In the days ahead, there’s much analysis to be written about the historical forces that propelled Doug Jones to his upset victory in the Alabama special election. The role of African American voters in that state (as well as the longstanding effort to impose barriers to their political participation), the image of the “New South” and its values, and the confluence of national and local forces all warrant significant attention.
But because I’m bleary-eyed after staying up much too late watching election returns, my focus is on a more mundane — though still important — point. Recent history suggests that whatever prognostications that pundits make about the next cycle of Senate races, especially a year out, they are likely wrong.
That’s relevant today because Jones’s unexpected win is causing observers to revisit their assumptions about the 2018 Senate elections. To be sure, the map makes it nearly impossible for Democrats to win a Senate majority. They are defending twenty-three seats to the GOP’s eight, and ten of the Democrats’ races are in states Donald Trump carried in 2016.
But what seemed impossible yesterday appears less so today:
The lesson from recent history, though, is that shifting fortunes should not surprise us.
Six years ago, this very same Senate class was gearing up for the 2012 election. Democrats held a 53-47 seat advantage, thanks to building up a large majority in 2006 and 2008 that allowed them to absorb the losses of 2010.
It seemed that 2012 would be time to pay the piper. Throughout 2011, observers anticipated losses for Democrats and suggested that their majority might be in serious jeopardy. But things shifted. The surprise retirement announcement by Maine’s GOP Senator Olympia in February of 2012 suddenly offered a pickup opportunity (the seat was eventually won by Independent Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats). Thanks to Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin and Richard “God-Given Rape” Mourdock, Democrats prevailed in the strongly Republican states of Missouri and Indiana. Rather than losing seats — let alone the majority — Democrats increased their Senate margin to 55-45.
Prognosticators recognized that 2014 elections would cost Democrats seats, but they were often wrong in predictions of who would win. For a time, Arkansas Democrat Mark Pryor was put forward as the potential unlikely survivor because of his moderate profile and stature as the son of a beloved former governor. Later, Pryor was written off as doomed, but North Carolina’s Kay Hagan was championed instead as the potential survivor of a GOP wave. They both lost.
Then came last year. I suspect this is fresh in people’s minds — still too fresh, perhaps — but it’s worth briefly revisiting. Prognostications favored a Democratic takeover of the Senate. The return to politics of former Senators Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin fueled optimism for much of the year that both of those seats would return to Democrats, getting the party most of the way to a Senate majority. Prognosticators were wrong again, though, as both lost to their Republican opponents.
I’m a historian, not a political scientist or pundit, so I’ll refrain from offering my own prognostications about next year’s Senate elections (though I’m happy to share them via Twitter!).
But there is an important lesson from history here. For the last several election cycles (and, indeed, in every cycle this century with the exception of 2008), the final makeup of the Senate has defied pre-election predictions. In fact, more often than not, the end result has been the opposite of expectations weeks or months before the election.
I suspect hardly any of us would have believed it if, six months ago, we were told that Alabama would elect a Democratic U.S. Senator. It’s worth keeping that in mind when reading confident assurances of what the 2018 midterms will bring.