Republicans Can Flip Congress in 2022–but GOP Stands in its Own Way

As far as political precedent goes, the Republican Party looks set for success in the 2022 midterms. But while signs point to the Democrats losing at least one of the House or Senate, and perhaps both, there is something perhaps standing in the GOP's way—itself.

With President Joe Biden struggling in approval polling and recent history showing the party in the White House suffering in the midterms, some observers are touting the prospect of a GOP wipeout.

The recent gubernatorial election results in Virginia did little to boost Democrats' optimism. There are hopes that the passing of the infrastructure package could boost the party, but other issues facing the nation could stymy any gains.

The political playing field looks somewhat similar to that ahead of the 2010 midterms, where Republicans made substantial gains in the House to take control, and nearly also took charge of the Senate.

This time out the Senate is much tighter—making the prospect of it shifting to the GOP appear more likely.

Back in 2010, issues surrounding candidate selection were cited as a major reason for the Republican Party's narrow failure to take the Senate.

This time out, similar problems—somewhat based on the GOP's own internal struggles, particularly the divide over the influence of former President Donald Trump—pose issues again.

"In many ways, the midterms are the GOP's to lose," Julie Norman, deputy director of University College London's Centre on U.S. Politics, told Newsweek.

"Voters historically register their frustrations with the governing party during midterms, and with the Democrats' razor-thin majorities, they don't have seats to spare. Democrats' intra-party squabbling and Biden's low approval ratings won't win over many voters, while rising inflation is typically a boon to the opposition party in election years.

"However, it won't be all smooth sailing for Republicans, as recent recruitment efforts have indicated. For most of this year, it's been easy for Republicans to sit back and watch the Democrats' internal battles.

"But the GOP's own divides will come back to the fore as the party struggles once again to balance between the pro-Trump base and more traditional conservatives and moderates.

"Much will hinge on Trump himself; if he announces a 2024 run prior to next November, the midterms could be as much about Trump as they are about Biden or individual congressional candidates."

Candidate recruitment looks set to be an issue both in terms of getting the best-placed people to run and managing those who do.

David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College, told Newsweek that while political circumstances could change in the meantime, candidates are perhaps the biggest roadblock for Republicans."

"In several key races, such as the New Hampshire senate race, candidates that most experts would consider to be strong candidates, are not entering the race," McLennan said. "Chris Sununu, governor of New Hampshire, decided to not run for the U.S. Senate. Republicans are also looking for a well-known candidate to run in Colorado."

McLennan then outlined "candidate predictability" as an issue: "Some Republican candidates, even incumbents, don't appear to be following the Republican Party script to make takeover of one or both chambers possible."

One example, McLennan said, is North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn's plans to switch congressional districts and run outside his current district, which "may put one of the two districts drawn for Republican candidates in play."

Thirdly, McLennan pointed to the potential for "scorched earth primaries," where the selected candidate is damaged by the fierce battle for the nomination.

"Several Republican primary contests may end up damaging the winning candidate, who normally might be considered the favorite to win the race," he said.

"In Ohio for example, the Republican Senate primary race between Josh Mandel and JD Vance might be so negative and damaging to the winner that the expected Democratic nominee, Tim Ryan, may have a better chance in the state where Donald Trump carried in 2016 and 2020 by eight percentage points."

John Owens, a professor of U.S. government and politics at the University of Westminster, suggested "candidate flaws" and the influence of Trump could prove hurdles.

"Apart from historical precedents, 2022 looks a good year for the party in the Senate and House with Biden's declining approval ratings, the party's lead in the generic ballot, growing pessimism in the country, and rising prices for necessities like gas and milk," Owens said. "But a combination of candidate flaws and Trump's influence on candidate recruitment could mess up their prospects."

While similarities to 2010 indicate the GOP is likely to pick up seats, Owens also highlighted comparable issues around the party's Senate hopes.

"Similarities with 2010 may indeed be appropriate," Owens said, pointing to candidates who were deemed subpar or problematic in that year's bid for the Senate, who were blamed for squandering the Republicans' chances that time out. "That could happen again in 2022—because of the party's contested leadership and organizational weaknesses."

Richard Johnson, lecturer in U.S. politics and policy at Queen Mary University London, also said "internal candidate selection issues also have echoes of 2010."

"The formidable Mike Castle lost the Republican Senate nomination to Christine O'Donnell, who infamously had to deny allegations of witchcraft, preventing an expected Republican gain in that state," Johnson said.

"Harry Reid survived a challenge from Sharron Angle in Nevada in part because of how flawed Angle was as a candidate, having been accused of recommending political violence as a solution to Republican election losses.

"Had the Republicans gained these seats, they could have gained the Senate majority. Similar problems of candidate selection in 2012 continued to deprive Republicans of a Senate majority."

Johnson suggested there is some argument that the partisan divide in the nation may make candidate selection less important—but perhaps still decisive in a tight race.

"There is an argument that candidate selection matters less now. The theory of 'negative partisanship' says that increasingly strong hostile feelings towards the opposite party mean that American voters are less bothered by the particular individual nominated for their own party," he said.

"The most important thing is that they are not a Democrat/Republican. This is probably true for most voters, but in a tight race, I think candidate selection still does matter."

Newsweek has contacted the Republican National Committee for comment.

democrat donkey and republican elephant stock
As Democrats and Republicans battle for control of Congress in 2022, the GOP's main problem could be posed by itself. Moussa81/Getty Images

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