(WASHINGTON) — The shape of the Senate battlefield next year is still unfolding, with some undecided candidates staying on the sidelines for now, but financial disclosure reports from the first three months of the year could offer a glimpse into the early maneuvering by potential contenders.
One of the most vulnerable incumbents at the center of the fight over control of the chamber is Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who said he’s in no hurry to decide on his future plans. He is not alone, with Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the most senior Republican in the Senate, also putting off final word on his future after four decades in Congress.
The Senate GOP needs a net gain of one seat to reclaim the majority, and keeping an incumbent is preferred over a potentially chaotic primary. Looming over their chances are five retirements, which have increased the competitiveness of next year’s Senate map.
A mix of open seats, special elections and redistricting in 2022 has led some prospective candidates to contemplate runs for higher office, such as in battlegrounds Arizona, Pennsylvania and Ohio. And the opportunity to potentially knock off a prime Republican target in Florida, too, might be drawing some House Democrats into a possible matchup.
Two GOP fields at a standstill
In Wisconsin, Johnson’s indecision has left a potential Republican bench in suspension even as the pressure on him heightens, including from former President Donald Trump, who is prodding him into the race.
“He has not yet announced that he is running, and I certainly hope he does,” Trump said in a statement earlier this month. “He has no idea how popular he is. Run, Ron, Run.”
Standing in the way is Johnson’s 2016 pledge to serve only two terms. He was first elected in 2010 and narrowly won reelection six years later. Before Trump offered the endorsement, Johnson told a local radio show in mid-March of his decision, “I don’t have to make it for quite some time.”
If he stays in the race, Johnson will face a roster of Democratic challengers eager to elevate his recent controversies. But the ardent Trump ally is already holding onto a significant sum that can easily keep him out of retirement, raising just over $545,000 between January and March and ending the quarter with $1 million on hand. That total, though, lags behind other incumbents, and even his own fundraising numbers at the same point during his last run.
Grassley, too, has unsettled the GOP’s efforts in Iowa, leaving his decision for the fall and Republicans-in-waiting less time to potentially succeed him if he chooses to bow out.
The 87-year-old senator told reporters in February he expects to decide on whether he’ll seek another term “sometime in September, October or November” of this year, according to the Des Moines Register.
Amid his uncertainty, Grassley raised less than half of the total he raised around the same time in 2015, when he last ran for reelection, though his early fundraising efforts have wavered over the years. He maintains a steady amount in the bank with $2 million on hand as of the end of March for a possible pursuit of another term.
Jeff Kaufmann, the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, said he doesn’t believe Grassley has arrived at a decision yet, but he has not seen him take “his foot off the pedal” in terms of access or activity.
“Whatever he decides to do, he will put more emphasis on what’s important for the people of Iowa than he does himself,” he said.
The delay among incumbents isn’t only in swing states though, particularly with Trump promising political revenge against his critics, including those within his own party. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., the minority whip and second-highest ranking Senate Republican, hasn’t yet officially announced he’s running for reelection after Trump openly encouraged a challenger against him.
In the red state, Republicans are favored but as Thune, who has long maintained an eight-figure stockpile, keeps the party waiting he also has amassed a war chest of $14 million in the first quarter of the year — a possible signal of where his campaign could be heading.
Democrats eye open seats in Pennsylvania, Ohio
In Pennsylvania, outgoing Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s soon-to-be vacant seat opened up a scramble to take his place. Among the growing ranks of Democratic contenders either potentially or formally jostling for the seat are Reps. Conor Lamb, Chrissy Houlahan and Madeleine Dean.
Both Lamb and Houlahan have said they are mulling over a possible promotion, while Dean told The Hill last month she is “keeping an open mind.”
Leading the trio of Democratic potential hopefuls in fundraising is Houlahan, raising over $583,000 in the first quarter and amassing a war chest of $3.5 million, a big jump from where she was at this point in 2019.
Lamb, who represents a Pittsburgh-area district after first winning a seat in Congress in a 2018 special election, doubled his first quarter fundraising haul from 2019 and has $1 million in the bank. But he is trailing Houhalan in both the amounts he raised and on hand. Dean’s campaign reported a far more modest fundraising sum this quarter and entered April with just $575,000 in the bank, a total that doesn’t appear to suggest she’s decidedly readying for a Senate bid.
If any one of these House Democrats enter the crowded race for the nomination, there is already a fundraiser setting a high bar. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who launched his Senate campaign in February, raised a whopping $4 million by the end of March.
On the Republican side, Reps. Mike Kelly and Guy Reschenthaler, both Trump loyalists, are also possible contenders. Although neither Kelly nor Reschenthaler have ramped up their fundraising since the November election, both headed into April with more than $500,000 on hand, which could provide much-needed fuel to a nascent Senate campaign.
In nearby Ohio, Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, who mounted a short-lived presidential bid in 2019, is seriously considering a bid for the Senate, eyeing the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Back in February, Ryan said he’d “have more to say in the coming weeks” on a potential announcement, but he still appears to be taking his time.
For candidates like Ryan or Lamb, an already tough reelection campaign in the House is further complicated by the decennial redistricting process. With both Pennsylvania and Ohio expected to lose a district, the two Democrats are facing a likely reality in which their district may disappear or become far redder in the mapmaking process, possibly pushing them closer toward a Senate campaign.
With a national profile and an increasing fundraising prowess, Ryan is considered a formidable contender in a possible Senate race. He brought in more than $1.2 million in the first quarter and boasts over $1 million in the bank.
Sun Belt outlines key targets next year
In Arizona and Florida, two states that help shape the contours of the Senate battlefield and where the influence of Trump will likely be tested, a batch of potential candidates could be bracing for highly competitive races.
Arizona Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar, two of Trump’s most unrelenting supporters — both backed the efforts in Congress to overturn the presidential election results — have expressed an interest in taking on Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly.
The freshman senator is seeking a full six-year term in the midterms after defeating former GOP Sen. Martha McSally last November, flipping the seat and helping to deliver the majority for his party.
Kelly is now a top-tier target for Republicans, but he starts the cycle with an early edge. He raked in nearly $4.4 million in the first quarter, ending the period with also nearly $4.4 million on hand.
Any rival against Kelly will have a long way to go. Neither Biggs nor Gosar topped $300,000 in money raised in the first quarter of this year. But Biggs is starting out this year with a bigger sum in the bank — $745,000 — plus $40,000 in debt. Gosar, meanwhile, only has $62,000 on hand.
Further east, the opportunity to take on Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who earned Trump’s “Complete and Total Endorsement,” is luring some congressional Democrats into possible bids for higher office.
Rep. Val Demings, who represents a central Florida district in and around Orlando, said last month she’s “seriously considering” a possible bid against Rubio or Gov. Ron DeSantis, another top ally of Florida’s most prominent resident.
“I have made no definite decisions yet,” Demings told the Democratic Club of North Florida.
But she isn’t the lone Florida Democrat possibly ogling a new job. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, who represents a neighboring district to Demings and leads a moderate faction of House Democrats known as the “Blue Dog” coalition, is also weighing a Senate bid.
She’s even appearing to take preliminary steps before launching a statewide campaign against Rubio, announcing in February a virtual listening effort with events across the state.
Demings and Murphy are essentially running even in the money race, with the pair raising close to $350,000 through March and collecting more than $1 million in the bank. The latest haul is a particularly notable sum for Demings, who rarely raises more than $100,000 so early in the election cycle.
But the two face an uphill climb. Rubio brought in $1.6 million in the first quarter with $3.9 million on hand — running on the strength of his incumbency and ties to Trump to set up a significant advantage over his challengers.
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