A new, more progressive Senate

We know why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is smiling.
We know why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is smiling.

When Republican strategists come up with a game plan for the 2014 midterms, I suspect page one will include a rather straightforward piece of advice: “Let’s not talk about rape this year.”

As thing stand this morning, Senate Democrats have a 52-seat majority. If Maine’s Angus King (I) caucuses with Dems – and efforts are already well underway to make that happen – that becomes a 53-seat majority. If Montana’s Jon Tester and North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp hang on to win their races – and both are ahead in unofficial vote counts – then the new Senate will have a 55-seat Democratic majority, and Dems will have earned a net gain of two seats for the cycle.

Earlier in the year, this was simply inconceivable. Democrats had 23 seats to defend, many in reliably-red states, while Republicans had only 10. Karl Rove and others had raised truckloads full of cash to crush Democratic candidates, and buy the chamber for the GOP.

And yet, it now appears Democrats will have expanded their majority in 2012. Indeed, it is now the fourth consecutive cycle in which voters have elected a Democratically-controlled Senate, despite all the cyclical and institutional reasons this seemed impossible.

And how did this happen? A variety of factors, of course, led to state-by-state victories, but the role of rape rhetoric no doubt played a meaningful part.

In Missouri, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) handpicked right-wing Rep. Todd Akin (R) as her preferred challenger, assuming he’d be the easiest Republican to defeat, and she was right – he sealed his fate with the legendary “forcible rape” comments. The year’s most vulnerable Democratic incumbent ended up winning by 16 points.

Similarly, in Indiana, Sen. Dick Lugar was defeated in a Republican primary by Richard Mourdock, whose campaign went into a tailspin when he said rape pregnancies are “something that God intended to happen.” Sen.-elect Joe Donnelly (D) won by six, even as other Republicans cruised in the state.

It may seem hyperbolic, but the truth is, we’ll have a more Democratic Senate because the GOP’s far-right base elected unhinged and unelectable conservatives who said ridiculous things about rape.

But we can take this one step further when looking at the larger Senate membership.

The New York Times’ David Firestone raised a point that’s slowly been making the rounds.

It’s rarely wise to make upbeat predictions about a group of lawmakers as reliably disappointing as the United States Senate. But with President Obama winning re-election and Democrats having a strong night in several states, this is not an impossible political fantasy:

The Democratic-controlled Senate is likely to be considerably more liberal than the one it replaces. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Angus King of Maine (nominally an independent) replace Republicans. Tim Kaine of Virginia is more liberal than Jim Webb, the Democrat who retired, just as Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Chris Murphy of Connecticut are more liberal than Herb Kohl and Joe Lieberman. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts will be one of the strongest voices in support of Mr. Obama’s policies, and may even push the president leftward.

The obvious response to this – a 55-seat majority is irrelevant if Republicans demand a 60-vote supermajority for literally every bill of consequence – is certainly true. But the likelihood of filibuster reform is real, and with Democrats expanding their majority, the party has a new motivation to help repair the dysfunctional chamber.