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Democrats’ problems controlling Congress

By Bruce Walker
web posted July 15, 2019

In the twenty-five years since the Republicans’ 1994 midterm landslide, which gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time since 1931, Democrats have only controlled the Senate for eight years and Democrats have only controlled the House for six years.  Democrats have only controlled both houses of Congress for four years during the last twenty-five years.  What are the long-term prospects of Democrats controlling Congress?  Those prospects are very poor for several reasons.

The recent Supreme Court decision upholding the right of state legislatures to engage in partisan gerrymandering means that the congressional districts drawn after the 2020 Census will again – in most states - be made to maximize the number of Republicans elected and minimize the number of Democrats elected.  As computer technology increases the effectiveness of gerrymandering by fine-tuning demographic data, this will mean even fewer House Democrats from marginal districts.

Adding to this Republican advantage is the fact that state legislatures will be again drawing their own districts to maximize the number of Republicans elected to state legislative chambers.   Already in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which are at best swing states for Republicans, the state legislatures will be even more solidly Republican for the next ten years.

Democrats have a more fundamentally structural problem in the Senate.  Most states are Republican and even in Democrat presidential victories, like Obama in 2008 and 2012, the Republican nominees in those two elections won 46% of the states.  When George W. Bush won election in 2000 and reelection in 2004, the Republican nominee won 63% of the states.  Both elections were otherwise very similar in the popular and electoral vote margins. 

What this means is that Republicans, by only winning states which go Republican in presidential elections and have Republican state legislatures, can win and hold between sixty and sixty-two seats in the Senate.  In 2020, it is easy to see Republicans holding virtually all the Senate seats up for election that year and things will not be easier for Senate Democrats in 2022.

The political reality that Democrats may not control either the House or the Senate in the future produces another drag on Democrat prospects.  Members of the minority party in the House and the Senate have less power and less clout that member of the majority party.  Chairmanships of committees and subcommittees can raise campaign funds much more easily and can also represent their home states better in protecting the interests of those states.  

Those campaign funds, if the incumbent can ward off serious challengers, grow larger each election cycle and make harder and harder over time to recruit and fund candidates from the other political party to make serious runs against the incumbent in Congress.  

Tenure in Congress also provides a powerful advantage in seeking reelection.  Congressional staffers work year round whether it is an election year or not doing constituent services for voters in the state or district.  When a senator or congressman can cut through federal bureaucracies and help constituents with Social Security or Veterans or Medicare issues this not only affects the particular constituent helped but that individual is likely to tell friends and family what a good guy this senator or congressmen has been to him. 

The fact that constituent services is apolitical and perfectly proper means that the service provided is viewed outside the messy world of partisan wrangling and campaign rhetoric.  Indeed, the staffers who work constituent services behave like a friend regardless of the political party of the constituent.  Unlike nearly everyone else in the federal government, these staffers typically are very prompt in getting back to the constituent and are almost invariably sympathetic in their manner.   Members of Congress who have held office for a dozen years or so are going to have had staffers who helped thousands of constituents with their problems.

Democrats, of course, could have prevented their current political problem in controlling Congress by acting responsibly when it mattered.  Republicans for many decades begged for nonpartisan drawing of state legislative and congressional districts.  Democrats reveled in partisan gerrymandering.  Pushing the federal government to get bigger and bigger quite naturally gives the majority parties in Congress even more power vis-à-vis the minority party.  Republicans long pushed for a “Term Limits Amendment,” but Democrats resisted it. 

Democrats seemed to think that they would never have to endure the sort of unfair advantage which they used for so many decades against Republicans.  Obviously, these Democrats were foolishly and utterly mistaken. ESR

Bruce Walker is the author of the recently released Pseudo-Green Leftism and True Green Conservatism and a contributing editor to Enter Stage Right.

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