The Myth of the Rigged Senate and How Democrats Can Win It Back

The political winds are beginning to again blow at Senate Democrats’ back. Will they seize the opportunity?

Since 1981, and counting through to January 2021, Republicans will have held the United States Senate for two years longer while Democrats will have enjoyed longer and larger majorities. Democrats will also have been the only party to not once, but twice, earn filibuster-proof supermajorities since Senate rules were revised in 1975. Yet, there’s a perception among some progressives that despite having dominated the chamber nine years ago, Democrats have the deck stacked against them.

The line adopted by mainstream outlets in near unison has been that Republicans have a “structural advantage” in the Senate. Critics posit that since ostensibly Republican constituencies are distributed across more rural states and constituencies ostensibly favoring Democrats are concentrated in fewer urbanized states, this gives Republicans less of a reason to compete in blue states and places more pressure on Democrats to compete in red states. The data points to a much more mundane conclusion insofar as Democrats’ minority status follows contemporary electoral history and is key to understanding how Democrats win back the Senate.

Parties opposite to the sitting president’s net more Senate seats in states that had more frequently elected senators of the president’s party than the president’s party has in states that more frequently elected members of the opposition party. During the Clinton years, Republicans netted seven seats in blue states. During the Bush years, Democrats netted five seats in red states.

Senate Republicans owe the majority they earned during the Obama years to having flipped nine seats in seven blue states, defined as those that have elected more Democrats to the Senate since at least 1996: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Louisiana. Since 2010, Democrats have flipped three seats across three red states in Arizona, Alabama, and Maine where an Independent caucuses with Democrats. The result is a net of six seats that coincide with the overall three-seat margin in the Senate.

From a regional perspective, since 2010, Democrats have netted one seat in the West and gained three in the Northeast, but have since lost eight seats in the Midwest and six seats in the South. A party can only cede so many seats in these large regions without being subject to the minority. But the political winds are beginning to again blow at Senate Democrats’ back and its up to the party as to whether they will seize the moment.

Democrats can win back the Senate in 2020 by deploying a similar strategy to that which won them their House majority: running broadly appealing candidates with cross-regional appeal.

Long-term Senate Democrats will need to better compete in mid-size suburban states where Republicans proportionally hold more seats. Next year, four suburban seats are well within reach of Democrats in Iowa and North Carolina as well as Georgia where the party has a rare opportunity to elect two of their own in the same year. Picking up those four seats wins Democrats the majority — and that’s before one even counts the two seats across Arizona and Colorado which are looking especially good for Democrats.

But while Senate Republicans will be on the defensive next year, Democrats are at risk of losing their two seats in Alabama and Michigan. Let’s assume Democrats lose both of those seats. That means they’d need to win all six seats in the aforementioned states, or win half of them and supplement with upset victories in races expected to be unusually competitive in Maine, Kentucky, Texas and Mississippi — or by regaining seats in states the party lost six years ago like Louisiana, South Dakota, Arkansas, Montana and West Virginia.

Y-Axis: Party Affiliation with Democrats, 2018. X-Axis: 2010s partisan composition of the Senate. Color denotes the current partisan representation of the States.

Next year’s elections will test the extent to which the Senate’s partisan composition by state aligns with a state’s presidential vote. In an influential number of states, the most illuminating filter through which to understand Senate races could simply be party affiliation and by what margin affiliated partisans defect to either party.

Democrats currently hold six seats in states where residents are equally or more likely to affiliate with Republicans — Arizona, Wisconsin, Ohio, Montana, West Virginia and Alabama. Republicans hold eleven seats in states where residents are equally or more likely to affiliate with Democrats — Florida, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Maine. In states like Montana and West Virginia, where affiliated Republicans outnumber Democrats by at least seven points, Democrats have maintained a presence by keeping their Democratic coalition in line and winning over enough Republican voters.

However, in states like Maine and Kentucky, where Susan Collins and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are up for re-election, respectively, Democrats have been less successful in preventing defections. In Maine, a state where Democrats have outnumbered Republicans for the better part of three decades, Senate Democrats haven’t won a seat since 1988. In 2014, Collins, a Republican, was re-elected with a staggering 39 percent of Democrats. Since casting the decisive vote to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Collins has become markedly unpopular among Mainers.

In Kentucky, where affiliated Democrats are narrowly outnumbered, Donald Trump won the state carrying a decisively large 22 percent of Democrats. In 2014, McConnell was re-elected by a 14-point margin and with 17 percent of Democrats. The good news for Democrats is that McConnell’s unpopularity combined with the Democrats’ offensive position going into 2020 provides as good an opportunity as any to unseat the majority leader. In 2008, the year Democrats made their biggest gains in decades, McConnell won re-election by a comparatively narrow six points.

Yet many writers in high places have argued demographics are the best way to understand the Senate’s composition. Ronald Brownstein at The Atlantic implicated white men in rural states for the Senate’s inaction since rural states with higher proportions of white men are more likely to be represented by senators who are resistant to, for example, gun control and climate change legislation.

Never mind that Brownstein disregards that the electorate aren’t single-issue voters, that senators are responsive to their constituencies, that each party has an equal number of rigidly safe seats that could be interpreted to be obstructions to policy, or that many of the states Brownstein cites have among the lowest gun homicide rates and produce the lion’s share of the country’s energy.

Points by which women outvote men, on average, since 1996.

A closer look at voter trends across the states since 1996 shows that Brownstein’s critique, while a valid partisan one, needlessly invokes racial and sex-based prejudices that do not align with the claim that white men are holding American democracy hostage to progress.

Who is driving the electoral decisions in American democracy tell a different story. Since at least 1996, women have outvoted men in every state. Women are moderately more likely to outvote men by wider than average margins in states represented by Republicans, especially in states with high proportions of white men like Wyoming, South Dakota, and Iowa. States with higher black turnout lean toward Senate Republicans while states with higher Latino turnout and higher turnout among white male seniors lean toward Senate Democrats.

States with higher turnout generally or between either sex are no more likely to be represented by either party. One can arrive at a range of conclusions in light of these trends, but the idea that any agenda is being inhibited by those of a particular race and sex isn’t credibly one of them.

Facile narratives derive themselves from the excessive stock placed in nationalized data and public opinion which, in a republican democracy, bares little practical relevance to gauging what’s politically possible. This also risks misrepresenting the strength of political parties and the popularity of policies by overlooking the influential regional and cultural forces that drive voter decision-making, as was seen in the last presidential election and recent gubernatorial races.

The lie that Republicans have a structural advantage in the Senate could only be believed by either someone born yesterday or who is over-invested in hyper-momentary national politics. That said, the Senate is indeed rigged against abrupt and sweeping change. The point of the U.S. Senate — and of upper legislative chambers the world over — is to demand a higher threshold of approval for exercising legally-binding power that is applicable to every American within each state’s borders.

A nationalized funhouse mirror version of America allows the staunchest progressives to disregard the reality that in order to regain (and sustain) the Senate and House majority in a large, diverse country they’ll need to moderate their agenda. Yet there’s a notion that if the Dakotas were just merged into Minnesota, or the Seattle metro area were gerrymandered into Idaho and Wyoming, or that we just had a unitary parliamentary system that this would rescue the country and allow America’s true majority to pass the bold and correct policies that middling white men have stymied.

The inescapable electoral reality is that, no matter how one counts the votes, the country is starkly divided and that’s evident even in the more egalitarian House of Representatives. Whoever gains power in 2020 across Congress and the presidency will almost certainly be governing on a narrow popular margin and will need to determine whether they will risk a political backlash for bold change. Senate Democrats owe progressives for lighting the way, but they will only win next year with candidates who can competently lead it.

You can follow me on Twitter at @robertisnthere.

Writing about the States and the U.S. Senate, and sometimes the media industry.

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