Democrats' Silver Linings if Republicans Take the Senate

It's not all doom and gloom. Republicans' victories in the midterms could help Democrats down the road.

The question for Democrats as the midterm results roll in is not whether they will lose, but by how much. Even in the best of circumstances, Democrats would be lucky to hold on to a Senate majority so slight it would be difficult to get much passed without considerable Republican buy-in.

But as the headlines begin to spell out the party's fate next term, there are some silver linings liberals can take heart in.

The GOP's bloody factional struggle for identity has been the subject of innumerable media think pieces, and a Republican win in the Senate could exacerbate those struggles. As Norm Ornstein pointed out recently in National Journal, the tension between setting out a positive agenda for governing and the pressure to continue to block and obstruct will be very, very high. "Both parties have their challenges," Ornstein writes. "But the most interesting ones to watch will be those between and among a Republican Senate, a Republican House, and a set of Republican presidential candidates pulling the party's center of gravity further to the right."

Others have discussed how a Republican Senate could help propel Hillary Clinton to victory in the coming presidential election. Howard Koplowitz argued recently in the International Business Times that a presidential candidate whose party is in the Senate minority could get "a lot of mileage" by campaigning against the status quo in 2016. And John Harwood, writing in The New York Times, suggests Republican control of both the House and Senate could provide Clinton a clearer target to run against in courting voters sick of Washington dysfunction: "The longer an unpopular president and his more-unpopular partisan adversaries battle to a standstill, the easier it is to offer herself as a fresh start."

The victories Republicans are forecasted to enjoy on Election Day are due in no small part to low midterm turnout among Democratic-leaning young and nonwhite voters, a voting bloc that's been termed the "coalition of the ascendant." Then there's also the fact that states with Senate elections this year are disproportionately conservative (see The New Republic's map). In 2016, however, the geography flips the other way: Democrats should expect to see a considerable uptick both in the turnout of their electorate and in the number of competitive races.

Democrats could easily win the Senate back in 2016 if Republicans net only the bare minimum number of seats. The difficulty of the task for Democrats will depend on the size of Republicans' win on Tuesday—whether Republicans pick up six seats, or eight, or more. Even if they do pick up more than the minimum, Republicans could face some roadblocks. As National Journal's Emily Schultheis put it recently, "The GOP's challenge in 2016 is twofold: The party has more territory to defend, first of all, and it will have to do so with a presidential-year electorate that leans far more Democratic."

Even to hear Republicans talk, a win this cycle wouldn't suggest a particularly strong conservative mandate. As Colorado Senate candidate Cory Gardner told New York Magazine's Marin Cogan: "Republicans have to realize that this isn't some kind of—what's the word I'm looking for—a mandate or whatever for Republicans. It's a mandate against dysfunction."

For now, though, liberals are focused on more tangible wins in front of them. The minimum wage is on the ballot in many places around the country, and, in at least four states that went red in the last election cycle, voters look poised to give workers a boost. Writing in The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel observes that from measures in Alaska ($9.75 per hour by 2016) and Arkansas ($8.50 per hour) to Nebraska and South Dakota, "perhaps no issue has been a bigger political winner this year than raising the minimum wage." With more than 70 percent of Americans in favor of such hikes, it's easy to see why the issue is gaining traction.

Others see Obamacare as the winner this election cycle. Republicans have long since stopped funneling money into Obamacare issue ads, and six new states may opt to expand Medicaid coverage, if the governorships change hands. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, Republican governors have already agreed to expansion of Medicaid. And the expansion program in Michigan has gone so well, it was recently written up in The New England Journal of Medicine as a model program. In fact, Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, is openly campaigning on it.

Wednesday morning won't be a pretty one for Democrats, but they won't be without a cause or two to celebrate.