How One Senate Class Shows a National Realignment

by Jacob Rubashkin June 25, 2020 · 11:52 AM EDT

In 2014, Republicans took over nine Democratic Senate seats — the largest gain in two decades — and with them control of the chamber for the first time since 2006.

Six years, two Senate elections, and one presidential upset later, the Republican Senate majority teeters on an edge, as the same class of seats that cost Democrats control in 2014 faces another election. 

But there are striking differences in the composition of this cycle’s Senate battlefield compared to the same class in 2014, differences that illustrate the larger political trends of the past decade.

In late October of 2014, Inside Elections (then The Rothenberg Political Report) rated 17 out of 36 Senate seats (including three special elections) as competitive or flips: 14 held by Democrats and 3 held by Republicans. In our latest ratings, from April 2020, there are 12 seats out of 35 (including two special elections) rated as competitive: 10 held by Republicans and two held by Democrats.

The combined Senate battlefields of 2014 and 2020 encompass 21 states that fall into three categories: states that had competitive races in both 2014 and 2020, states that were competitive only 2014, and states that were competitive only in 2020.

Consistently Competitive
Seven states appear on both the 2014 and 2020 competitive maps: Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, North Carolina, and Montana. 

It includes swing states (Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa, and to a lesser extent Colorado), as well as states that are not competitive on the presidential level but have consistently elected members of both parties to statewide office (Kansas, Montana), and Georgia, a perennial Democratic target. 

Most of these states are no stranger to high-profile Senate elections. In 2008, North Carolina and Colorado were both considered competitive; in 2002, North Carolina, Colorado, Georgia, and Iowa were rated competitive.

No Longer Hot Races
Ten states were competitive in 2014 but have since fallen off the map: Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia.

New Hampshire and Virginia were the two narrowest holds for Democrats in 2014, but neither are considered competitive in 2020. Virginia has marched steadily leftward over the past decade, shifting from a GOP-leaning swing state to a reliably blue vote on the state and federal level — the population growth and political realignment in the Northern Virginia suburbs that powered that shift is now evident in suburbs across the county. 

New Hampshire has remained more competitive, narrowly voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but electing a GOP governor. As an overwhelmingly white, largely rural state in New England, New Hampshire sits at the confluence of two trends: the increasingly Republican sympathies of the white working class, and the increasing Democratic sympathies of the region. So far, the result has been, as one might expect, mixed. New Hampshire is not competitive on the Senate or presidential level this cycle, but Republican Gov. Chris Sununu is favored in his race for a third term.

In both New Hampshire and Virginia, as well as Oregon, Republicans have not made a serious play for the Senate, a reflection of the GOP’s difficulty maintaining a foothold on the leftward-drifting coasts.

It’s the opposite story in Arkansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, where Democrats were once competitive if not dominant. But the crushing defeats of all four Democrats who tried to keep those seats from flipping in 2014 — two incumbents and two open seats — presaged the decline of “ancestral Democratic” voting. In 2020, Democrats are not even fielding a candidate in Arkansas, and the other three states feature longshot nominees with negligible chances. 

It’s a similar story in Kentucky, which some Democrats believe will be competitive this cycle due to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unpopularity and the combination of shifting suburbs and ancestral Democratic support that boosted Andy Beshear to victory in the gubernatorial race last year. But most observers, along with the available data, say that Kentucky is no longer competitive for Democrats outside of the very narrow circumstances of Beshear’s race. 

In Alaska, much like in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky, the story of 2014 was whether a storied family name could overcome the partisan shift of the state. The answer was no. And while there are some believers in the candidacy of independent Al Gross this cycle, the burden is on him to show that Alaska can be competitive if your last name isn’t Begich.

Welcome to the Club
Three states were not competitive in 2014 but are in 2020: Alabama, Maine, and Texas. A fourth, Arizona, has a competitive special election in 2020 but did not host a race in 2014, and a fifth, Georgia, saw one competitive race in 2014 but now has two due to a special election.

In Maine, Susan Collins is facing a competitive re-election that has become a toss-up. Like the rest of New England, Maine has long been drifting away from the Republican Party at a federal level. Collins tries to position herself squarely between the two parties, but as the GOP has become the party of Trump, she’s found herself further and further away from the bipartisan perch she once occupied. The decline of ticket-splitting does not help either.

That Alabama is competitive at all could be dismissed due the unique circumstances surrounding the 2017 special election and GOP candidate Roy Moore’s scandal. But the underlying dynamics of Sen. Doug Jones’ victorious coalition — suburban voters, minority voters, young voters, and a turnout rate that was high for an off-year special election — could well be the story of the national Democratic party as it clawed back to power in 2018.

Joining Alabama in the Sun Belt are Arizona, Texas, and both Georgia seats. In all three, Democrats have struggled to win statewide, particularly federal offices, for 20 or more years. But all three have growing minority populations — Hispanic voters in Texas and Arizona, and Black and Hispanic voters in Georgia — and have seen their suburbs, in Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta, swing to the left, making them newly attractive targets for Democrats. In Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema became the first Democrat to win a Senate election in 30 years, while Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke came within a few points of breaking their party’s droughts. 

Push to Partisanship
This class of senators also demonstrates the decline in ticket-splitting between the presidential and Senate races. 

At the beginning of the 2014 cycle, there were eight senators representing states that voted for the opposite party in the preceding presidential election. That includes seven Democrats who ran for re-election in states Mitt Romney carried in 2012 and one Republican who ran for re-election in a state Obama won previously. When all the 2014 votes were counted, seven of those senators, all Democrats, lost. 

The trend continued into 2016, when the presidential result and Senate result matched up in every state, the first time that’s happened since the country began directly electing its senators a century ago. 

Finally, in 2020, just four senators (Collins, Cory Gardner, Jones and Gary Peters) are running for re-election in states that voted for the opposite party for president. With the races on their current trajectory, it’s possible that this class of senators doesn’t have any ticket-splitters either.  

The Bottom Line
Democrats used to control broad swaths of the plains states and Appalachia, while Republicans held down the fort in the Southwest and in New England enclaves. And while ancestral Democrats had been slowly shifting toward the Republican Party, and educated and suburban voters slowly drifting away, the advent of the Trump era has accelerated those trends. 

When the votes are counted, all that matters is which party has a majority in the chamber — with or without the vice president. But for both parties, the path to control of the Senate has shifted significantly over the past decade. This cycle, and the one after it, will tell us much about where and how significant those shifts are.