The Incredible Shrinking Senate Majority

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

The morning sun begins to rise in front of the U.S. Capitol.
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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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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