One outcome from today’s elections has pretty much already been decided: Whether Democrats somehow hold the Senate or whether Republicans capture it, we are only headed for more polarization, not less.
Presuming Republicans win the Upper Chamber, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will claim a new era of constructive governance has arrived, while simultaneously claiming a mandate to chip away at President Obama’s already achieved policy gains. (Those who profess a love for bipartisan cooperation will politely ignore this absurdity.) But McConnell’s only way to re-litigate Obama’s policies will remain budgetary guerrilla warfare that will only work if Obama allows it to work, which he won’t. This election won’t resolve any of the larger arguments of the Obama era — whether backward looking or forward looking — and while compromises may be possible here and there, the big picture will mostly be more stalemate.
This is the structural reality underlying the battle for the Senate: Because voters increasingly vote for the same party in Congressional elections that they do in presidential ones, it’s becoming harder for either party to hold seats in states won by the opposing party’s presidential candidate. At best for Democrats, the result of this election will be a majority so narrow that it’s almost non-existent. The most likely outcome for Republicans is a majority of two or three seats — far from enough to do any serious damage to any of Obama’s major policy achievements.
“We’re seeing greater consistency across different types of elections,” political scientist Alan Abramowitz tells me. “Aside from the close ones, it’s very hard now for a Democrat to be elected in a Romney state, and very hard for Republicans to win in Obama states.”
Ron Brownstein has a must-read that explains how demographics in the core red state battlegrounds, where older blue collar whites continue to trend away from the Democratic Party, are fueling this trend. Also seeJonathan Cohn’s useful map which captures the situation nicely.
The rub, Abramowitz says, is that in this election, this trend will produce amore polarized Senate. That’s because, in the states where control will mostly be decided, moderate Democrats are likely to be replaced with very conservative Republicans. In Arkansas and Alaska, senators Mark Pryor and Mark Begich will likely be replaced by Tom Cotton and Dan Sullivan. In Iowa and Colorado, Joni Ernst and Cory Gardner, who may well prevail, are more conservative than the retiring Tom Harkin and Mark Udall are liberal.
“The net result will be that we’ll have a Republican caucus that is more conservative than it is now, and a Democratic caucus that is more liberal than it is now,” Abramowitz says. “You’re subtracting moderates from the Democratic caucus, and adding very conservative Republicans to the GOP caucus.”
“As a result, we’ll have a more polarized Senate, with more confrontation and gridlock,” Abramowitz continues. “I can’t see the new Republican-controlled Congress being more willing to work with the president.”
And as Jonathan Chait notes, beyond the Senate, the dominant fact of our politics is that the GOP-controlled House and the President can’t agree on anything, no matter what the Senate does. The notion that the Senate can somehow bridge this divide has long been a pipe dream. But for the aforementioned reasons, it may, if anything, be even more fanciful next year. Which probably means that, whatever happens today, we’re looking at more of the same dispiriting mess for at least the next two years and quite possibly longer.