Commentary: America’s unfair democracy will hurt Democrats in 2018

Doug Jones’ remarkable victory in the Alabama Senate special election on Dec. 12 is the strongest sign yet that Republicans will lose seats in Congress in 2018 because of their unpopular president and extremely unpopular agenda. And yet a close reading of the Alabama result also highlights just how American democracy can thwart the will of the majority rather than serve it.

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The warning signs are right there on a map of Alabama. Despite his statewide victory, Jones lost six of Alabama’s seven congressional districts. That’s a symptom of gerrymandering, just one of the features of the American electoral system making it very difficult for Democrats to beat Republicans.

In most democratic frameworks, the Republican Party would be facing near-certain doom in the 2018 mid-terms. The party that occupies the White House usually loses ground in mid-term elections, especially during a president’s first term, as Democrats did in 2010 and 1994. This is even more true if the president is divisive, inspiring the opposing party to turn out. Donald Trump's approval ratings have been below 40 percent for months, an unprecedented rejection for a president at this stage in his term. The tax cut bill that Republicans passed this week is the second-most unpopular proposed legislation in recorded history. The least popular was the Republican proposal earlier in the year to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

This has created an electorate very hostile to the GOP. Democrats have an 11 point lead among voters for the next election, but whether Republicans will even lose control of either house of Congress remains very much an open question.

In the House of Representatives, that’s partly a reflection of demographic distribution. Democrats tend to be concentrated in cities, while Republicans are more evenly spread in conservative-leaning suburbs and rural areas. This means that even a non-partisan approach to drawing congressional district boundaries would favor Republicans. But in most states, both parties attempt to draw district lines – no matter how ridiculous they make look to the untrained eye – that favor their team. Hence the result in Alabama, where Republicans were in charge of the redistricting.

Since Republicans dominated the 2010 elections, they had the advantage of controlling more state legislatures – and therefore the redrawing of borders – during the last round of decennial redistricting. That means Democrats could fail to win the House despite getting far more votes.

Even though the Senate can’t be gerrymandered, the situation for Democrats there is just as bad because the third of the Senate up for re-election in 2018 overwhelmingly consists of seats held by Democrats. Republicans held 52 of the 100 Senate seats before Jones's upset victory. They are now down to 51-49, but – as with the House – Republicans could win fewer Senate votes than Democrats and still retain their majority. That’s happened before, most recently in 2016, mainly because the Senate has a rural bias: smaller states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Nebraska each get the same two senators as populous California. In order to control the Senate, Democrats must win races in states that go consistently Republican in presidential elections.

Then there is the randomness of which third of the 100 Senate seats are up for grabs in any given election cycle. The 2018 Senate map is especially favorable to Republicans. Democrats have to defend 23 seats to Republicans’ 10. Democrats must hold seats in 10 states Trump carried, including conservative bastions Indiana, West Virginia, and North Dakota. While political conditions will favor Democrats overall in 2018, it wouldn't be shocking if the Democrats failed to hold one or two of these seats.

Of the 10 Republican Senate seats that will be on the ballot, there are limited opportunities for Democratic pickups: Nevada, being a swing state, is likely the strongest. Arizona is historically conservative and Republican, but with a large and growing Latino population – and the very real possibility that Republicans will nominate a brash extremist candidate similar to Moore – it might offer the Democrats their other real chance. But finding a third seat for them to win would be nearly impossible: the remaining Republican seats are in overwhelmingly Republican southern and western states such as Mississippi and Wyoming.

Jones's win, of course, changes everything. The Democrats can now gain control of the Senate by just winning in Arizona and Nevada and holding all of their seats. New York Times data analyst Nate Cohn thinks the Alabama result moves Democrats’ chances of winning the Senate from a long-shot to a toss-up. Still, the fact that it took an incredibly unlikely win in Alabama to even make the Senate a toss-up in a year in which voters are almost certain to overwhelmingly prefer the Democratic Party is remarkable. If Democrats win the national House and Senate popular votes by a modest margin, they’re out of luck – and out of power.

That highlights another problem with American democracy: the ability of a party that wins through undemocratic mechanisms to reify its own power for decades. The Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was a gamble that paid off when Donald Trump won and nominated 49-year-old hardline conservative Neil Gorsuch to the vacant seat left by another conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia. The next Republican nomination could radically change the court’s ideological balance.

A Democratic Senate could similarly refuse to fill any vacancy before the next presidential election. If Republicans are able to maintain control of the Senate, conversely, it would produce a kind of anti-democratic feedback loop. Trump, who lost the popular vote but won in the rurally-biased Electoral College could establish control of the Supreme Court for decades. And a Republican Supreme Court could exacerbate the anti-democratic nature of American government by taking actions that favor Republicans at the expense of representative democracy: refusing to enforce voting rights, which would allow GOP-controlled states to disproportionately disenfranchise Democratic voters, upholding egregiously gerrymandered congressional districts, making meaningful campaign finance regulation increasingly difficult and making it harder for unions to organize.

Doug Jones’s remarkable victory makes this less likely – but still far from impossible. And this is the sign of a political system that is becoming less and less representative of the American people.

About the Author

Scott Lemieux is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. @LemieuxLGM

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.