The Magazine

Counting by States

The Democrats’ Senate problem.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

What do Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia have in common? For one, none has a city larger than 400,000 people. For another, they all voted for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. For yet another, they are the most likely places for Republicans to pick up Senate seats, thus taking control of the upper chamber, in 2014.


Ready to lead the minority: Harry Reid


These three facts are related.

Much ink has been spilled about the “coalition of the ascendant” that the Democrats have formed, which essentially consists of young professionals, nonwhite voters, and gentry liberals. The claim is that this coalition will make it well-nigh impossible for the Republican party ever to win the White House again.

Perhaps, but this Democratic coalition will struggle mightily to keep control of the Senate, let alone wield a working, liberal majority ever again. That’s because the Democrats, with this new coalition, have left behind the rural voters who used to be the party’s bread and butter.

For generations, the Democratic party was built on an alliance between rural and urban voters. It was often uneasy. At 1924’s Democratic National Convention, for instance, the two factions bickered over Prohibition and took more than 100 ballots to settle on a nominee. Even so, successful Democratic candidates from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton found various ways to unite the blocs. Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Clinton all were born in the South, Harry Truman came from a border state and could speak with a distinctive Southern twang, and Franklin Roosevelt had personal ties to the region. Barack Obama, on the other hand, relied more heavily than ever on the urban vote for victory in 2008 and 2012, making his coalition notably different from those that came before it.

This strategy can work on a presidential level—assuming Democrats can sustain turnout and support at the lofty heights that Obama enjoyed—but it is a problem in Congress, especially the Senate, where rural states play a uniquely strong role. This gives the Republican party a structural advantage in the battle for majority control. When he won the popular vote by just two points in 2004, George W. Bush carried 31 states, amounting to 62 Senate seats. Though he lost the popular vote by four points in 2012, Mitt Romney still carried 24 states, amounting to 48 Senate seats. The road to the White House might now run through Las Vegas, Nev., and Denver, Colo., but the road to a Senate majority still runs through Pierre, S.D., and Charleston, W.Va.

So why has the Democratic party managed to control the Senate for the last three election cycles? There are two reasons. The first is Republican incompetence. States with large rural populations, no overwhelmingly large cities, and conservative suburbs are prime targets for the GOP, but bad Republican candidates forced unnecessary losses dating back to 2006 in Alaska, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, and North Dakota. Second, and related, is the capacity of Democrats in these states to carve out identities independent of the national party, to emphasize the old rural (some would say “Jacksonian”) strands that still exist on the sub-national level.

In 2014, neither of these reasons appears to be much of a factor. Republicans seem to be attracting better-quality recruits than they have had in previous cycles. There will be no Todd Akin-style gaffes coming from Tom Cotton in Arkansas or Bill Cassidy in Louisiana. 

Second, Obama has rebranded the Democratic party as heavily partial to the values and interests of urban voters. Arkansas Democrat Marion Berry recounted in 2010 that Obama assured him that the big difference between the upcoming midterms and 1994 was “You’ve got me.” He was correct, but not in the way he meant to imply: The GOP swept the field in the House elections that year, doing particularly well in the rural districts of the South and Midwest. Something similar is set to happen in the Senate, as a huge swath of Democrats from rural, red states will pay the price for consistently supporting Obama’s agenda.

This is often the way coalitions evolve: Change starts at the top and works its way down, slowly but surely. For a time, the local politicians left stranded by a national rebranding can last on their own, carving out independent identities and relying on the incompetence of the competition. But, sooner or later, the party’s national reputation seeps through, and the other side figures out how to run a decent campaign. This is why, though the Republicanization of the South started in earnest on the presidential level in 1952, the GOP did not win a majority of Southern House seats until 1994. Since then, the Democrats have never reclaimed that Southern majority.

What about the elections after this fall? There can be no doubt that the Republican party has problems putting together a national coalition to win the presidency. The GOP needs to win more Latino voters, more African-American voters, and more young voters. It also needs to drive better turnout among its core vote in critical swing states like Florida and Ohio.

But our government is a separated system in which the power to enact law is split between a presidency and a bicameral legislature. In the latter, the Republicans have the structural advantages. In 2012, Obama won 70 percent of the vote in the big cities, but less than 40 percent of the vote in rural areas. His political coalition may be favored to win the White House, but Republicans will be favored to win the Senate and, thanks to the concentration of Democratic voters into federally mandated minority-majority districts, the House of Representatives as well.

This development will likely be immune to demographic changes sweeping through the Southwest. No doubt immigration has redrawn the political landscape of California over the last 30 years, but California still has only two senators, just like Arkansas, Idaho, North Dakota, and Louisiana, whose demographic shifts have not altered their political balance.

Thus, the outsized majority that Obama enjoyed in Congress after the 2008 election appears in retrospect to be more of an artifact of the previous age, when the party brand was not so heavily dependent upon the “coalition of the ascendant.” Now, six years into the Obama administration, Democratic senators will have to deal with the “descendant” voters the Obama administration has ignored. And it’s those voters that may well hold the balance of power in the Senate, and it is looking increasingly as if they intend to wield it mercilessly come November.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers