The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Senate became more polarized, messaging votes lost their power

A pedestrian holds a baby near abortion rights and antiabortion demonstrators outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg News)
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In Senate parlance, they’re called messaging votes. The majority leader knows that the proposed legislation will not win enough votes to pass or, more likely, will fall short of the 60 needed to clear a filibuster and end debate.

The payoff used to be in forcing senators of the opposite party to cast politically uncomfortable votes that the majority would use against them in upcoming elections, attacking them for taking positions that showed party loyalty over the interest of their voters back home.

That’s essentially what Senate Democrats tried Wednesday with their attempt to codify abortion rights, knowing that national public polling shows broad opposition to overturning the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade.

“It’s not a majority position. So this is about democracy and holding people accountable,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said before just 49 members of the Democratic caucus voted to proceed to the legislation.

For the vast majority of Republicans, however, their vote against abortion rights served as a political win in states that have skewed so conservative that their only fear is of losing a GOP primary. In these states, the vast majority of conservatives usually oppose abortion.

“I’d cast this vote every day, from now until my own Election Day, if Chuck Schumer would arrange it. God knowing him, he might,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who next faces reelection in 2024. “North Dakota’s a really pro-life state.”

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The transformation of North Dakota and neighboring states goes to the heart of how the Senate has changed, and how most GOP incumbents will happily participate in messaging votes led by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on abortion, guns and other culture-war issues of the moment.

Twelve years ago, when Democrats last held the White House and majorities in the House and the Senate, North Dakota had two Democratic senators. So did Montana. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota was the lone Republican among senators from those sparsely populated states.

Now, five of those six senators are Republicans.

Just looking back at 2010 shows a massive Senate transformation that has left the overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans worried about their standing with, respectively, liberal and conservative activists.

Back then 23 senators — 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans — represented states that favored a candidate of the opposing party in the 2008 presidential election.

Today just six senators, three Democrats and three Republicans, sit in states that favored the other party’s nominee in the 2020 presidential election: Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.).

Moreover, states that used to tilt slightly toward Republicans have become ruby-red conservative bastions: 17 GOP senators represent states in which former president Donald Trump defeated President Biden by more than 25 percentage points, more than double the total of Republicans in seats that Biden won or narrowly lost.

Overall, 38 Senate Republicans represent states that Trump won by more than 10 points.

Democrats have seen a similar shift toward intensely blue states, with 10 members of Schumer’s caucus representing states Biden won by more than 25 points. And, overall, 32 members of that caucus hail from states he won by more than 10 points.

But Democrats hold much trickier political terrain than Republicans, subject to greater losses if the political winds blow against them.

Just four more Republicans hold seats in states where Trump defeated Biden by less than five percentage points, for a total of just seven seats that would be considered legitimate targets for Democrats.

For Democrats, 10 senators hold seats Biden won by less than five points, bringing the total number of seats Republicans can legitimately consider political targets to 13.

Tester and Manchin come from states where Trump won in 2016 and 2020 by huge margins, while Brown’s Ohio gave the GOP nominee an eight-point victory both races. Of the three Republicans in states Biden won, Johnson and Toomey hail from true swing states, where Trump narrowly won and then narrowly lost in his two elections.

In Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s caucus, only Collins sits in a state that Trump lost both times.

This ideological purification has left almost no middle ground on views of abortion, a shift from 25 years ago, when more than a handful of senators in each caucus held views diverging from their party’s abortion orthodoxy.

Today, Collins is one of just two Republicans who voice public support for Roe, although she and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) opposed Wednesday’s vote on grounds that the Democratic bill did not provide enough protections for religious liberty on the issue.

Johnson is the only GOP incumbent running in November from a state won by Biden, while Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) comes from a swing state Trump narrowly won twice. Toomey is retiring, as is Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, where Trump won narrowly in 2020.

Beyond those four GOP seats, Republicans do not expect abortion to play much of a role in the 17 other races in which they hold the seat.

“It might be broadly unpopular, but it’s not a top-five issue,” Cramer said, particularly among swing voters who “decide the elections.”

Among Democrats, Manchin — from a state Trump won by 39 points two years ago — is the only opponent of abortion rights.

Abortion had not been much of an issue at all for the November midterms, with less than 1 percent of adults choosing it as the “most important” problem in a Gallup poll this year.

It’s unclear how much that has changed since the publication last week of a draft opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. that would overturn Roe in strongly worded language.

Some Democrats, such as Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), have put the issue front and center in their campaigns, trying to highlight their opponent’s support for overturning the nearly 50-year precedent.

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“They’ve all come out saying that they support the Alito draft opinion, and voters really need to know who stands to protect this, in part because we also know that Mitch McConnell is now talking about a national abortion ban,” Hassan said Wednesday during an appearance on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”

New Hampshire, whose motto has long been “Live Free or Die,” went for Biden by more than seven percentage points.

Tester, who has won three tough races in deeply conservative Montana, is also hoping his state’s libertarian bent helps him in his 2024 reelection bid.

“I think this is an issue about freedom, and if people start seeing it in that light, it becomes a lot more powerful issue,” he said Wednesday.

Sen. Mark Kelly (Ariz.) is one of the Democrats facing a tough needle to thread in his November reelection bid. His state sided with Biden by fewer than 11,000 votes, just 0.3 percentage points, one of two times Arizona favored the Democratic nominee in the last 12 presidential elections.

Kelly told reporters last week that abortion would be “focused on” in his race. But the former astronaut suggested political experts would determine whether it would be a dominant issue.

“You gotta ask somebody who does this — you know, I’m a senator, I’m also a guy that spent most of my career flying Space Shuttles and airplanes off aircraft carriers,” he said.