That means to win a majority Democrats must nearly run the table in the five states that voted for Trump in 2016 but apparently fell to Biden this year. That list includes Georgia, a state that vividly underlines the geographic puzzle the Senate now presents for the party.
The state is rapidly changing and both parties expect the twin runoff elections anticipated in January to be competitive. But Republicans have reigned in the state for a generation, and Democrats have not elected a senator in Georgia since 2000, when Zell Miller, a conservative former governor, won a special election. Now, to secure a Senate majority that will determine the fate of Biden’s agenda the party’s only chance is to elect two, on a single day in January.
“The fundamental problem about the Senate for Democrats remains and it’s not going away anytime soon,” says Brian Fallon, a former Democratic Senate leadership aide who’s a founder of the group Demand Justice, which advocates liberal changes on the courts and in the Senate.
“The Senate is so tough for Democrats because the Senate so overrepresents these sparsely populated rural states,” says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist who has extensively studied the relationship between presidential and congressional voting.
Return to straight-party votes
The tightening connection between the outcomes in presidential and Senate races represents a return to the patterns that existed through the first half of the 20th century, but then loosened during much of the second half. In the early 20th century, another highly partisan era, Republicans controlled fully 96% of the Senate seats in the states that voted for William McKinley and then Theodore Roosevelt in the 1900 and 1904 presidential elections, according to calculations I performed for my 2007 book, “The Second Civil War.”
Democrats similarly controlled almost 90% of the Senate seats in the states that voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936. Even as late as 1964, Democrats held three-fourths of the Senate seats in the states that backed John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson in the 1960 and 1964 presidential contests.
The relationship between presidential and Senate results then rapidly loosened. Republicans controlled only about half the Senate seats in the states that voted both times for both Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and then Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The biggest reason for the change was that conservative Southerners who voted Republican for president continued to support Democratic House and Senate candidates, while moderate coastal Republicans made the inverse choices.
The intense polarization of the Trump years has pushed these trends near their theoretical limits. Pending the results in Georgia and allowing for them retaining the Alaska and North Carolina seats, Republicans now hold 94% of the Senate seats in the states that voted both times for Trump and Democrats hold 98% of the seats in the states that twice opposed him. (Excepting Georgia, Democrats lead 6 to 2 in the four states that voted for Trump in 2016 and have apparently voted against him now.)
In 2016, for the first time since the direct election of senators began in 1918, every Senate race finished the same way as the presidential contest in that state. So far this year every race has followed that pattern as well, except for Collins’ victory in Maine.
“We’re a parliamentary system now,” says Republican pollster Gene Ulm. “Like, man, she [Collins] is the exception to the rule.”
Joe Trippi, the chief strategist for Jones, told me that Trump polarized the electorate in a way that made victory almost impossible not only for Jones, but also for all of the Democrats running in red-leaning states. In particular, Trippi said, the massive turnout Trump generated again from small-town and rural Whites swamped Democratic Senate candidates, who could not win over more than a sliver of those voters against the propulsive power of Trump’s polarizing attacks on Democrats.
“Whether it’s ever going to be possible to breach that I don’t know, but he did an incredible job of making that an impossible task,” Trippi said.
Republicans retain the advantage
Republicans “benefited from [Trump’s] bananas turnout in rural areas, but a lot of them still captured the [Mitt] Romney suburban voter that voted for Biden at the top of the ticket,” says Fallon, a former communications director for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
How this dynamic plays out in the two Georgia runoffs will probably determine control of the Senate. Neither party is entirely confident how the previously Republican-leaning suburban Atlanta voters who repudiated Trump will vote in the Senate runoffs. They could break to give Biden a Senate majority to implement his agenda or prefer to provide Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky with the votes to constrain the President-elect. (One worrisome sign for Democrats is that Republican Sen. David Perdue, like Tillis in North Carolina, ran somewhat better than Trump in these suburbs last week.)
Win or lose, the fact that Democrats must sweep the two Georgia Senate seats to reach even a 50-50 Senate split after an election that Biden will probably win by well over 5 million in the national popular vote underscores the long-term squeeze Democrats face in the body. No Democrat has held one of Georgia’s Senate seats since Miller stepped down in 2005. In the two Senate races immediately before this year’s contests (2014 and 2016), Democrats didn’t exceed about 45% of the vote.
Drutman told me in an email that even if Republicans win both Georgia seats and hold a clear majority, they will represent about 47% of the population in the next Senate, down from 48% now. If Republicans lose both Georgia seats (but hold the other states where they are now leading), he notes, they will still hold half of the Senate seats while representing less than 44% of the total population.
Far more than failings of any individual candidate or campaign, those numbers capture the real Democratic challenge in the Senate. Each time Democrats fail to win the Senate majority, Fallon notes, the party analyzes how it fell off “the tightrope” of trying to assemble a winning coalition in Republican-leaning states by “fending off these socialism attacks and motivating a base that is multicultural at the same time you are trying to not offend non-college Whites.”
Those postmortems, he says, don’t recognize that the failures aren’t primarily the results of tactical choices but “a function of malapportionment” that magnifies the influence of small rural states in the Senate. Democrats, he says, “can repeatedly have the same postmortem conversations … or we can observe that we’ve won the popular vote nationally In seven of eight presidential elections and maybe we should pursue structural reforms that don’t entrench minority rule as much as the current [Senate] system does.”
The paradox is that to change the small-state bias and other regional dynamics benefiting Republicans in the Senate, Democrats must first overcome them. And, fittingly, that effort now comes down to Georgia, the state that, when all the votes are counted, may have divided most closely last week between the red and the blue.