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Opinion | Think 2020 Will Be Better for Senate Democrats? Think Again

Without a smarter approach to rural America, liberals will be stuck in the minority for a long time.

Opinion | Think 2020 Will Be Better for Senate Democrats? Think Again
ImageOpinion | Think 2020 Will Be Better for Senate Democrats? Think Again
CreditCreditNolan Pelletier

As expected, the reality produced by Tuesday’s results will be a split Congress, with Democrats running the House of Representatives and Republicans in charge of the Senate. Republicans will expand their Senate majority from the current 51-49 to as much as 54-46, pending the outcomes of a few races that as I write are still too close to call, but in which Republicans hold slim leads.

Elected officials of both bodies will pay lip service to the idea of working together, and some of the more Panglossian pundits will express the hope that even this divided Congress will produce a deal on infrastructure spending or prescription drug prices. I guess maybe, but let’s be realistic. What seems more likely is not only lack of cooperation but also active warfare between the two bodies.

House Democrats will pass some progressive legislation, as they should, to show the nation their priorities heading into the next presidential election. But of course these bills will go nowhere in the Senate. If by some miracle the two chambers do manage to pass similar versions of a bill, the conference committee deliberations will be a food fight.

So this is what we can expect. Two more years of continuing resolutions and possible government shutdowns. And if the Republicans do increase their majority to 54, it seems entirely possible that the Democrats might not recapture the majority there for a very long time indeed.

I woke up Wednesday morning and, as people like me are wont to do, glanced over the Senate seats that will be up for re-election in 2020. On paper, they look better for the Democrats. This year, the Democrats were defending 26 seats, and the Republicans just nine. The Democrats’ 26 included 10 incumbents in states that President Trump carried. In 2020, it’s the Republicans who’ll be defending a majority of the seats — 22 out of 33.

That sounds hopeful, if you’re a Democrat. But if you look at the map, you see that most of the Republican-held seats are in states that would elect a dog before they’d elect a Democrat. Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming — you get the picture. All told, there are about 14 states where the idea of electing a Democrat to the Senate is all but inconceivable, and another three or four where it’s perhaps not inconceivable but where the stars would need to align just so. The numbers for comparably Democratic states are are perhaps 12 and I think zero.

Specifically with respect to 2020, if you had to ponder five possible pickups that would give the Democrats control, here are the states and senators on whom the Democrats need to focus: Susan Collins of Maine; first-termer Joni Ernst of Iowa; Thom Tillis of North Carolina, another first-termer; Cory Gardner of Colorado, a third first-termer; Jon Kyl of Arizona; and I suppose David Perdue of Georgia, or maybe John Cornyn of Texas, should the exciting Beto O’Rourke decide to take him on.

From that list, I trust you can see the problem. If Democrats are having to count on North Carolina (where the party last elected a senator in 2008) and Georgia (2000) and Arizona (1988), they’re barking up an awfully tall tree.

What can they do? People discuss long-term — and long-shot — fixes, like adding the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as states the first chance they get. At an even greater extreme, maybe someday we should do to the Senate what Britain did to the House of Lords in 1911 and strip it of real lawmaking power. That may sound crazy, but something must be done. On Tuesday, according to The Times, Democratic Senate candidates garnered 45 million votes, and Republicans just 33 million (57 percent to 42 percent). Yet, the Republicans will gain perhaps three seats. That is not democracy.

In the nearer term, Democrats simply must find, field and finance candidates who can win statewide in purple states. I don’t mean centrists — look at Phil Bredesen in Tennessee, who got clobbered. I mean candidates who can first excite base voters, because they must do that to be competitive, but who can also go out and get some votes in parts of these states where Democrats normally get crushed.

To do this they need a rural policy — doing something real about the opioid crisis, for starters. Emphasizing a smart rural broadband program. Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa who went on to be secretary of agriculture under President Barack Obama, has outlined a “four-pillar” rural and agricultural program that Democrats could adopt, including an emphasis on exports, economic diversification and conservation. They should take heed.

I’m tired of watching election-night returns and seeing dots of blue in oceans of red. Democrats won’t make huge dents in those oceans, even with a solid rural strategy, but remember — they don’t need to. As close as many elections are these days, small dents will do just fine. But unless Democrats make them, they may not hold the gavels in the Senate for quite some time.

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