Parties Trading Places for 2014

Demographic realignment is remaking the Senate map — and that could cost Democrats their majority.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Briefing Room at the White House on February 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama spoke about the crisis in Ukraine.  
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Ronald Brownstein
March 6, 2014, 4 p.m.

The big takeaway from the 2012 elec­tion was the lim­its of the mod­ern Re­pub­lic­an elect­or­al co­ali­tion. It in­creas­ingly ap­pears that the big takeaway from 2014 will be the lim­its of the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic elect­or­al co­ali­tion.

Each side’s di­lemma fits neatly in­to a bookend. Re­pub­lic­ans can’t at­tract enough minor­it­ies to con­sist­ently cap­ture the White House. Demo­crats can’t win enough whites to con­sist­ently con­trol Con­gress.

The 2012 elec­tion crys­tal­lized the Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial di­lemma. Mitt Rom­ney won more than three-fifths of both whites over 45 and blue-col­lar whites, and a high­er share of the total white vote than Ron­ald Re­agan did in his 1980 land­slide. Yet Pres­id­ent Obama soundly de­feated Rom­ney any­way by mo­bil­iz­ing the Demo­crats’ “co­ali­tion of the as­cend­ant”: minor­it­ies, mil­len­ni­als, and col­lege-edu­cated and single whites, es­pe­cially wo­men.

The 2014 elec­tion is spot­light­ing the off­set­ting Demo­crat­ic di­lemma: That new co­ali­tion doesn’t rep­res­ent a clear ma­jor­ity in enough states to re­li­ably con­trol the Sen­ate, or enough dis­tricts to re­li­ably con­trol the House.

In the House, the Demo­crats’ big prob­lem is that their co­ali­tion is ex­cess­ively con­cen­trated in urb­an areas. This provides Re­pub­lic­ans an in­her­ent ad­vant­age that they mag­ni­fied with their con­trol of con­gres­sion­al re­dis­trict­ing after 2010.

In the Sen­ate, the Demo­crats’ par­al­lel prob­lem is that their new co­ali­tion is barely a whis­per in smal­ler, rur­al, older, pre­pon­der­antly white states that un­der the Con­sti­tu­tion all re­ceive the same num­ber of sen­at­ors as be­hemoth states such as Cali­for­nia, Texas, and Flor­ida. This year’s battle for Sen­ate con­trol will al­most cer­tainly turn on wheth­er a few Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents in Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing states can over­come that chal­lenge.

Frus­tra­tion over the eco­nomy and the tur­moil sur­round­ing Obama’s health care law have ex­pan­ded Re­pub­lic­ans’ Sen­ate op­por­tun­it­ies to in­clude Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing states such as Michigan and Col­or­ado. But the biggest threat to the Demo­crats’ 55-45 Sen­ate ma­jor­ity is that the party must de­fend sev­en seats it holds in states that backed Rom­ney over Obama. That list in­cludes Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents seek­ing reelec­tion in Alaska, Arkan­sas, Louisi­ana, and North Car­o­lina, and open seats that Demo­crats now hold in Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia.

Ex­cept in North Car­o­lina, there simply are not enough “as­cend­ant” voters in those states to pro­duce a ma­jor­ity; Demo­crats can win only by cap­tur­ing enough of the older, blue-col­lar, and rur­al whites who have aban­doned the party at an ac­cel­er­at­ing pace un­der Obama. “The elec­tion is be­ing played on Re­pub­lic­an turf be­cause of the dom­in­ance of non­col­lege whites and cul­tur­al con­ser­vat­ives in the states that are most crit­ic­al for de­term­in­ing Sen­ate con­trol,” says GOP poll­ster Whit Ayres.

In 2008, when Demo­crats won their Sen­ate seats in those sev­en states, whites without a col­lege de­gree cast at least half the votes in four of them (Arkan­sas, Montana, South Dakota, and West Vir­gin­ia) and about two-fifths in Alaska and Louisi­ana. Whites older than 45 rep­res­en­ted about half or more of the elect­or­ate in those first four states, and around two-fifths in Alaska and North Car­o­lina.

While George W. Bush’s un­pop­ular­ity boos­ted Demo­crats in these states last time, the cur­rent has re­versed. In a re­cent Gal­lup sur­vey, non­col­lege whites were al­most four times as likely to say the health care law was hurt­ing as help­ing their fam­ily. Polls con­sist­ently place Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing with both blue-col­lar and older whites around 30 per­cent.

That’s left these red-state Demo­crats with al­most noth­ing from the Obama re­cord they can run on, ac­know­ledges Celinda Lake, the poll­ster for the reelec­tion cam­paign of Sen. Mark Be­gich, D-Alaska. To sur­vive, she says, these Demo­crats must de­fend So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care (pri­or­it­ies for their older elect­or­ates), ex­pand the eco­nom­ic agenda from the min­im­um wage to jobs and the middle-class squeeze, turn out as much of the new co­ali­tion as pos­sible, and show “that they took on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion” to de­fend their states.

But giv­en the tower­ing ali­en­a­tion from Obama among older and blue-col­lar whites, even that likely won’t pre­vent big Re­pub­lic­an gains in these sev­en seats. The long-term trend is for each party to con­trol more of the Sen­ate (and House) seats in the places that sup­port them for pres­id­ent. Even if a pop­u­lar in­cum­bent (like Louisi­ana’s Mary Landrieu) can sur­vive for an­oth­er term, fur­ther GOP gains in these cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive states ap­pear guar­an­teed as the Demo­crats’ na­tion­al agenda in­ev­it­ably re­flects the left-lean­ing pri­or­it­ies (such as gay mar­riage and cli­mate-change reg­u­la­tion) of its new pres­id­en­tial co­ali­tion.

That dy­nam­ic will pres­sure Demo­crats to max­im­ize their Sen­ate gains in ra­cially di­verse states, like Nevada and North Car­o­lina, that are now closely bal­anced between the parties — and to bring in­to play oth­er di­ver­si­fy­ing places that today tilt safely Re­pub­lic­an. In com­ing years, the route to any Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate ma­jor­ity may be to trade gains in Geor­gia (where Michelle Nunn gives the party a com­pet­it­ive shot this year), Ari­zona, and even­tu­ally Texas for losses in West Vir­gin­ia or South Dakota. “There is a demo­graph­ic re­align­ment go­ing on,” Lake says, “that is go­ing to change which states are in play for which side.” The tremors from that wrench­ing change will rumble for years — and could rattle the Demo­crats’ hold on the Sen­ate this fall.

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