Hardening partisan map steepens Democrats' climb in Senate

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The Capitol is seen in Washington, Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, as the House and Senate return to work. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – Pinned six years in the minority, Democrats have an uphill but real shot at wresting Senate control in January, with more opportunities in 2022. Yet as states increasingly sort themselves along hardening partisan lines, it's complicating Democrats' drive to win the majority and keep it.

Thanks to this month's elections, Democrats will own all four Senate seats from purple Arizona and increasingly blue Colorado next year. If they can win January runoffs for both seats from Georgia, which has recently teetered toward them, they'll command the Senate thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote in what would be a 50-50 chamber.

Yet even as Democrats have made those gains and others since surrendering control in the 2014 elections, they've lost foundations of their old majority that will be hard to recapture. Gone are seats from Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, both Dakotas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina and West Virginia, all of which tilt Republican in presidential elections.

In addition, three current Senate Democrats are from states that President Donald Trump carried easily this month despite losing to Democrat Joe Biden. Sens. Joe Manchin, 73, of West Virginia, Jon Tester, 64, of Montana and Sherrod Brown, 68, of Ohio are all proven brand names in states that would be hard for Democrats to hold without them.

All this means a constricted playing field for Democrats to add seats in coming election cycles. The same is true for Republicans, but it's on Democrats to gain ground and keep it if they want to control a Senate that, with the Democratic-led House, could make Biden's legislative agenda more ambitious.

“The Democratic caucus for a long time was built on winning races in red states” where they've since lost, said Matt House, a former Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The problem is a Democratic Senate majority runs through red states, and that is an inherent structural difficulty."

Nothing is set in stone in politics, where momentum and issues can shift abruptly. Besides Georgia, Democrats hope to grab Senate seats soon in purple North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, plus Texas as that state's Hispanic population grows. GOP Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have said they won't seek reelection in 2022.

“A few years ago, people would have laughed at the idea of two Democratic senators from Arizona," said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., former head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the party's Senate campaign arm. He said Biden's message of bringing people together will be a “potential strength in some of these states" for Democratic candidates.