The Democrats got plenty of good news in the Tuesday midterm elections: They won control of the House, made major gains in vitally important state legislatures, and saw voters back significant portions of their platform, from Medicaid expansion to anti-gerrymandering measures to minimum wage increases to marijuana legalization. Progressive ballot measures passed even in red states, suggesting that many Americans support Democratic policies as long as they are separated from actual Democrats.
Now the bad news, which can be boiled down to two words: the Senate.
Republicans already controlled the upper chamber of Congress by a teensy 51–49 margin, but the GOP further entrenched itself by flipping seats in Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana. As of Thursday morning, the race in Florida was heading for a recount, but it seemed likely that Republican Rick Scott would wind up unseating incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. On the other side of the ledger, Democrats won a seat in Nevada but couldn't flip any others, as it appeared Republican Martha McSally would hang on in Arizona. There is also a seat in Mississippi to be decided in a runoff election at the end of the month. But unless Mississippi Democrat Mike Espy pulls off a shocker or the recount in Florida somehow goes Nelson's way, the Republicans will have gained three seats once the dust settles, making the Senate 54–46 in the GOP's favor.
That was well within the range of expected outcomes. Democrats had to defend several seats in states Donald Trump won in 2016, and the fact that they lost red-state Senate races (some very narrowly) was no great indictment of their strategy or even their ideas. It was a "bad map," as analysts said from the beginning.
What should worry Democrats is not the 2018 results, but the fact that the map isn't getting any better.
The 2020 elections will be much higher-stakes than the 2018 midterms, with Democrats hoping to cement their hold on the House, take out Donald Trump, and flip the Senate, returning the federal government to their control for the first time since 2010. Let's say they can accomplish the first two tasks, for argument's sake—Trump might be more vulnerable than a typical incumbent, and there's no reason Democrats couldn't retain the House. In order to actually pass progressive legislation, they'd still need the Senate. Here's where some back-of-the-napkin predictions are helpful.
Democrats will need to get four seats to retake the Senate, assuming their vice president can cast the deciding vote in the case of 50-50 ties. That seems like a small number. But you have to account for the fact that Democrat Doug Jones will be defending his seat in Alabama—a seat he only won because his opponent was a disaster of a candidate even before he was accused of harassing and assaulting teenage girls. Even then, Jones eked out a victory of less than 2 percentage points. If he loses, that means the Democrats need five flips for a razor-thin Senate majority. The top targets will probably be Maine's Susan Collins, a relatively moderate Republican who inspired a huge amount of animus when she voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and Colorado's Cory Gardner, who is disliked by conservative base voters and is in a purple state that's trending blue.
If Democrats win both of those, they need only three wins for a majority. But then you look at the list of states where they'll have to compete. Leaving aside some places like Oklahoma, Georgia, and South Dakota where Democrats aren't likely to have any chance whatsoever, here are the states that could become battlegrounds:
Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia.
That's another brutal map. Democrats crashed and burned in Tennessee this year despite running a popular moderate who had already won statewide office. West Virginia and Louisiana are on this list because Democrats have recently won statewide races in them, but they're long shots. Could Democrats pick up Alaska and Montana? Maybe, but you still need one more to get the Senate.
It may be unfair, but the Senate seems designed to thwart Democrats. Lightly populated rural states are given the same weight as states containing huge cities, which gives right-leaning rural voters a disproportionate amount of power. (Small states also have smaller built-in advantages when it comes to the House and the Electoral College.) The result is that the Republicans will always have an easier Senate map. If Democrats claimed every Senate seat in the 19 states Hillary Clinton won in 2016 along with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan (traditional blue states), and Maine (which split its electoral votes in 2016), while retaining their current four red-state seats, they'd have just 50 seats. And thanks to the way six-year Senate election cycles work, they can't even complete that project until the 2022 midterms. That's a grim short-term future.
It gets worse: Even if Democrats won a sliver of a majority in the Senate, that wouldn't be enough under current rules, since it takes 60 votes to actually advance legislation. Democrats could change those rules if they had a majority (and many progressives would want them to), but as of right now, that appears unlikely. Keeping the rules as is would pretty much preclude them from passing any legislation without Republican input. They had 60 seats for a brief moment after Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter switched parties in April 2009 and before Republican Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts in January 2010, but that was a remarkable time period in hindsight. That majority included two Democratic senators each from Arkansas, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, and also single Democrats from Louisiana, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
It's hard to imagine Democrats re-creating that geographic support at a time of increasing polarization—and there's the real problem. Even to get a basic Senate majority, Democrats need to win elections not just in blue and purple states but in places where they don't seem competitive right now. The South, the Great Plains, Appalachia. A Democrat could ride a wave to the White House in 2020 simply by winning the Midwestern states Clinton lost in 2016. But without some additional wins, a hostile Republican Senate will frustrate that president for four years, and may even block his or her judicial appointments. As Democrats think about their message for 2020—and you can be sure some already are—they should begin by looking at a map.
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