Sacrificial Democratic Senators in 2018

by Neil H. Buchanan

Many Democrats are anticipating a big night on November 8.  Although the inevitable noise in the polls surely gives Democrats heartburn, the embarrassing spectacle of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week must surely be putting smiles on the faces of Democratic strategists and candidates (and their supporters) everywhere.

Although there is still little reason to expect that the House will flip to the Democrats this year, the odds certainly look promising for Democrats to retake the majority in the Senate.  As far as it goes, that makes 2016 look like a good year for the Democrats, which was probably going to be a good year even without the Republicans' full-on meltdown during the presidential nominating process this year.

But even if things go very well for Democrats in the general election, what happens next?  In my new Verdict column today, I describe how the Democrats' majority control of the Senate will be short-lived.  The underlying fact is that the last three national elections have been one-sided affairs in the Senate, with Republicans electing many weak candidates in the 2010 and 2014 mid-terms, and Democrats electing some very vulnerable new senators of their own -- for example, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who won in a red state by less than one percent of the vote during Obama's big reelection win -- in 2012.

As each of those waves of senators comes up for reelection in 2016, 2018, and 2020, the partisan breakdown is stark.  This year, Republicans have to defend 24 out of 34 seats that are up for election.  In 2018, it will be the Democrats who have to defend 25 out of 33 seats, and then the Republicans will have 22 out of 33 seats to defend in 2020.  Even with strong candidates, those imbalances almost always portend the loss of a few seats by the incumbent party.  The demographics of general versus mid-term electorates further exacerbates the problems that incumbents will face in each of these cycles.

The bulk of the analysis in my Verdict column addresses just what the Democrats can expect to accomplish during the next Clinton presidency.  Even with a majority in the House, but especially without it, the 2018 Senate map should tell Democrats to try to get everything done as soon as possible after Clinton takes office.  After an inevitable mid-term reversal in November 2018, there will be nothing but gridlock for the final two years of Clinton's first term.

The question that I want to address here is how the Democrats should approach their dead-in-the-water incumbents during 2017 and 2018.  Given that virtually none of the doomed Senate Democrats can be expected to be realistic about their chances -- or, to put a nice spin on it, given that each will surely view this as "the fight of my life" and will refuse to go down quietly -- what should the Clinton White House and Senate Democratic leaders do about their soon-to-be-former Senators?

In terms of Political Strategy 101, this might seem to be an easy call.  Parties make cold-blooded decisions all the time, pulling resources and support from candidates who have no chance of winning.  But my concern here is not with electoral strategies but rather with how to prevent the doomed Democrats from effectively undermining the Democratic majority during the two years that it will exist.

One type of person that I have in mind is former Senator Blanche Lincoln, a two-term Democrat from Arkansas who lost her reelection bid during the Tea Party wave of 2010.  (The person who defeated her, John Boozman, is not one of the vulnerable Republicans this year, because Arkansas has turned so deeply red.  Not all 2010 freshman need to be vulnerable to make 2016 a bad year for Republicans.)

Lincoln was a classic conservative Democrat.  For example, she joined Arizona Republican Jon Kyl in cosponsoring an absurd reduction in the estate tax.  She also voted against the Obama Administration on a bill to bring Gitmo detainees to the U.S. for trial, and she managed both to vote for and against the Affordable Care Act.  She had also threatened to filibuster any health care bill that included a "public option."  (After leaving office, she worked with an affiliate of the National Federation of Independent Business, the plaintiff in the first major Supreme Court challenge to the ACA.)

But even though Lincoln was already pretty unreliable to her fellow Democrats, she started to flail about as she faced political extinction, trying to distance herself from her party -- and especially President Obama -- to try to induce her increasingly right-wing constituents to ignore her party label.  They were not impressed, and she lost by more than twenty percentage points.

I am sure that there are nuances about the Lincoln reelection campaign that could add more texture to the story, but the bare facts are enough to make the point.  Lincoln and similarly doomed colleagues in 2010 responded to their unavoidable extinction by trying to move to the right (even further to the right, in Lincoln's case), undermining the Democrats' ability to move their agenda forward in 2009 and 2010, while they held majorities in both houses of Congress.

Of course, the most conservative Democrats have already been defeated, so there will be no direct analogue to Lincoln in 2018.  But because the Democrats will only have a few votes to spare, at most, in Senate roll calls, the important question is whether Democrats will fail to hold their caucus together for the important votes that will surely arise in 2017 and 2018.

As those doomed Democrats start to try to defy the electoral odds by proving their independence from Clinton and their party, will they think that they can save their skins by refusing to change the Senate's filibuster rules -- or, even if those rules are changed, by refusing to vote for Clinton's nominees?

All of which raises an interesting strategic possibility for Democrats.  Rather than following the usual strategy or tossing sure losers overboard while focusing resources on winnable races, the Democrats might instead want to guarantee the loyalty of their doomed colleagues by promising to throw away money and resources on their reelection campaigns.

After all, if Senator X is up for reelection in a reddish state, and national Democrats say, "Sorry, you can't be saved," a highly plausible response by Senator X is to try to save herself, in whatever ways are available.  But if Democratic leaders can instead credibly say, "Stick with us, and we'll stick with you, in a way that will win you more votes than by pointlessly chasing your opponent to the right," then maybe their colleagues will be less tempted to stray.  Oddly, then, in order to get anything done in 2017 and 2018, the Democrats might need to promise to do electorally foolish things during the 2018 mid-term campaigns.

I am not a political strategist, and I am sure that the people who make these political deals are aware of all of the strategies for keeping people in line.  The broader point, however, is that if Democrats wake up on November 9 to President-Elect Clinton and at least four newly elected Democratic Senators, they should not assume that they will be able to hold their new majority together, even briefly.

The title of my Verdict column today, after all is, "Clinton and the Democrats Will Have Two Years, at Most, to Accomplish Anything."  Emphasis on "at most."