As I write this piece, Republicans have picked up two Senate seats and lead in Florida, Arizona, and Montana. They will likely end the midterms with a 54-seat majority. A 55-seat majority is still possible. As much as the Democrats rightly celebrate their House win, the Senate results are quite possibly more significant. They result an enduring challenge for progressives, a roadblock in front of all their political and judicial dreams.
To understand why, I refer you to some of the sharper progressive thinkers — people who understand the Republican structural advantage in the Senate and what that means for progressive politics in America.
As Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote last month, “By 2040, 70 percent of Americans will live in the 15 largest states. That means 70 percent of America will be represented by only 30 senators, while the other 30 percent of America will be represented by 70 senators.” And, by the way, those smaller states (by population, not always land mass) tend to be more rural.
That’s a big problem for Democrats. In his morning New York Times newsletter, David Leonhardt celebrated victory in the House, but he had this word of warning:
And yet last night did not feel like a thorough rejection of Trumpism. In one statewide race after another, Democrats suffered disappointing losses. It happened with the exciting progressive candidates in Florida, Georgia, Ohio and Texas (pending recounts). It happened with the centrist candidates in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota and elsewhere.
Why? Above all, because Democrats are getting trounced outside of metropolitan areas. “The consistent pattern you’re seeing is that Republicans are consolidating control of rural white America faster than Democrats are making inroads into educated suburbia,” the progressive writer David Klion tweeted.
This is very true, and while politics can always change, it’s hard to see a cultural or political trend that will loosen the GOP’s grip on rural and exurban America. After all, as Leonhardt notes, GOP candidates beat progressives and moderates. Here in Tennessee, Marsha Blackburn absolutely trounced Phil Bredesen, a popular former Democratic governor of the state and a man who would have camped out at the right edge of the Democrats in the Senate.
Not even expressing support for Brett Kavanaugh could save Bredesen. Tennessee Republicans knew that if the Democrats took the Senate, Chuck Schumer wouldn’t give Bredesen the chance to vote for a new Trump Supreme Court nominee.
That brings us to the politics of the federal courts. As I tweeted last night, because of the courts, extending the Senate lead is so important to the GOP base that it may overshadow the losses in the House. It’s a simple fact that there isn’t much Republican consensus on a legislative agenda. There is enormous consensus and resolve around the federal judiciary.
And when Senate Democrats launched their frontal assault on Brett Kavanaugh, it was hard to think of a strategy better calculated to rouse Republicans in red states to oust their Democratic senators. No amount of professed moderation could compensate for a “No” vote on Kavanaugh. No amount of professed moderation could compensate for the fact that a Democratic Senate would be under progressive Democratic control.
Here is what smart Democrats now know. While the 2018 midterms did swing the House (and did demonstrate that Donald Trump is in real danger in 2020), they also secured a continuing judicial revolution and — critically —raised the specter that the Democrats could win the White House in 2020 and still be stymied legislatively and judicially by a Republican Senate. Republicans elected for the purpose of securing the judicial branch will not be eager to consent to confirming a string of progressive judges nominated by a progressive president. They will not pass single-payer health care. They will not pass gun control.
Before last night, in theory the combination of geographic sorting and political polarization yielded profound Republican advantages in the Senate. But Republicans actually held only 51 of the 100 seats. Last night, the theory became a fact — a fact made all the more apparent because of the significant Republican losses elsewhere, in governor’s mansions and the House. In other words, against considerable headwinds, the Senate majority grew.
Last night’s results were a blow to both parties’ theories of political dominance. It is hard to maintain total control of the American government, and as Americans increasingly cluster in like-minded communities, it’s going to grow harder still to shake a significant number free from their partisan affiliations.
Both parties got the things they felt they had to have. The Democrats obtained the subpoena power in the House, the ability to investigate Trump, and the ability to block what remains of his legislative agenda. The Republicans gained the ability to steamroll the Democrats on judges and built a Senate cushion for 2020. Trump gained the ability to campaign against Nancy Pelosi even as his administration (and business relationships) will be placed under a microscope.
But the bottom line is clear. If the Republicans had to choose a chamber, they’d choose the Senate. They won it decisively, and it’s not clear when the Democrats will win it back.