US Senate

A Perpetual GOP-Controlled Senate May be in Nation’s Future

Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may act like he is politically invulnerable. He may be right.

Senate GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may act like he is politically invulnerable. He may be right.

On OPB’s Livewire radio show over the weekend, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley said America’s democracy is threatened by gerrymandering, voter suppression and dark money. He left off the growing dissimilarity of makeup of the US Senate to the US population.

Court cases are swirling around seeking to level the playing field on politically motivated gerrymandering, bar voter suppression of communities of color and restrict campaign contributions, or at least bring them fully into the sunshine. 

There is no viable challenge afoot to Senate representation that is becoming more distorted from the one-man, one-vote principle.

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie paints a picture of a permanent GOP majority in the US Senate, despite growing Democratically leaning populations on both coasts.

“The Republican coalition of rural whites, exurban whites and anti-tax suburbanites may not be large enough to win the national popular vote in a head-to-head matchup with Democrats,” Bouie writes “But it covers a much larger part of the country’s landmass, giving it a powerful advantage in the Senate.”

When the Constitution was drafted, less populated states feared the dominance of Virginia, the California of its time. Virginia’s population of 747,610 dwarfed Delaware’s 59,094 residents, which led to the Madisoneque compromise giving every state, regardless of its population, two senators.

Fast forward to today and you have California with 40 million residents and Wyoming with fewer than 600,000 each represented by two senators. That’s “a disparity that gives a voter in Wyoming 67 times the voting power of a voter in California,” observes Bouie. 

The disparity is on track to get wider. “By 2040, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, half the population will live in eight states, with eight other states representing the next 20 percent of the population. The remaining 34 states will hold 30 percent of the population. In the Senate, this would give them 68 seats. Overall, half the country’s population would control 84 of the 100 seats in the chamber.”

The upshot, based on current red state/blue state trends, is a perpetual Republican asset, serving a GOP president and thwarting a Democratic president. Mitch McConnell is not an aberration; he is an avatar of the future.

The distortion that perpetuates GOP control also bedevils the Electoral College, which has delivered victory to more than one candidate, including the current incumbent, who lost the majority vote nationwide. This has led to calls for abolition of the Electoral College and electing presidents by majority vote. Not surprisingly, Republicans and red-state leaders have been cool to the idea.

As the 2020 presidential election comes into focus, Democratic strategists have begun to explore ways to offset the growing predominance of Republicans in the Senate. Bouie reports some of the ideas, inspired by David Faris’ “It’s Time to Fight Dirty,”  have a ring of truth as well as novelty.

One idea is to add more states such as DC and Puerto Rico and break up California into six states, which presumably would give Democrats a net of 14 more or less permanently Democratic senators. Of course, Republicans could respond by following suit in GOP-leaning mega-states such as Texas and Florida.

The Roosevelt Institute offers a similar, but distinctly different alternative – add representatives to the Senate from the Atlantic territories, Pacific territories and Native tribes. A mix of nations – Australia, Brazil, France, Finland and Denmark – have set aside seats in their parliaments for indigenous peoples. Again, it would be hard to imagine Republicans and red states falling for this logic and undoing their home-field advantage.

The underlying conclusion Bouie reaches is that even if Democrats somehow manage to unseat President Trump in 2020, retain control of the House, overcome gerrymandering, thwart voter suppression and blunt dark money, Republicans will still be in the captain’s chair in the Senate, obstructing Democratic initiatives and blocking Democratically appointed judges. The story of Merrick Garland will be repeated and become the norm.

With 22 seats to defend, Senate Republicans would seem vulnerable in 2020. However, only two are in Democrat-leaning states. Democrats hold an Alabama Senate seat, which is likely to flip back to form. In other words, unless Democrats win the Senate against the odds, Bouie says everything else they win may be for naught.