Too much “left” commentary about electoral politics is premised on the strange idea that men make their own history, exactly as they please; under self-selected circumstances, not under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past: elections are like prizefights, determined by the individual abilities of the combatants. This is not how things work. People have agency — even people who aren’t Democrats, if only someone would come up with a parsimonious “law” describing the contrary view — and stuff like candidate ability and campaign tactics can matter at the margin, but structural factors are more important. Most people are aware that the undemocratic apportionment of the Senate has electoral effects, but I think a lot of people don’t understand (or are in denial about) just how much it matters:
The Senate isn’t just biased toward Republicans; it’s really biased toward Republicans. Going by partisan lean, there are 31 states more Republican-leaning than the nation as a whole compared with just 19 states more Democratic-leaning. Because each state has two senators, that means 62 Senate seats (a filibuster-proof supermajority) are Republican-leaning and 38 are Democratic-leaning. But thanks to the Democratic overperformance we’ve been talking about, Republicans hold only a 51-49 majority. Democrats have achieved this by electing a total of 14 senators in red states while holding Republicans to only three senators in blue states. That’s a lot of Democratic FRITZ seats.
For much of the 20th century, because of the Solid South this was a conservative bias not a pro-Republican bias per se, but the effects are similar. One upshot, which I’ll leave for another post, is that trying to come up with the One Magic Trick that will produce enduring liberal majorities is not a very productive exercise, and the idea that good policy is always good politics has little support in American history (partly concealed, again, by the fact that under mid-20th century partisan norms conservative governing majorities could exist under nominal Democratic control.) For 2018, it means that even a Democratic wave may still leave Republicans with two more years of packing the federal courts with neoconfederates. A few points:
- The Alabama election means that the Dems have at least a reasonable chance of getting to 51, I’d say 1 in 3 or maybe a little better.
- Heller is toast, and Flake’s vacant seat is a very likely pickup. One important question is whether Dems can get at least one more. I think there’s room for cautious optimism in Tennessee. Bredesen could get buried in money like Feingold and Bayh were in 2016, but also that was a much better climate for Republicans; I think he has a real shot. O’Rourke is a much longer shot but it’s not completely impossible. And a second open seat in Arizona could be another major pickup opportunity — remember that Trump carried it by only 3 points.
- Even one extra seat would be huge. As Rakich says, Democrats have actually done pretty well at protecting their red-state Senate incumbents in years that aren’t Republican waves. In a Democratic wave year, most of theoretically vulnerable Dem incumbents will win. But holding 9 out of 10 seats in Trump seats would be quite a bit easier than 10 out of 10 — even one more win to give some breathing room would really help.
- It is standard script at this point to assert that Manchin or Heitkamp are “near-Republicans” and keeping their seats doesn’t matter a lot anyway. This is stunningly ignorant of contemporary partisan norms — the gap between them and Collins (the most “moderate” Republican) is massive. They were both rock-solid on ACA repeal and the tax bill, and if they sometimes cast superfluous votes for Trump nominees who gives a shit? This isn’t 1955 — the letter next to the name matters a lot more than the state.