The rationalization of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for why Senate Republicans planned to abandon their fervent no-Supreme-Court-nominations-in-a-presidential-election-year principle — b. 2016–d. 2020; may it rest in peace — was revealing primarily for what it left out.
“In 2014, the American people elected a Republican majority of the Senate to put the brakes on President Obama’s judicial nominations,” Cotton said on “Fox News Sunday.” “In 2018, we had a referendum on this question. Just a month before the 2018 midterms, we had the vote on Justice [Brett M.] Kavanaugh. There could not have been a clearer mandate, because the American people didn’t just reelect Republicans, they expanded our majority. They defeated four Democratic senators who voted against Justice Kavanaugh. They reelected the one Democratic senator who did vote for Justice Kavanaugh.”
The aforementioned shifts came — not coincidentally — six years after the two elections in which Barack Obama won his first and second terms. In other words, those were elections (2008 and 2012) in which Democrats fared well, leveraging broad presidential turnout to increase their position in the Senate. Six years later, a number of incumbents faced tricky reelection fights without the benefit of a presidential campaign turning people out. The four senators who lost reelection were all serving in states that Trump won in 2016. Speaking of 2016, which Cotton ignores, Democrats gained two seats.
As for the “mandate” in 2018, Democrats won 22 of the 33 Senate seats that were up, winning by more than 17 million more votes. Cotton’s data aren’t wrong, they’re just willfully incomplete. But, then, given his fervent support for opposing a judicial nomination by Obama in 2016, he either had to admit that his opposition then was insincere or come up with some rationalization.
That same conflict between admitting the truth and rationalizing an unpleasant situation exists at a broader scale for Republicans. The party has repeatedly failed to win a majority of the vote in presidential contests, relying instead on the electoral college to win the White House. It keeps winning a majority of the Senate by taking seats from states that make up less than a majority of the population.
In normal times, this is a side effect of the Founders’ desire to, among other things, keep a geographically disparate nation united by giving less-populated areas an audible voice. Now, though, it’s become a cudgel for a political minority to continue to wield power, leveraging and fostering an increase in partisan hostility.
Since 1988, a Republican has won a majority of the popular vote in 1-of-7 presidential contests. He’s won a plurality of the vote once. Yet Republicans have been inaugurated three times in that period, including with President Trump’s electoral-college win in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Senate has since 2014 been controlled by Republicans who cumulatively represent less than half of the country — the longest such stretch in a century. What Cotton casts as a mandate is simply a function of the advantage Republicans enjoy in the Senate, where, in 61 of the past 100 years, Cotton’s party has held more of the Senate than they represent in the population.
Often, that doesn’t matter; the Democratic disadvantage in population (which has been exacerbated with recent migration trends) is muted either by the party nonetheless holding the Senate or by the GOP holding a large majority. When the balance of power is close, though, that contrast becomes more acute. When the president similarly holds power thanks to the imbalance between state populations and power, the contrast grows sharper still.
And when there’s a moment where a significant political decision falls solely within the purview of the president and the Senate, as the replacement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg does, that sharp contrast between power and representation becomes anathema to the majority that finds itself in the political minority.
One of the challenges that the Republican Party faces at the moment is that its path toward expansion is rocky, thanks to demographics. As the United States has gotten less densely White, the Democratic Party has seen much broader expansion of diversity in its ranks. The Republican Party as it stands now is more homogeneously White than the Democratic Party was when Bill Clinton was reelected.
The result is a GOP at a tipping point. It can’t rely on White voters to win elections in the way it used to. In 1980, for example, Ronald Reagan won about the same density of the white vote as did Trump in 2016. Reagan won a majority of the popular vote, beating incumbent Jimmy Carter by 10 points. Trump lost the popular vote by 3 points — but won enough of the vote in enough states to win the presidency. Seven of the 10 most densely White states voted for Trump in 2016; six of the 10 least densely White voted for Hillary Clinton. Of the four that didn’t, all four — Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas — are viewed as within Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s grasp this year.
This carries over to the Senate, too, obviously, particularly in lower-turnout off-year elections such as the ones Cotton was touting. The overlap of rural, White and Republican has resulted in a lot of Wyomings, Idahos, and Dakotas that disproportionately build up the GOP’s political power.
It’s not only Ginsburg’s death that is bringing this to a head at the moment. We may be at a demographic inflection point, for one thing (a point that the party saw coming after its 2012 loss but set aside with its victory in 2016). That the Senate is now two-thirds a function of Republicans clawing back 2008 and 2012 losses, that Trump eked out that victory in 2016 and that we’re at the tail end of a census enumeration period — meaning a readjustment of electoral votes soon to better match the population — all combine to make the gap between majority and minority power both more obvious and more significant.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Trump have no qualms about squeezing every drop of minority power out of the Constitution. In an interview with Fox News on Monday morning, Trump insisted that Democrats would do the same thing, were they in his position. That may be the case. But it’s also the case that Democratic senators represent a majority of the population of the United States and that Democratic presidential candidates have won a plurality of the vote in six of the last seven contests. That Democrats currently hold the House — thanks to an explicit rebuke of Trump in 2018 and, if one applies Cotton’s logic, of Republican leadership more broadly.
The concern in November is that, should voters decide to send a further message to Trump about his and his party’s leadership, there may be other tools, including judicial ones, that he and his allies might use to hold that power. Trump himself has repeatedly suggested that mail-in ballots shouldn’t be counted, hyping phony claims that they will necessarily be riddled with fraud. But the rationale is clear: he’s trailing in the national popular vote and will do everything he can to hold his position.
In many ways, it’s a microcosm of his party more broadly.
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