Elections

Why the Senate Will Probably Stay Red

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Capitol Hill, October 6, 2018 (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Senatorial elections are staggered in groups for a reason.

With less than a month to go until the 2018 midterm elections, the picture has come into pretty clear focus. Most independent electoral analysts give the Democrats good odds to take the House of Representatives. FiveThirtyEight, for instance, has them at better than 80 percent. On the flip side, the GOP is primed to retain the Senate, where FiveThirtyEight now sees them with roughly an 80 percent chance to win.

These estimates are backed up by solid polling data in favor of the Senate GOP. Democratic incumbent Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, for instance, has slipped badly in the polls recently. So also has challenger Phil Bredesen in Tennessee. In Texas, the progressive enthusiasm for Democrat Beto O’Rourke so far has not translated into good polling numbers for him. In Missouri, Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill continues to trail narrowly against Republican challenger Josh Hawley. Meanwhile in Nevada, Republican incumbent Dean Heller — long assumed to be bound for defeat — continues to hang tough in his reelection bid, with recent polling suggesting he has a narrow lead. And Mitch McConnell’s super PAC has recently gone on offense in Montana, investing in a bid to oust Democrat Jon Tester, who long since has been thought to be relatively safe.

However all these races individually play out, it is too soon to say. But it is looking less and less likely that the Democrats will win in enough places to take the Senate.

A lot of pundits are guessing that this is a “Kavanaugh effect.” The theory is that conservative voters are outraged at the terrible treatment Brett Kavanaugh received at the hands of the media and Democrats (but I repeat myself) and have responded by signaling their intention to vote Republican.

This might very well be the case. And without disputing that possibility, I would suggest an alternative: The Senate map in 2018 is so favorable to Republicans that the shift toward the GOP might just be a function of the party’s core voters’ “coming home,” which should be enough to secure a solid victory.

The historical context here is important. As we all know, Senate elections run in six-year cycles, which means that the seats up this year (collectively known as Class 1) have recently been up for reelection in 2012, 2006, 2000, and 1994. The 1994 election was a good year for Republicans. The party picked up a net of nine seats, in places like Arizona, Michigan, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.

Six years later, in 2000, there was some payback. The Democrats netted four seats off the Republicans, claiming victories in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, and a few other places. In 2006 things went from bad to worse for the GOP, as Republicans lost a net of six seats, with defeats in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. And 2012 was a cycle of lost opportunities, as Republicans failed to pick up some obvious targets and overall lost another two seats on net.

If you were keeping track in the above paragraph, you should have 9 – 4 – 6 – 2 = –3. In other words, over the last quarter century, the Democrats have outrun the Republicans by three seats in Senate Class 1. When we consider that, overall, the Republicans have run even or ahead of Democrats for total control of the Senate, it is clear that Class 1 has been the weakest link for the GOP’s Senate caucus.

This implies two crucial points. First, the seats that the GOP is defending this cycle are seats that it has typically won even when it is losing overall. In some places, such as Arizona, Tennessee, and Texas, that is due to the natural partisan tilt of the states. In Nevada, it is due to the fact that Heller is well known and a good fit for the state.

Second, the Democrats are defending seats that, to be honest, they have no real business holding in the first place. Republicans really botched their comeback effort in 2012, which yielded needless losses for the GOP in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota. Luck, such as it is, has consistently been on the Democratic side with Senate Class 1 for many cycles. But this time it doesn’t seem to be favoring the Democrats as much. That leaves them more vulnerable than they would be with any other Senate class.

None of this is to suggest that the Kavanaugh effect is not real. It is just to serve as a reminder that Senate elections are only a dim or distorted picture of public opinion. That was by design, as the Framers of the Constitution originally gave the power of selecting senators to state legislatures. But even after the passage of the 17th Amendment, which mandated popular elections for all senators, we still see the upper chamber’s strange relationship to public opinion. President Donald Trump is unpopular, and his Republican party looks likely to lose a substantial number of seats in the House, which was designed to reflect public opinion. But thanks to the peculiarities of the Senate classes, the GOP may walk away from the November midterm having netted a seat or two in the upper chamber.

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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