The Republicans’ natural Senate majority, and its implications

I used to argue that the Republicans have a natural majority in the Senate in the sense that, given a 50-50 election, the House will be almost evenly divided, the presidential winner will be uncertain, but the Senate will likely be Republican (though this would require 50-50 elections over the course of three cycles). The reason, of course, is that the Senate gives equal weight to thinly populated states and large states. Republicans tend to do better in thinly populated states, which are typically rural, than in large states dominated by big cities.

I don’t make this argument as often these days, in which Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate. But the theory behind it is still sound.

Jay Cost revives the argument in this piece called “Counting the States.” Noting the strength of Republicans in rural areas, he writes:

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.

To paraphrase John Ehrlichman, will it play in Pierre?

Why, then, don’t Republicans control the Senate, given three elections that, collectively, amounted more or less to “50-50”? Cost offers two explanations:

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.

Cost doesn’t expect these factors to have much sway in 2014. He notes that Republicans seem to have recruited better candidates this year and that President Obama has alienated rural voters even more than previous Democratic leaders did. I would add that the key battleground states this year are almost all more rural than the norm.

The Republican’s natural majority in the Senate has implications, the main one being that it tempts a Senate power grab. When Republicans controlled the Senate they declined, for example, to use the “nuclear option” (as it was called when Republicans contemplated it) to eliminate filibusters of judicial nominees below the Supreme Court level (Obama had no Supreme Court nominees in the picture). Harry Reid, though, has gone ahead with that option and, if the Democrats had captured the House, would likely have eliminated the filibuster for legislation.

But if Republicans have a natural Senate majority, moves that eliminate minority rights in that body will, over time, favor Republicans, assuming they remain capable of producing something close to 50-50 elections.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Senate Republicans should find new ways to trample on the rights of members from the minority party. Considerations of sound government count for something. But it adds a decent argument for retaining Harry Reid’s anti-minority rules and for considering new ones.

Experience confirms that, when the time is ripe, the Democrats will marginalize Senate Republicans to the point of powerlessness. Striking back thus becomes imperative and striking first is not to be despised.

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