier. These cattywampus election schedules often produce pronounced skews for partisan advantage. In 2018, Republicans had to defend only nine seats while Democrats had to protect 24. Two years later, the roles reversed: Republicans had to defend 23 seats, while Democrats only needed to cover 12.

Next year will be a bit closer, but it will still be Republicans with more turf to defend. They have 20 seats on the line compared to 14 for Democrats. It’s still way, way too early to intelligently handicap individual races, but we can put 23 of the 34 contests to the side, 12 for Republicans and 11 for Democrats. These are states like Utah and Vermont where we would need to see a Roy Moore-level screwup for the incumbent party to lose. That narrows the field down to eight seats for Republicans to worry over and three for Democrats.

To break things out a little bit more, five of those 11 potentially competitive seats should be squarely on the back burner for now, but could quickly heat up if there’s bad primary infighting, a flaky incumbent, or a strong national wave. Republicans have to keep an eye on Alaska, Florida, Iowa, and Missouri, while Democrats need to watch the New Hampshire race. The remaining six races are the ones we all know will be competitive. Republicans have four obvious battleground states to defend: North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats have two: Georgia and Arizona.

The historical trend favors the GOP, but the map favors the Democrats. And while it’s true that Republicans need to gain only one seat to have a majority, the better way to think of it is this: The red team needs to hold all eight competitive seats and still flip one of the three Democratic battlegrounds.  We may end up doing it all just to come back to 50-50.

Ryan Takes Pennsylvania

The election to replace retiring Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey is still a year and a half away, but existing political dynamics are already shaping the field. For the Republicans, President Donald Trump looms over the race as the two candidates getting the most attention are vying for his support. Meanwhile, two Democratic contenders are working to avoid being labeled as progressives—which could make it difficult to win a statewide race—while at the same time calling for a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and student debt relief.

The GOP has controlled Toomey’s seat, except for a few years when Arlen Specter switched parties, since 1969. But there are only two seats nationwide occupied by a Republican in a state won by Biden in 2020 (the other is held by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin). Democrats sense an opportunity.

Two candidates who are relatively new to politics seem to be garnering the most attention on the Republican side: Jeff Bartos, real estate developer, and Sean Parnell, a combat veteran, author, and frequent Fox News guest. Neither of them has held elected office, but not for lack of trying. Bartos was the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, and Parnell ran in 2020 to unseat Rep. Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District. 

Bartos talked to The Dispatch before Parnell got into the race, and played up the role of President Trump in the party, “I think President Trump’s got a strong role to play in the party going forward.” Bartos’ language on Twitter and in interviews sounds more and more Trumpy: He frequently calls out “Big Tech” for stifling free speech, and he recently went on Steve Bannon’s podcast to talk about who he claims to be anti-Semetic on the left. 

In a more recent interview with The Dispatch, Bartos said he would “welcome” Trump’s endorsement and went on to tout how President Trump handled foreign policy while in office, “I would—all day—work with President Trump to talk about those policies and would love his support.” 

Hours before Parnell officially announced his run for Senate with a video, the Bartos campaign put out a letter—signed by 19 Republican Pennsylvania state officials, including county chairs and state legislators —urging him not to run for Senate. The letter posited that Bartos was the best chance the GOP had to win the Senate seat and for the GOP to have its overall best showing, Parnell should try again to defeat Lamb. 

The Parnell campaign was ready with a counter, though. Reps. Guy Reschenthaler and Mike Kelly co-authored an op-ed endorsing Parnell for the GOP nomination. “America is at a dangerous crossroads,” they wrote. “Radicals on the left have hijacked Democrats in Washington who are too weak to fight back. Many Republicans have shown an equally fluid spine when facing down the radicals of the left. That is why we simply cannot send another career politician, socialite or out-of-touch multimillionaire to the United States Senate. What we do need are heroes, leaders and fighters. Sean Parnell checks all the boxes, and we fully endorse him to be the Republican nominee and next United States senator from Pennsylvania.”

The tone of that op-ed from his allies was consistent with the messaging of Parnell’s own announcement video: “We’ve always had crazy liberals in our politics, but this time they have powerful allies. They’ve bullied large corporations into doing their dirty work. Either we rise to the defense of our founding freedoms, or we’ll be silenced and made defenseless.” 

Parnell did not respond to requests to be interviewed by The Dispatch.

Pennsylvania Republican strategist Dan Hayward told The Dispatch now that Parnell is officially in, it will be interesting to see whether Trump tips the scales in the GOP primary, “The question is going to be how Parnell is able to attract the grassroots, what type of maybe national influence does he attract —you know who I'm talking about there —and what does that look like in Pennsylvania?”

To keep reading, head HERE

Andrew Takes Missouri

With Sen. Roy Blunt set to retire next year, what do Missouri Republicans want from his replacement? 

Is it, A) a dependable if unremarkable politician with legislative experience and a track record of conservative votes—someone like Rep. Vicky Hartzler or Rep. Jason Smith? Is it, B) a state official who used his office to wholeheartedly support Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election—someone like state Attorney General Eric Schmitt? Is it, C) a disgraced but defiant politico who insists his raft of recent scandals were witch hunts by an establishment desperate to stop his anti-corruption agenda—someone like former Gov. Eric Greitens? Or could it be D) a wealthy personal injury lawyer who became a figure of national controversy after he was caught on video last summer, barefoot in chinos and a Brooks Brothers polo, brandishing a rifle at a crowd passing the palatial home he shares with his wife?

If you answered D, you’re recently in luck. Mark McCloskey, the attorney whose clash with Black Lives Matter protesters last June became an instant piece of 2020 lore, threw his hat in the 2022 ring last week, making it official with a lengthy campaign announcement video and a segment on Tucker Carlson’s primetime show on Fox News.

It’s not unfair to McCloskey to say he thinks his viral armed argument is sufficient to make him Senate material: It’s what he claims himself. Here’s how he kicks off that campaign launch video: “When the angry mob came to destroy my house and kill my family, I took a stand against them. Now I’m asking for the privilege to take that stand for all of us. I will never back down.”

This is, to put it kindly, a stretch. The “mob” in question had been passing McCloskey’s home en route to demonstrate at the home of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson several blocks away; the only damage allegedly done by the crowd was to an iron gate at the entrance of the neighborhood. (Even that is disputed; local news station KSDK reported—citing video evidence—that the gate had been intact during the McCloskey altercation.) Although no shots were fired, a grand jury later indicted McCloskey and his wife on charges of felony unlawful use of a weapon; that case is ongoing.

But it’s a story in keeping with the one McCloskey has been telling over the last year: at Trump campaign rallies, the Republican National Convention, and in frequent appearances on Fox News.

To keep reading, head HERE.

Audrey Takes Alabama

A year out from the 2022 midterms, GOP Rep. Mo Brooks is already barreling full steam ahead to try to win a seat in Congress’ upper chamber next year. Four years after his failed bid for Senate in Alabama’s 2017 special election, the Huntsville congressman announced in March that he would launch a bid to succeed Alabama’s GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, who said in February that he would not seek a seventh term.

Brooks has already snatched the golden ticket in any Republican primary right now: an endorsement from former President Donald Trump. “Few Republicans have as much COURAGE and FIGHT as Alabama Congressman Mo Brooks,” Trump said in a statement through his Save America super PAC in early April. Brooks also snagged an endorsement from Kentucky GOP Sen. Rand Paul last week.

The only other declared GOP candidate is Trump’s former ambassador to Slovenia Lynda Blanchard, an Alabama businesswoman who has already invested $5 million of her own money into her campaign. (Blanchard’s campaign declined multiple requests for an interview with The Dispatch.) Business Council of Alabama CEO Katie Britt, who previously served as Shelby’s former chief of staff, has also hinted at possibly running. 

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill had planned to run, but he announced last month that he would not join the race after he was caught publicly lying about and then admitting to an extramarital affair.

In an interview with The Dispatch earlier this month, Brooks recited a laundry list of campaign proposals “in no particular order” heading into next year’s Senate primary. “Border security; the fight between socialism and free enterprise; our soon-to-be $30 trillion debt and the risk that poses for a debilitating national insolvency and bankruptcy of the federal government; moral values versus immoral values; freedom and liberty vs. dictatorial government; and of course, last but not least, whether we're going to have honest and accurate elections in America.” 

It’s not a coincidence Brooks is emphasizing election integrity. He was one of the first House Republicans to announce last year that he would object to the certification of the Electoral College results, in keeping with then-President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Joe Biden’s presidential victory. Brooks’ conviction that the election was stolen drove him to deliver an incendiary speech at the January 6 “Save America March” that preceded the violence at the Capitol. “I’m Congressman Mo Brooks from Alabama’s 5th Congressional District and I’ve got a message that I need you to take to your heart, and take back home, and along the way stop at the Capitol,” Brooks told the crowd in a roughly 10-minute speech.

“Regardless of today’s outcome, the 2022 and 2024 elections are right around the corner,” Brooks said that day in a nod to his forthcoming Senate bid. “And America does not need, and cannot stand, cannot tolerate, any more weakling, cowering, wimpy Republican congressmen and senators who covet the power and the prestige the swamp has to offer while groveling at the feet and the knees of the special interest group masters.”

“Today is the day American patriots start takin’ down names and kickin’ ass,” Brooks told the crowd.

 To keep reading, head HERE.