The problem Democrats face is partly structural, of course. The Senate was designed to be undemocratic, and as the country’s population has grown, the problem has only worsened. Today, the fewer than 600,000 people who live in Wyoming get the same two senators as the 40 million who live in California, and because Republicans dominate in more of the sparsely populated states than Democrats, they have a built-in advantage.
In the current Senate, the sitting Democrats received a total of 15 million more votes in their last elections than the sitting Republicans did, yet the Republicans control the chamber. The situation is so imbalanced that it led Ian Millhiser to write an article with the only slightly tongue-in-cheek headline, “The Senate is so rigged that Democrats may never control it ever again.”
Never is a long time, of course. But can Democrats take the Senate back any time soon?
Let’s begin by looking at the next election. Final results are not yet in from Tuesday’s races, but if Rick Scott’s apparent victory in Florida is confirmed and Martha McSally holds on to the minuscule lead she clings to in Arizona as the final votes are counted, Republicans will have 54 seats in their majority.
This year’s map was abysmal for Democrats; they had to defend 26 seats, while Republicans only had to defend nine. In 2020, things will be much more agreeable: Democrats will be defending only 12 seats, while Republicans will have to defend 21.
But most of those seats won’t be particularly competitive. Democrats have little realistic chance of winning seats in Idaho or Oklahoma. By my count, however, there are at least eight states where Democrats have at least a shot to win a seat held by a Republican, and I would put four of those states into the category of “almost guaranteed to be battlegrounds” (Colorado, Georgia, Maine and North Carolina). Republicans also have a few states where they have a shot at taking a seat from a Democrat, particularly Alabama, where Doug Jones will be up for reelection and most likely won’t have the benefit of running against an accused pedophile (though you never know).
It’s far too early to tell what that election will be like, but just looking at the map, one can say that Democrats will have a chance to win the net of four seats they will need to get to 50-50 (with ties being broken by the vice president if they win the presidency) or more, but it will require nearly everything to go right.
Of course, sometimes nearly everything does go right. It’s not uncommon for one party to win every or nearly every highly contested Senate race in a given election. That is what happened to Democrats in 2008, which enabled them to (briefly) have the 60-vote majority they needed to pass the Affordable Care Act, without a vote to spare. Republicans had a similar sweep six years later when all those senators were up for reelection.
So you could imagine a situation in which 2020 is a great election for Democrats, their presidential candidate defeats Trump, they hold the House, and they narrowly take the Senate. That would mean, however, that the new Democratic president would be unable to pass any major legislation outside of the reconciliation process, severely limiting what they could do in the face of guaranteed Republican obstructionism. Despite all the powers the presidency offers, some things — such as instituting universal health coverage — would probably be impossible.
Then two years later, that Democratic president would face a midterm election. Once again, the map would heavily favor the Democrats, with nearly twice as many Republicans up for reelection, including many in swing states. But given the fact that the president’s party usually fares poorly in that first midterm, there would be a serious chance that Democrats could lose the Senate entirely.
There’s a lot of uncertainty as we look this far ahead. What we can say is that it’s almost impossible to foresee a time in the near future when Democrats have even the faintest hope at having the presidency along with another 60-seat majority in the Senate, which is what it would take to pass ambitious legislation. What’s far more likely is a situation in which a Democratic president faces a Republican Senate.
Unless, of course, we do something like finally allow the District of Columbia to become a state and give full voting rights to the 700,000 Americans who live there. Which we should have done a long time ago.