In legislative special elections Democrats are vastly outrunning President Clinton’s performance last November. They even have done better in Congressional special elections. But, even so, it might not be enough to overcome the record setting bias of the US Senate map. Indeed, the US Senate map has never been so tilted toward the GOP since the direct election of Senators in 1913.
Consider this fun fact. If, “Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points — a pretty good midterm by historical standards — they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats.” Yes, that is how bad it is for the party out of power.
There are a number of reasons for this. Part of it has to due with the nature of Congressional districts: gerrymandering and Democrats clustering in urban areas have helped move the median seat to the right of the nation. Then some of it just has to do with bad timing. Democrats had a stellar year in 2006 and had a great year considering the map in 2012. But, due to this, Democrats have to defend 25 of their 48 seats compared to the GOP’s 8 out of 52. Worse, many of the seats Democrats are defending have trended rightward and showed their true leanings last November.
The larger trend here should significantly alarm Democrats. Democrats have made significant inroads in California and NY State; liberal states with massive urban centers giving the party a huge popular vote edge in the Presidential contest. They’ve even made inroads in red Texas due to urban centers. But, NY and CA only elect 4 Senators (out of 100) and Texas still has a massive GOP edge in statewide contests.
Meanwhile, the GOP’s edge in rural states like West Virginia, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Arkansas, Louisiana and Montana, has grown exponentially. Due to the nature of the Senate- these small states wield significant power.
Contrary to the cries of many Democrats, GOP gerrymandering has had little to do with the pro-GOP bias in Congress. For example, in 2008, under lines drawn by many Democrats, the average Democrat won their House seat by 4.4 points compared to the President’s 7.3 percent victory. That’s an almost 3 percent bias towards the GOP.
Fast-forward to today and the bias is even worse. Trump lost the national popular vote by 2.1 percent. Yet, the average Republican won their House seat by 3.4 percent and Senate seat by 3.6 percent. That’s a “yuge” gap. In fact, it’s the widest Senate gap in a century and the largest in a half century (except for 2012) for the House.
There is a fairly easy way to quantify this. In 1980, there were 18 states that were five points more Democratic at the Presidential level than the nation. There were 18 states likewise more Republican than the nation with 14 states in between. Assuming all things being equal, all either had to do was win their friendly states Senate seats and 15 of the 28 Senate contests in the swing states.
Today, Republicans don’t even need to come close to do that. Fifty-two Senate seats are in states where Republicans won the popular vote for President by five points more than the national result (at least R+2.9). There are only 28 seats in states where the margin was at least 5 points more Democratic, and only 20 seats in swing states. And Republicans own several of these swing state seats making the Democratic climb even steeper.
The national political climate, the GOP Senate’s dysfunction and its minimal 52 seat majority make the chamber look competitive. But a deeper look reveals Democrats hold far more seats in red territory than the GOP in blue states. The GOP does not hold a single seat in the 14 states that are more Democratic than the nation. Meanwhile, Democrats hold six seats in states more Republican than the nation. These Democrats have unique and individual brands but they have largely behaved the same as their liberal colleagues in opposing Trump. Can they outrun that?
This has repercussions beyond just electoral politics. Consider, in 2010 Democrats need sixty votes from all Democratic Senators, including 13 from states Obama lost in 2008. It only took the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, a once in a generation political candidate and the strength of individual Senatorial candidates to acquire those sixty seats. And, oh yes, a razor thin margin in Minnesota and an old GOP Senator in Pennsylvania flipping his allegiance.
It’s hard to see such events occurring today. But, if the GOP wanted to acquire sixty seats all they would need to do is win all sixty seats in Trump states. It’s unlikely this uniformity would happen but it showcases just how uphill the Democratic climb is to simply regain the majority in the chamber.
Democrats probably cannot count on a sixty seat majority for a generation or more. Meanwhile, due to the elimination of the judicial filibuster, lower courts can be filled with conservative jurists without a single, Democratic vote needed. Even if Democrats win the White House in 2020, they will likely see their preferred nominees blocked and compromise candidates be the only candidates to get through.
This is not even mentioning the Supreme Court. The increasing polarization of the parties and the public has filtered in the courts (see Merrick Garland circa 2016). As a result, the GOP could get one or two more jurists on the Court under Trump and then simply hunker down and wait out a Democratic President by using their majority to block his/her nominee/s.
Finally, even if Democrats win the House along with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the Senate would likely kill or modify many of their ideas. Progressive legislation the base is agitating for would likely never see the light of day. That is what the Democratic Party faces today and if it stops them from having a success 2018 the party will also be locked out of power in the states and Congress for another decade.