On the evening of May 8, 2018, Republicans were celebrating loudly. It was the night of the West Virginia GOP Senate primary, and they had managed to block Don Blankenship, a mining executive convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety standards in relation to a disaster that killed 29 people, from winning the party’s nomination to challenge Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.
West Virginia, where then-President Donald Trump had won nearly 70% of the vote two years earlier, was seen as a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans, as long as they didn’t blow it by nominating a toxic candidate like Blankenship. At 10:11 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s political team fired off a meme meant to reference Blankenship’s bizarre accusation that McConnell was tied to cocaine smuggling, fully embracing the Kentuckian’s newfound “Cocaine Mitch” nickname.
What Republicans didn’t realize was that national Democrats were also celebrating, just a bit more quietly.
The path to a Democratic Senate majority — which creates hope to enact large swaths of President Joe Biden’s agenda, and allowed the passage of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (containing $1,400 checks for most Americans, a potentially revolutionary expansion of the child tax credit, more robust subsidies for Obamacare, expanded unemployment benefits, a massive investment in Native American tribes, rental assistance and cash for vaccine distribution) — is littered with turning points like this one.
Democrats’ bare 50-seat majority includes two seats that, under normal circumstances, they would not have had a chance to pry out of GOP hands until 2022. The party’s coalition — which is heavy on urban residents and racial minorities — is a poor fit for a Senate map that gives disproportionate power to rural white voters. Overcoming the Senate’s bias involved hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of working hours on both sides of the political divide, along with some moments of true political savvy — and pure dumb luck.
West Virginia, 2018
With the possibility of a Blankenship victory dominating media coverage heading into the West Virginia primary, Democrats saw an advantage. Operatives in both parties have long tried to meddle in the other side’s primaries to boost toxic candidates like Blankenship, and it would only be natural for Democrats to do the same.
A Democratic super PAC with the blandly patriotic name “Duty and Country” announced it planned to attack the other two major candidates in the GOP primary, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. It wasn’t immediately clear who funded the group, but later campaign finance filings revealed most of its cash came from Senate Majority PAC, which is controlled by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer.
The group’s moves were designed to look like a play to boost Blankenship. But it quickly became clear its actual goal was to bury Jenkins, a Democrat-turned-Republican who had unseated a long-time incumbent to win his House seat four years prior. Duty and Country spent $1.8 million attacking him, and only $47,000 attacking Morrisey, whose past work lobbying for pharmaceutical companies Democrats saw as a major vulnerability in the general election.
Morrisey won the primary by just under 8,000 votes, while Blankenship finished a distant third. In the general, Manchin and outside Democratic groups hammered Morrisey’s lobbying history, alleging he “got rich working for the opioid industry.” Manchin won with just under 50% of the vote in November, beating Morrisey by 3 percentage points.
Isakson and McCain
In 2016, voters in Georgia and Arizona decisively handed new six-year terms to two veteran Republican senators. Johnny Isakson won a 13 percentage point victory in the Peach State, while John McCain won reelection with a similar margin in Arizona. Both men’s new terms would have lasted until 2022.
Instead, McCain died of brain cancer in 2018, and Isakson resigned at the end of 2019 following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Both vacancies triggered special Senate elections in 2020, which Democrats Mark Kelly and Raphael Warnock won.
In most states around the country, Democrat Jon Ossoff would have lost his Senate race on election night 2020. Republican Sen. David Perdue had racked up 88,000 more votes than Ossoff in the first round of voting ― but had failed to win a majority of the votes cast. In Georgia, that meant the race would go to a runoff. (Perude needed 13,000 additional votes to reach the 50% mark; Libertarian candidate Shane Hazel earned 115,000 votes.)
Georgia’s runoff law, versions of which exist across southern states, was designed to decrease the political power of Black voters. Its author was a staunch segregationist who blamed “bloc voting” by African Americans for costing him an election.
Decades later, the law ended up empowering Black voters. After their turnout lagged behind those of white voters in the general election, one of the largest turnout operations in history sent millions of Black Georgians to the polls on Jan. 5, lifting both Ossoff and Warnock to victory.
New Hampshire, 2016
Of the 50 Senate seats Democrats hold in 2020, this one was won by the thinnest margin. Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan defeated GOP incumbent Kelly Ayotte by a mere 1,107 votes ― equivalent to roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the roughly 739,000 votes cast.
That microscopic margin means nearly everything that happened during the Hassan-Ayotte race could have been a determining factor. Did Ayotte’s decision to disavow Trump following revelations he bragged about committing sexual assault lead some conservatives to back Trump-supporting independent Aaron Day, who got about 17,000 votes? Ayotte’s team has long disputed this idea, noting she ran ahead of the GOP presidential nominee.
Or maybe it was turnout in the state’s college towns of Durham, Hanover, Keene and Plymouth? New Hampshire allows same-day voter registration, and Democrats have long bussed liberal-leaning students to the polls to cast their ballots. (On Election Day 2016, “Pretty Little Liars” actor Huw Collins ― the husband of Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s youngest daughter ― helped drive the busses.) Durham, which is home to the University of New Hampshire, saw 3,200 same-day registrants alone.
There are turning points that broke against Democrats and blocked them from an even larger majority. In Wisconsin, former Sen. Russ Feingold was heavily favored to reclaim his seat from GOP incumbent Ron Johnson in 2016, but fell short. Poor ballot design in Broward County, Florida, may have cost Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson his seat in 2018.
If either Feingold or Nelson had won, Democrats would have been able to pass the American Rescue Plan without Manchin’s vote, preventing him from negotiating down the size of the unemployment benefits expansion. If both men had triumphed, Democrats would be able to pass bills through reconciliation without the votes of either Manchin or Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, another moderate Democrat.
Defending this majority won’t be easy. In 2022, both Warnock and Kelly will have to run for reelection after just two years in office. Hassan will be defending her swing-state seat, as will Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto. Democrats could offset any of these losses with victories in GOP-held seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or North Carolina, but things will only get dicier in 2024.
That year, three Democrats from solidly red states — Manchin, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, and Montana Sen. Jon Tester — will be up for reelection in a presidential year, though all have defied the odds before.