Between now and November 4, 2014, you will read and hear many thousands of words about whether and why Republicans will win control of the United States Senate. There will be much talk about the “six-year-rule” whereby the party controlling the White House nearly always loses ground in a second-term midterm. There will also be plenty of analysis of the performance of the economy, the possibility of wars or other international crises, the president’s approval ratings, and the issues the two major parties have chosen on which to contest elections. Candidate selection considerations (both recruitment and the existence and outcome of contested primaries) and, of course, money, will get their due diligence, as they should. And Lord knows some of us, myself included, will obsess about midterm turnout patterns.
All of these factors influencing the 2014 Senate elections are legitimately important. But before we spend much time dwelling on them, it’s appropriate to fix in the back of our minds the overriding variable affecting the Senate landscape: of 34 seats up for grabs in 2014, 20 are in states carried by the loser of the 2012 presidential election. Seven of those 20 seats are currently held by the party of the winner of the 2012 presidential election. Only two seats are held by Republicans in states won by Obama in 2012 (one of those, in New Jersey, is held by an appointee). Thus it’s no surprise that in Hotline’s inaugural rankings today of the Senate seats most likely to “flip” from one party to the other, six of the top seven are held by Democrats.
This heavily tilted landscape is a bit of an accident, since 2008 was an unusually good Democratic year. But it’s worth perpetually remembering, particularly for Democrats, that the landscape is perpetually tilted by the U.S. Constitution. Sure, we will be told constantly by conservative gabbers that Obama’s ultra-liberal agenda has made life difficult for red-state Democratic senators. But the necessity for Democrats of disproportionately strong performance in “enemy territory” has nothing to do with ideology or the size of the Democratic “tent” and everything to do with the anti-Democratic bias of the Senate.
That the Senate also has an anti-democratic bias in the way it operates compounds this problem. And that’s probably the central dilemma facing progressives in the debate over filibuster reform. All other things being equal, Democrats don’t have an equal opportunity to control a majority of the Senate. But at the same time, the odds are much, much lower of Democrats ever controlling the sixty Senate seats necessary to overcome the routine deployment of filibusters by Republicans. The sixty Democratic seats at the beginning of the 111th Congress represented a small miracle, and also showed that the costs of having to depend on the likes of Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman somewhat offset the benefits of having a “big tent” party that can win on difficult terrain.
Democrats can deal with the Senate problem (and the more immediate Republican hold on the House, buttressed by superior vote efficiency and gerrymandering) by building a bigger ideological “tent,” by creating a national popular majority of a size sufficient to overcome the structural obstacles to fair representation in Congress, or by finding other ways to govern or at least to hold off Republican hegemony—i.e., by continuing to win presidential elections. But the structural issues should be kept constantly in mind by people in both parties, particularly those who have a habit of conflating the array of forces in Washington with the Will of the People, or of treating any particular election as a referendum on anything at all.
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