2022: The Unannounced

By Jim Ellis

July 19, 2021 — The Fox News website ran a story late last week saying that there remain five in-cycle US senators who have not yet revealed their political plans for 2022. Below is a review of those senators’ political situations and clues that could provide a glimpse whether they are headed toward re-election or retirement.

The best hints will be forthcoming in a matter of days as the second quarter campaign financial disclosure reports will be released shortly on the Federal Election Commission website. Last Thursday was the deadline for filing the reports for the period covering April 1 through June 30.

The five senators, listed alphabetically by state are Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), John Thune (R-SD), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Ron Johnson (R-WI).

Sen. Murkowski:

State: Alaska
Appointed: 2002
Re-elected: 2004, 2010, 2016
Age at time of 2022 election: 65
Victory Margin 2016: 44.4 – 29.2%

Announced Major Opponents:
• Karl Speights (R) – Retired Air Force officer
• Kelly Tshibaka (R) – Former AK Administration Commissioner

It is assumed that Sen. Murkowski will run for re-election, though her return path to Washington may be a difficult one to traverse. Last night, her campaign spokesperson stated that the Senator’s second quarter disclosure report would show $1.15 million raised for the quarter with $2.3 million cash-on-hand. These are financial numbers that suggest she will seek re-election.

Alaska has changed its nominating system and will be the first state to adopt a “top four” primary procedure. Similar to California, Louisiana, and Washington that use the jungle primary format to send the top two candidates to the general election, Alaska will instead advance the top four from the slate primary. The change virtually ensures that Sen. Murkowski will not again lose the Republican primary as she did in the 2010 election. In that year, she was forced to run a highly efficient general election write-in operation to win her second full term.

Early polling numbers find Sen. Murkowski with very poor favorability numbers among Republicans and running a distant third behind Kelly Tshibaka (R), who is already the state Republican Party’s officially endorsed candidate. Dr. Al Gross (D), the 2020 Senate nominee, has not yet committed to running again, but he, too, runs ahead of the Senator in the previously released surveys.

While the top four system guarantees Sen. Murkowski will secure a ballot position for the general election, winning her re-election is in doubt.

Sen. Grassley:

State: Iowa
First Elected: 1980
Re-elected: 1986, 1992, 1998, 2004, 2010, 2016
Age at time of 2022 election: 89
Victory Margin 2016: 60.1 – 35.7%

Announced Major Opponents:
• Jim Carlin (R) – State Senator; former State Representative
• Glenn Hurst (D) – Minden City Councilman; Physician
• Dave Muhlbauer (D) – Ex-Crawford County Commissioner; Farmer

Last week Sen. Grassley stated that he would make his political plan public before Nov. 1. Despite his advanced age, it is presumed in all sectors now that Sen. Grassley will seek re-election. He has filed a 2022 campaign committee with the FEC, has a semi-updated website, and it will be interesting to see how active his fundraising became in the second quarter. His March 31 report revealed a cash-on-hand figure of $2.04 million to begin the re-election cycle.

Once the senator makes his plan known, we will see political jockeying happen among the Democrats. Potential Senate campaign entrants are Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Des Moines) and, perhaps more likely, former Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer.

At this point, expect Sen. Grassley to run again and be favored to win his seventh re-election. Should he instead retire, we can expect a highly competitive open-seat campaign with the eventual Republican nominee being cast as only a slight favorite.

Sen. Thune:

State: South Dakota
First Elected: 2004
Re-elected: 2010, 2016
Age at time of 2022 election: 61
Victory Margin 2016: 71.8 – 28.2%

Announced Major Opponents:
• No major opposition at this time

After losing the 2002 election to then-Sen. Tim Johnson (D) by just 532 votes statewide, John Thune, after previously serving three terms as South Dakota’s at-large US representative, then defeated Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle by 4,508 votes two years later. That was the last of Thune’s close elections.

While Sen. Thune, now the Senate Minority Whip, has not yet formally announced his re-election campaign, the fact that he held $13.8 million in his campaign account at the end of the first quarter clearly indicates he is planning to run for a fourth term. His June 30 financial disclosure totals are predicted to be large.

Sen. Thune is expected to seek and easily win re-election against minor opposition. If he should surprisingly retire, Republicans will have little trouble holding an open South Dakota seat.

Sen. Leahy:

State: Vermont
First Elected: 1974
Re-elected: 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998, 2004, 2010, 2016
Age at time of 2022 election: 82
Victory Margin 2016: 60.0 – 32.3%

Announced Major Opponents:
• No major opposition at this time

Though he has also not yet said that he will seek re-election, it is assumed that Sen. Leahy, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, will run for a ninth term. Should he complete the next term, Leahy will be the longest serving senator in United States history.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to his re-election would be if three-term Republican Gov. Phil Scott were to run. Already, however, Gov. Scott has ruled out a Senate race, and said he even plans to vote for Sen. Leahy. In an odd off-the-cuff quote, Sen. Leahy was saying he isn’t sure another Democrat could win the Senate seat. This is a curious comment since the Democrats now dominate the Vermont political landscape, suggesting the party nominee for almost any office would be rated a heavy favorite.

Sen. Leahy is expected to seek re-election. With $1.7 million in the bank at the end of March, the veteran incumbent has no concerns about money in his small state. Should he surprisingly opt to retire, at-large Rep. Peter Welch (D-Norwich) would be the likely successor.

Sen. Johnson:

State: Wisconsin
First Elected: 2010
Re-elected: 2016
Age at time of 2022 election: 67
Victory Margin 2016: 50.2 – 46.8%

Announced Major Opponents:
• Sarah Godlewski (D) – State Treasurer
• Chris Larson (D) – State Senator; former Minority Leader
• Alex Lasry (D) – Senior Vice President, Milwaukee Bucks Basketball
• Tom Nelson (D) – Outagamie County Executive; former state Rep
• Expected to Enter: Mandela Barnes (D) – Lieutenant Governor

When Sen. Johnson first ran for election, he indicated that he would serve no more than two terms. We are coming to the end of the senator’s second term, hence questions arise about whether he will change his original course and decide to run again.

At this point, Johnson has made comments both suggesting that he will keep his term limit pledge and that “the political situation has changed” meaning consideration of running for another term.

The current financial disclosure report will tell us a great deal. If the soon-to-be released document reveals that he has not raised much money, chances are strong he will retire. The Johnson campaign ended the first quarter with $1.7 million in the bank, a figure that will have to grow exponentially in what promises to be a tight race in a highly competitive political state.

Regardless of the senator’s decision, the 2022 Wisconsin Senate race will be a top-tier campaign. Democrats already have several strong candidates running, thus guaranteeing them of a capable nominee no matter who eventually wins the August 2022 primary.

Should the Senator decide to retire, the Republicans also have a strong bench. Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Green Bay) is a potential statewide candidate, as are former US Rep. Sean Duffy, businessman and previous statewide candidate Kevin Nicholson, and former Republican National Committee chairman and ex-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Wisconsin candidate filing doesn’t occur until next June, though Sen. Johnson has said he will announce his intentions in the Autumn. At this point, it is a waiting game that still could end either with another Johnson candidacy or retirement.

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