Sitting on Top of the Senate

It’s safe to say that while the presidential race was the marquee contest, the bigger success may have gone to Democratic Senate candidates, who came back from certain failure to win a big victory—and deal a tremendous, unforeseen blow to the Republican Party.

Against all expectations, Democrats easily kept their majority in the Senate, successfully defending seats in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, and Wisconsin, while capturing Republican-held seats in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Indiana, where Joe Donnelly won an upset victory over Richard Mourdock, who crashed and burned following comments on how a pregnancy from rape is a “gift from God.”

Taken together, at the end of last night, Democrats had control of 51 seats—or 53, if you include the two independents, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and incoming Maine Senator Angus King, who won the race to replace Republican Olympia Snowe. This afternoon, election officials in Montana called the race for Democratic incumbent Jon Tester, and in North Dakota, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp looks to prevail over Republican Rick Berg.  

If she succeeds, then Democrats will have a whopping 53 seats, and with the independents, control a 55-seat caucus. It’s not the 59-seat majority of the first two years of the Obama administration, but it’s a solid win that gives Democrats a fair amount of flexibility; Harry Reid, for instance, now has more justification for filibuster reform, or something else that would make obstruction more difficult.

This majority will be far more liberal than its predecessor. It’s not just that moderate senators like Jim Webb in Virginia, Joe Lieberman in Connecticut, and Herb Kohl in Wisconsin now have more liberal successors—Tim Kaine, Chris Murphy, and Tammy Baldwin, respectively—but that conservative Republicans were replaced by moderate Democrats, moderate Republicans were replaced by liberal Democrats (Scott Brown to Elizabeth Warren) and liberal Democrats were replaced by even more liberal Democrats. In Hawaii, for example, the race to replace outgoing Senator Daniel Akaka was won by Representative Mazie Hirono, one of the most liberal members of the House.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much of a failure this is for Republicans. For the second cycle in a row, they have failed to break a Democratic Senate majority that has been weakened by slow economic growth, controversial legislation, and bad luck with scheduling (21 Democrats were up for re-election this year).

In 2010, you could blame the Tea Party—candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell were easy pickings for more moderate Democrats. This year, that excuse holds less weight; yes, Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were not establishment Republicans, but George Allen, Scott Brown, Josh Mandel, and Connie Mack were—they just weren’t good enough to defeat strong Democratic candidates who could (accurately) paint the entire GOP as in thrall to a right-wing minority.

There’s always 2014—when 20 Democrats will be running for re-election—but even that’s not certain; if the economy is stronger, and if Republicans haven’t learned to moderate their message, Democrats will be well placed to hold their position. In the meantime, in addition to making liberal legislation a little more likely, last night’s victory gives Democrats and the Obama administration even greater leverage in resolving the fiscal cliff and crafting a “bargain” that’s in their favor.