Even if Biden’s midterm nightmare comes to fruition, he would still enjoy more support in the U.S. Senate than some of his Democratic predecessors

As Democratic strategists continue to warn of an electoral bloodbath facing their party in the 2022 midterms, there is little debate as to whether the GOP will take control of the U.S. House. However, due to Republicans having to defend many more seats in the U.S. Senate, the likely range of net Democratic losses in that chamber may be none to just a few seats.

Of course, with no margin for error, a net loss of just one seat would shift control of the body back to Mitch McConnell and the Republicans.

But even if Republican gains are substantial and every toss-up seat goes their way, President Joe Biden will not face the largest opposition in the U.S. Senate by a Democratic president.

If, say, the GOP flips seats in Arizona (Mark Kelly), Georgia (Raphael Warnock), Nevada (Catherine Cortez Masto), and New Hampshire (Maggie Hassan) and holds each of their 21 seats on the ballot, Biden would still have 46 U.S. Senators caucusing with his party (44 Democrats and two independents).

Three Democratic presidents have seen their party put up worse numbers in the chamber over the last two centuries.

After Bill Clinton was reelected to a second term in 1996, only 45 Democrats populated the U.S. Senate during the 105th Congress (1997-1998) and more than half of the 106th Congress (prior to the appointment of Democrat Zell Miller in Georgia in July 2000).

Grover Cleveland faced similar numbers after taking office during the 49th Congress (1885-1886) when Democrats held just 34 of 76 seats (44.7 percent) and in his second term during the 54th Congress (1895-1896) when his party claimed 40 of 90 seats (44.4 percent).

Despite his clear and convincing victory over Henry Clay to win reelection in 1832, Andrew Jackson saw only 20 of 48 seats held by the Jacksonians/Democrats during the 23rd Congress (41.7 percent).

Eight Democratic presidents have enjoyed the good fortune of never seeing their party lose the majority in the U.S. Senate during their administrations: Martin Van Buren, James Polk, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter.

Cleveland and Clinton are the only two Democratic presidents under which their party was in the minority during more than half of their administration.

Although slimming, there is still a pathway for Democrats to preserve control of the U.S. Senate after 2022 and thus ensure President Biden has a much easier road to push through, for example, judicial appointments.

To offset any losses in the aforementioned states, Democrats are hoping that pick-ups are still within reach in open seats in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and against Senator Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.

Democratic pick-ups in more conservative states – like Missouri and Ohio – almost exclusively hinge on Republicans nominating the most controversial candidate in their respective primary. That is a possibility, but even then the race would likely be a toss-up.

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6 Comments

  1. John Chessant on April 22, 2022 at 6:12 pm

    We might have seen a new record low for Senate Dems under a Democratic president had Clinton won the presidency in 2016.

    Clinton would begin her presidency with 48 aligned senators including the 2 independents, as the D+0.7% uniform national swing needed to flip the outcome of the presidential election would not have been enough to flip any Senate seat. Assuming that she avoids any Jeff Sessions-esque cabinet choices that would result in special elections, in 2018 the Democrats would need to defend 26 seats [possibly one less, as it is possible that Al Franken does not resign in this timeline] to the Republicans’ 9 — a disastrous map even in the best of times.

    In OTL the Democrats won the national House popular vote by 8.6% yet still suffered four incumbent losses, three by solid margins in deep-red states. A GOP-friendly environment would probably further knock out the Democrats’ gains in Nevada and Arizona and cause further incumbent losses in Michigan, Montana, Ohio, and West Virginia. Trump’s 2016 performances in Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin might have inspired better candidate recruitment and more campaign spending, possibly putting those states in play in 2018.

    Meanwhile, a scandal-plagued incumbent in New Jersey, a one-term incumbent in light-blue New Mexico (where in OTL the GOP and Libertarian nominees combined to 45% of the vote), and an appointed incumbent in Virginia (already bruised up from a 2017 special, if they survived that at all) would have spelled additional pickup opportunities for the GOP, particularly if the national environment were something like R+8.6%.

    The Democratic nightmare scenario where every race mentioned above is won by the GOP (resulting in a 66-34 GOP Senate, nearly sufficient to remove the president and VP if they so chose) is probably too far-fetched, but their headcount ending up in the high 30s or low 40s would not have been surprising.

    Who knows how this calculation might be affected by various unknowns in this ATL, however. Can Democrats successfully cast blame on an obstructionist GOP Congress for the failure to pass their agenda? Do Republicans follow through on their threat to block Clinton’s SCOTUS nominees? Is the GOP united against Clinton or divided over Trump? etc., etc.



  2. Flickertail-Pembina on April 22, 2022 at 6:22 pm

    49th congress (1885 – 1886) to
    54th congress (1887 – 1888) ??

    James Earl “Jimmy” Carter in fact had a Republican US senate – from 3 through 20 of 01 1981!



    • Dr. Eric Ostermeier on April 25, 2022 at 7:50 am

      A fair (technical) point about Carter following the 1980 GOP landslide!



  3. Flickertail-Pembina on April 26, 2022 at 9:28 am

    Had Al Gore garnered a majority of the EC votes in 2000, “Jim” Jeffords would have remained a Republican, for starters. Also, the party would have lost the CT seat of “Joe” Lieberman, at least briefly (the then-Republican governor would have filled a vacancy; like most states, the Nutmeg State did not have a ‘same-elected-party-successor’ provision). In the ensuing 2002 balloting, the Democrats likely would have lost the SD and LA seats, and perhaps a few others.

    “…Ohio…the most controversial candidate…” J D Vance? Jane Timken? (for MO, that disgraced former governor seems to be the one contender that would prevent the party from making the current Blunt seat a safe hold)



    • Daniel Fox on April 26, 2022 at 7:13 pm

      I don’t think Timken is on anyone’s radar screen enough to be “controversial.”



  4. Flickertail-Pembina on May 5, 2022 at 6:57 pm

    “To offset any losses in the aforementioned states…” Indeed, the Democrats arguably have a non-trivial chance of barely holding on, say, by losing the “core four” but snaring NC, PA, WI, and OH away from the other party.

    If they lose the aforementioned quartet of states it will mark the second straight cycle in which 4 (or more) first-term incumbent senators fail to retain their seats this century (in 2020 elected incumbents Cory Scott Gardner and “Doug” Jones as well as appointed incumbents Martha Elizabeth McSally and Kelly Lynn Loeffler lost, none of them having succeeding at sufficiently outpacing their presidential ticket within).