The Senate Is Drifting Away From Democrats Indefinitely

Given the cyclical nature of our politics, Democrats should be poised to take back the Senate in 2020. They’re not.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

We’re 27 days from Election Day, and the most likely outcome is that Democrats will take control of the House but not the Senate. Democrats who’ve white-knuckled their way through the difficult 2018 Senate map, then, are counting the minutes until all this will be over, and the party can make its Senate comeback in the 2020 cycle. After all, that’s how it usually works: In 2014, Republicans picked up nine Senate seats in their response to the 2008 Obama wave; in 2016, Democrats clawed back a couple of the seats Republicans won in the 2010 Tea Party wave. Republicans this cycle are trying to unseat all of the Obama coattail-riders from his 2012 re-election. By the laws of our alternate-turn politics, it should come full circle in 2020 when Democrats avenge that 2014 Republican wave.

But the next cycle is the one where the harsh reality of the Senate’s structural bias towards smaller, less dense states truly begins to sink in for Democrats. All those seats that Democrats lost in 2014? Good luck taking them back.

As the Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein observed earlier this week, the Democrats’ numerical advantage in opportunities—Republicans will be defending 22 seats, Democrats just 12—masks the number of actual opportunities the party will have. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner is the only truly endangered Republican target on the map. Though Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the only other Republican up for re-election in 2020 in a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, has gotten some recent attention over her Brett Kavanaugh vote, defeating her will be an uphill task, even for a kinda-household name like Susan Rice. Maine isn’t that blue of a state—Clinton only won it by 2.9 percentage points—and Collins won her three previous re-election races with 58, 61, and 68 percent of the vote. She’ll get a stronger challenge in 2020 than she did in 2014, but she has a lot of room to spare.


Elsewhere, Democrats will have another opportunity in Arizona to fill the last two years of the late Sen. John McCain’s seat—though likely against an incumbent appointed by the Republican governor—and a long-shot chance to unseat Sen. Thom Tillis in North Carolina. As Klein points out, it’s Democrats who will be defending the single most endangered incumbent, Alabama Sen. Doug Jones.

So why is the map so limited? The vague notion that 2020 should present so many more pickup opportunities for Democrats stems from the seesaw feeling we’ve become inured to over the last few Senate cycles. What this misses, and what should be so frightening for Democrats looking at their Senate prospects down the road, is how many of those 2014 Republican pickups Democrats have no chance of taking back.

Republicans picked up four seats in 2014 from retiring Democrats: South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds won Sen. Tim Johnson’s seat, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito won Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s seat, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst won Sen. Tom Harkin’s seat, and Montana Sen. Steve Daines won Sen. Max Baucus’ seat. (Baucus had given up his seat to serve in the Obama administration; his appointed replacement, John Walsh, dropped out of the race over a plagiarism scandal.) These Republicans aren’t going anywhere. Once the senior Democrats that had held those seats for decades retired, they were Republicans’ for the taking—and the keeping.


Incumbent Democrats were also defeated in 2014 in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alaska by Republicans who will not lose those seats in 2020.

Rather than a pendulum shift in Democrats’ favor, the 2020 Senate election is shaping up to be the moment when the organic Republican majority within the Senate falls into place. Trump won 46 percent of the popular vote in 2016 but 60 percent of states, and states like Idaho and Wyoming get just as many senators as California. Unless a whole bunch of red states suddenly turn blue, Democrats will be stuck where they are: in the minority.

Some Democrats are hopeful that the sharp red shift in predominantly smaller, whiter, more rural states will be counterbalanced as diversifying states like North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, and Texas turn blue. But those smaller, whiter, more rural states have already completed their shift to the right; the others have a long—in some cases, really long—way to go before they can be considered “blue” in the way that we consider, say, Arkansas “red.” The Democratic frustration of living under minority rule isn’t exactly subdued right now. But it’s about to become one of the biggest political stories of the next decade.

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