The Incredible Shrinking Senate Majority

As voters’ behavior has changed, control of the upper chamber has become increasingly precarious.

National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
April 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

While both parties are pour­ing vast sums in­to the battle for Sen­ate con­trol, the best ad­vice for whichever side wins the ma­jor­ity in Novem­ber may be three simple words: Don’t un­pack everything.

Struc­tur­al changes in voters’ be­ha­vi­or are mak­ing it tough­er for either party to amass, much less sus­tain, a com­fort­able Sen­ate ma­jor­ity — ex­cept in rare cir­cum­stances. “At this point, the nat­ur­al di­vi­sion of party strength in the Sen­ate is very close to 50-50,” says Alan Ab­ramow­itz, an Emory Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist. “I think we are go­ing to be see­ing small ma­jor­it­ies for some time.” Small ma­jor­it­ies in­crease the chances that con­trol of the cham­ber will flip between the parties more fre­quently. And that pro­spect in­creases the odds that the Sen­ate will see more po­lar­iz­a­tion, less ac­com­plish­ment — and even more cam­paign spend­ing.

The big dy­nam­ic point­ing to­ward pre­cari­ous Sen­ate ma­jor­it­ies is the in­creas­ingly par­lia­ment­ary nature of con­gres­sion­al elec­tions. In the first dec­ades after World War II, many voters routinely split their tick­ets, sup­port­ing one party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee and can­did­ates from the oth­er party in House and Sen­ate races.

But after peak­ing in the 1970s and 1980s, such split-tick­et bal­lot­ing has stead­ily de­clined in our po­lar­ized polit­ic­al era. Sen­at­ors are bet­ter known than House mem­bers, but at­ti­tudes to­ward the pres­id­ent are in­creas­ingly buf­feting both groups. In the 2006 midterm elec­tion, Re­pub­lic­ans won six of the 10 Sen­ate races in states where exit polls showed Pres­id­ent Bush’s ap­prov­al rat­ing reach­ing 46 per­cent or above — but lost 19 of the 20 in states where he stood at 45 per­cent or be­low. In 2010, Demo­crats won Sen­ate races in nine of the 10 states in which Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al reached 48 per­cent or high­er — and lost 13 of the 15 states that gave him lower marks.

Rather than judging Sen­ate can­did­ates en­tirely as in­di­vidu­als, more voters ap­pear to be as­sess­ing them as part of a team — and vot­ing on wheth­er they want that team to steer the Sen­ate. This tend­ency isn’t in­sur­mount­able. In 2012, Demo­crats won Sen­ate seats in In­di­ana, Mis­souri, Montana, and North Dakota, even as those states re­jec­ted Obama — largely be­cause their can­did­ates be­nefited from flawed Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents. But the long-term trend is for each side to dom­in­ate the Sen­ate seats in the states its pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates usu­ally win. With each party hold­ing a pres­id­en­tial edge in just un­der half the states, and few true swing states re­main­ing, that prom­ises a tenu­ously bal­anced Sen­ate.

Con­sider the cur­rent Sen­ate map. Twenty-six states voted for Obama both times; Demo­crats con­trol 43 of their 52 Sen­ate seats. Twenty-two states re­jec­ted him both times; Re­pub­lic­ans hold 34 of their 44 seats. (The re­main­ing states, In­di­ana and North Car­o­lina, backed Obama in 2008 and flipped against him in 2012; the two parties split their four Sen­ate seats.) Not all those seats are se­cure, but the over­all pat­tern is strong: Al­most four-fifths of each party’s sen­at­ors rep­res­ent states that sup­por­ted their party’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee in both 2008 and 2012.

This sort­ing in­tens­i­fies the Sen­ate’s po­lar­iz­a­tion. Le­gis­lat­ors sent by con­flic­ted con­stitu­en­cies, such as the old South­ern Demo­crats or North­east­ern Re­pub­lic­ans, have of­ten been the Sen­ate’s deal-makers; they have a nat­ur­al in­cent­ive to seek bi­par­tis­an com­prom­ises. Those from states that lean solidly to one side have more in­cent­ive to re­li­ably line up be­hind — or against — the pres­id­ent. Ex­cep­tions per­sist on both sides of that align­ment. But as the cham­ber’s sort­ing con­tin­ues, the over­all ef­fect is “that the Sen­ate [will] be a worse and worse place to get any­thing done,” wor­ries vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Jim Jordan.

Novem­ber’s elec­tion might pro­duce more cross-pres­sured le­gis­lat­ors open to com­prom­ise. With Obama’s ap­prov­al sag­ging, GOP can­did­ates are ser­i­ously com­pet­ing in Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing Col­or­ado, Iowa, Michigan, and New Hamp­shire. Demo­crats are build­ing plaus­ible, if up­hill, chal­lenges in red-lean­ing Geor­gia and Ken­tucky.

But it’s more likely that this fall’s elec­tion will ac­cel­er­ate the Sen­ate re-sort. The GOP’s best takeaway chances are the six Demo­crat­ic-held Sen­ate seats in states that twice re­jec­ted Obama, plus North Car­o­lina. The four Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents seek­ing reelec­tion in those states (the oth­er three seats are open) are show­ing sur­pris­ing re­si­li­ence in polls. But each faces a for­mid­able un­der­tow of loc­al ali­en­a­tion from Obama. Each GOP win would re­place a re­l­at­ively mod­er­ate Demo­crat with a more con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an pos­sess­ing less in­cent­ive to com­prom­ise.

Demo­crats nervous about Novem­ber can calm them­selves by an­ti­cip­at­ing 2016. In that pres­id­en­tial year, the tight­en­ing link between Sen­ate and White House pref­er­ences will fa­vor them. After be­ne­fit­ing from the 2010 tea-party wave, Re­pub­lic­ans must de­fend Sen­ate seats in sev­en states that backed Obama twice. Even if Demo­crats lose the cham­ber this fall, they could re­cap­ture it in 2016.

Yet the dial will turn again in 2018, when Demo­crats must de­fend the red-state seats they won in 2012 against flawed GOP nom­in­ees. By now the lar­ger pic­ture should be clear: Neither side is po­si­tioned to es­tab­lish a last­ing Sen­ate ad­vant­age. In a more ra­tion­al polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, fra­gile Sen­ate ma­jor­it­ies would en­cour­age more ne­go­ti­ation between parties that re­cog­nize neither holds a dom­in­ant hand. In­stead, in­stabil­ity is com­pound­ing ri­gid­ity as the Sen­ate’s par­tis­an di­vide hardens.

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