Partisan map steepens Democrats’ Senate climb

Alan Fram
Associated Press

Washington — Pinned six years in the minority, Democrats have an uphill but real shot at wresting Senate control in January, with more opportunities in 2022. Yet as states increasingly sort themselves along hardening partisan lines, it’s complicating Democrats’ drive to win the majority and keep it.

Thanks to this month’s elections, Democrats will own all four Senate seats from Arizona and Colorado next year. If they can win runoffs for both seats from Georgia, which has recently teetered toward them, they’ll command the Senate thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote in what would be a 50-50 chamber.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee hold a news conference after boycotting the vote by the Republican-led panel to advance the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to sit on the Supreme Court at the Capitol in Washington.

Yet even as Democrats have made those gains and others since surrendering control in the 2014 elections, they’ve lost foundations of their old majority that will be hard to recapture. Gone are seats from Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, both Dakotas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia, all of which tilt Republican in presidential elections.

In addition, three current Senate Democrats are from states that President Donald Trump carried easily this month despite losing to Democrat Joe Biden. Sens. Joe Manchin, 73, of West Virginia, Jon Tester, 64, of Montana and Sherrod Brown, 68, of Ohio are all proven brand names in states that would be hard for Democrats to hold without them.

All this means a constricted playing field for Democrats to add seats in coming election cycles.

“The Democratic caucus for a long time was built on winning races in red states” where they’ve since lost, said Matt House, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The problem is a Democratic Senate majority runs through red states, and that is an inherent structural difficulty.”

Nothing is set in stone in politics, where momentum and issues can shift abruptly. Besides Georgia, Democrats hope to grab Senate seats soon in purple North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, plus Texas as that state’s Hispanic population grows. GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have said they won’t seek reelection in 2022.

Even so, recent elections underscore how states have formed into solid partisan columns as voters’ ticket-splitting becomes increasingly rare.

Setting Georgia’s January elections aside, in every state but six, both senators will be from the same party next year. A seventh, Vermont, is represented by a Democrat and independent Bernie Sanders, who is aligned with them.

In addition, every state represented by two senators from the same party was carried by that party’s presidential candidate this year, Biden or Trump.

The pattern of partisan allegiance persists into the future. In the 2022 elections, Democrats will defend Senate 13 seats — all from states Biden won. Trump won 18 of the 21 seats Republicans will protect. Biden won three others.

“We can win all across the country” in 2022, said Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who will lead the National Republican Senatorial Committee beginning next year.

Whatever happens in Georgia in January, Democrats have high hopes for 2022. Besides defending fewer seats than Republicans, only three Democratic seats seem potentially competitive. The 21 seats Republicans must protect include Burr’s in North Carolina and Toomey’s in Pennsylvania, plus a competitive race in purple Wisconsin.

Yet as Biden prepares to take office, there’s a warning sign for Democrats. Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the party in control of the White House has gained Senate seats in only three midterm elections: 2018, 2002 and 1982.

Things brighten for Republicans in 2024, when they’ll defend just 10 seats compared to Democrats’ 23. Democratic seats in play that year include those of Manchin in West Virginia, Montana’s Tester and Brown’s in Ohio.

“If Democrats are going to compete in red states, they’re going to have to find candidates as uncomfortable with the Democratic brand as voters in those states are,” said Brad Todd, a GOP consultant.