The Great Senate Stalemate

Both Democrats and Republicans keep retreating into their corners.

Illustration of a white chair with red- and blue-paint buckets next to it
Getty; Alamy; The Atlantic

The map of competitive Senate elections is shrinking—and not just for November.

Though Republicans began the year expecting sweeping Senate gains, the party’s top-grade opportunities to capture seats now held by Democrats have dwindled to just two—Nevada and Georgia—and both are, at best, toss-ups for the GOP. And while Democrats, somewhat astoundingly, have emerged from the primaries with at least as many plausible flipping chances as Republicans, Pennsylvania is the only GOP-held seat clearly favored to go blue, and even that isn’t guaranteed. It remains entirely possible that November’s results will leave the Senate divided again at 50–50, something that has not happened in consecutive elections since the Seventeenth Amendment established the direct election of senators more than a century ago.

This standoff partly reflects the volatile dynamics of the 2022 election, in which Republican advantages on the economy have been largely neutralized by public unease over gun violence, the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling, the resurgent visibility of former President Donald Trump, and the GOP’s nomination of weak, Trump-aligned candidates. Yet the possibility of a virtual draw—after a campaign season in which the two sides have already poured more than $850 million into just the 10 most expensive Senate races—reflects larger changes in the electoral competition.

One of the most powerful trends in modern politics has been for each party to consolidate control of the Senate seats in the states it usually captures in the presidential election. That’s lowered the ceiling on the number of Senate seats each party can win. And that lowered ceiling, in turn, has diminished each side’s ability to maintain control of the Senate majority for any extended period.

The Senate is therefore frozen in the sense that neither side, in normal times, can seriously contest more than a handful of the seats held by the other party. Paradoxically, it’s unstable in the sense that the shrunken playing field leaves each side clinging to tiny majorities that are vulnerable to small shifts in voter attitudes in the very few states that remain consistently competitive.

Throughout the 20th century, it was common for one side to build a comfortable majority in which it held at least 55 percent of the Senate’s seats. Republicans hit that level of dominance in 10 of the 15 Congresses from 1901 through 1930. Then, from 1932 to 1980, Democrats regularly reached the 55 percent threshold. (The big exception to this pattern came in the 1950s, when the ideological lines between the parties blurred and neither won more than a two-seat Senate majority through four consecutive Congresses.) Even from 1980 to 2000, one side or the other reached 55 seats seven times. Since 2000, though, the parties have controlled at least 55 seats only three times: Republicans immediately after George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 and Democrats immediately after Barack Obama’s presidential victories in 2008 and 2012.

Smaller margins have reduced both parties’ ability to defend their majorities for any extended period. Since 1980, neither party has controlled the Senate for more than eight consecutive years. That’s unprecedented: The U.S. has never gone four decades without a Senate majority that survived for more than eight years.

Both the thin margins and frequent turnover are rooted in a third trend: the growing alignment between states’ votes for president and Senate.

Especially through the second half of the 20th century, states routinely supported presidential candidates from one party and Senate candidates from the other. After the landslide reelections of Richard Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984, for instance, Democrats still controlled about half of the Senate seats in the states that voted for them both times.

But as American politics has grown more partisan and parliamentary, those split-ticket senators have virtually gone extinct, which has reduced the number of states each side can realistically contest.

After the 2020 election, the GOP held 94 percent of the Senate seats in the 25 states that voted for Trump both times while Democrats held 98 percent of the seats in the 20 states that twice voted against him. Democrats have squeezed out their current 50–50 Senate majority by winning eight of the 10 Senate seats in the remaining five swing states that switched from Trump to Joe Biden.

Last spring, Republicans anticipated a midterm red wave that would break this stalemate, followed by a push toward a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority in 2024.

Both parties identified Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Mark Kelly in Arizona, and Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire as the most vulnerable Democratic senators. Beyond that, Republicans hoped to seriously challenge Michael Bennet in Colorado and Patty Murray in Washington. The 2022 electoral environment remains unsettled, and it’s possible that continuing discontent over the economy could improve GOP prospects before election day. But for now, with Colorado, Washington, Arizona, and New Hampshire all moving toward the Democrats, it appears that the list of fully plausible GOP Senate targets has fallen to just two: Nevada and Georgia.

All polls in Georgia show a tight race between Warnock and the Republican nominee, Herschel Walker, the former University of Georgia football star. And with Republican Governor Brian Kemp holding a steady lead over Democrat Stacey Abrams, it remains possible that a Georgia crimson tide (pun intended) might carry Walker to victory. But Walker may be the most obviously unqualified Senate nominee in recent memory, and he’s facing a seemingly endless procession of personal scandals. Walker’s vulnerabilities might allow Warnock to survive even a strong Republican current; indeed all but one of the five most recent public polls have shown Warnock in the lead.

That leaves Nevada as the best chance for Republicans to capture a seat Democrats hold now. A state with legions of low-wage workers, Nevada has heavily felt the effects of coronavirus shutdowns and inflation. The state also lacks the large pool of college graduates and white-collar professionals heavily motivated by abortion and other social issues lifting Democrats elsewhere. But even with all that boosting them, Republicans can hardly be confident about Nevada: For longer than the past decade, Nevada Democrats, operating the political machine assembled by the late former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, have shown a knack for turning out just enough of their voters to win very close races.

Democrats, unexpectedly, have kept a larger roster of GOP Senate seats in play. The Senate race most likely to change hands between the parties remains Pennsylvania, where Republican Pat Toomey is retiring. Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, although some polls show his margin narrowing, remains favored over Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee. Oz is laboring under strong unfavorable ratings and will likely face an undertow from the governor’s race, where Doug Mastriano, among the most extreme GOP nominees anywhere this year, could face a crushing defeat.

Polls also show Democrats Mandela Barnes and Tim Ryan locked in margin-of-error races in Wisconsin and Ohio. Barnes and Ryan have given themselves a realistic chance to win against GOP opponents who are also laboring under high unfavorable ratings, Senator Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and J. D. Vance in Ohio. But those are both states where Democrats often struggle to find the last few percentage points of support they need, and this will especially be the case while Biden’s approval rating is depressed among the white non-college voters so plentiful in each.

In North Carolina, Democrat Cheri Beasley is likewise step for step in polls with Republican Ted Budd—though, since 2008, that state has functioned as a kind of heartbreak hill for Democrats, who have suffered a succession of narrow defeats there. Florida has become an even tougher state for Democrats, but polls have consistently shown Democratic Representative Val Demings remaining closer to Republican Senator Marco Rubio than most analysts initially expected.

This playing field still leaves Republicans a path to a majority, but one much narrower than they anticipated. If the GOP loses Pennsylvania, which remains likely, its most plausible path to retake the Senate is to win both Nevada and Georgia, while simultaneously holding off the Democrats in both Wisconsin and Ohio, not to mention North Carolina and Florida. Republican upsets in Arizona or New Hampshire, or Oz surging past Fetterman during the final weeks in Pennsylvania, would ease that pressure. But today, none of those outcomes look probable.

Yet even if Democrats hold the Senate, it will likely be with a very narrow majority, and perhaps with nothing more than another 50–50 tie that Vice President Kamala Harris will step in to break. Democrats would still remain at substantial risk of surrendering their majority in 2024, largely because they will be defending all three of the seats they hold in the states that twice voted for Trump—Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Jon Tester in Montana, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. That won’t be easy in a presidential-election year.

Early in Biden’s presidency, some Democratic strategists, such as the data analyst David Shor, ominously warned that the party could face an extended period of Republican dominance in the Senate, largely because of the GOP’s hardening advantage in heavily white interior states. The GOP probably does hold an edge in the long-term battle for Senate control because it is regularly winning slightly more states than Democrats in presidential contests. But the fizzling of the GOP’s Senate opportunities this year shows how difficult it may be for either side to secure a sizable, much less durable, majority.

Political scientists and strategists alike usually find far more meaning in elections that deliver resounding change than those that reconfirm the status quo. Yet it will send a powerful message if neither party in November can break through the forces that have left the Senate so precariously balanced. It will show that the two sides remain locked in a grinding trench warfare where neither can overwhelm the other’s defenses and the handful of states in the no-man’s-land between them hold decisive power to tilt the national direction. That’s a recipe for more years of bitter but inconclusive conflict between two political coalitions that are now almost identical in size—but utterly antithetical in their vision for America’s future.