Control of the upper legislative chamber has flipped in just one out of five cycles since 1914

senateseal10.pngDissecting and predicting which party will control the U.S. Senate after the 2014 elections has become something of a journalistic obsession these days, as well as a sport – with number-crunchers at several national outlets pumping out the latest projections from their various models as new polls come in every day.

Current U.S. Senate rules might suggest that all this attention is a bit overblown considering whichever party is in the majority come January will have but a small, non-filibuster proof advantage.

However, given that 2014 is a midterm election year and that control of the U.S. House is not in doubt, the laser-focus on campaigns for the nation’s upper legislative chamber makes sense.

(While some of the most interesting races this cycle are at the top of the ticket in gubernatorial contests, those elections cannot be as easily cast in a national frame as those for the U.S. Senate, and thus frequently take a back seat in the national media).

Analysts and prognosticators are thus keeping a particularly watchful eye on the elections in up to nine states with Democratic-held seats (Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Dakota) and three others with seats currently held by Republicans (Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky). (Democratic-held seats in Montana and West Virginia are considered slam-dunk wins for the GOP at this time and are all but forgotten).

To be sure, the potential change in partisan control of the U.S. Senate from one Congress to another should be an attention-getter as it is a notable historical event.

Across the 50 election cycles conducted in the direct election era, the control of the U.S. Senate has flipped after just 10 election cycles, or only 20 percent of the time.

Republicans won back the chamber after the elections of 1918, 1946, 1952, 1980, and 1994 while the Democrats did so after the elections of 1932, 1948, 1954, 1986, and 2006.

(Note: Control also flip-flopped between the two parties in the 83rd Congress (1953-1955) and Democrats briefly controlled the chamber for less than three weeks in 2001 with Vice-President Al Gore serving as the tie-breaker in the 50-50 deadlocked chamber).

But if Republicans do win the Senate in 2014, it will probably be with only an advantage of perhaps two or four seats.

And that heightens the suspense.

For in only four of the cycles mentioned above when control of the chamber flipped was the partisan advantage at five seats or less:

● 1918: 49 to 47 Republican advantage
● 1952: 48 to 47 Republican (plus one independent)
● 1954: 48 to 47 Democratic (plus one independent)
● 2006: 51 to 49 Democratic (with two independents caucusing with the Democrats)

Overall, irrespective of whether or not control of the chamber changed hands, the 50 cycles in the direct election era have yielded a balance of power between the two major parties within two seats just 10 times.

In addition to the four cycles listed above, the parties enjoyed a majority advantage in the chamber by only a whisker in:

● 1926: 48 to 47 Republican (plus one Farmer-Laborite)
● 1930: 48 to 47 Republican (plus one Farmer-Laborite)
● 1950: 49 to 47 Republican
● 1956: 49 to 47 Democratic
● 2000: 50 to 50 Republican
● 2002: 51 to 49 Republican (with one independent caucusing with the Democrats)

But there is also a third factor generating the keen interest in the U.S. Senate elections this cycle and that is, of course, the possibility that the nation may not know which party controls the chamber in the 114th Congress on the morning of November 5th.

If Republicans gain either five or six seats on Election Day, and no candidate reaches the 50 percent mark in Louisiana and Georgia, control may not be determined until December or January.

Louisiana’s November 4th primary is almost assuredly headed to a runoff on December 6th with Democratic incumbent Mary Landrieu stuck in the high 30s to low 40s while Republican Rob Maness has reached double digits and thus depressed GOP Congressman Bill Cassidy’s support to the mid- to high 30s.

If the GOP wins five seats on Election Day and then loses the Louisiana runoff, then control remains with the Democrats.

If Republicans pick up six seats on Election Day and then win Louisiana in the runoff, then control of the chamber will be theirs.

But if the GOP wins five seats on Election Day and then carries Louisiana in December, then the question of which party emerges with a majority could hinge on Georgia, which may very well face a runoff on January 6th.

In the Peach State, voter support for Libertarian Amanda Swafford (estimated to be in the three to six percent range) will probably mean neither Democrat Michelle Nunn nor Republican David Perdue will notch a majority.

Control of the U.S. Senate has to date not hinged on the outcome of two runoff elections.

Add to that the unknown as to with which party independents Angus King of Maine and potential Kansas victor Greg Orman would caucus, and there are a much larger number of unknowns than normal heading into the final two months before the convening of the next Congress – and so the suspense is rising.

And everybody loves a good suspense story.

(Especially political ones).

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  1. Nikoli Orr on October 16, 2018 at 8:29 am

    1. “…after the elections of 1918, 1946, 1952, 1980, 1994…” They also won it back after the 2002 midterms, and, unlike mid-to-late January of ’01, would hold it for a full four years.
    2. Would the US House elections be the primary focus of the national media at election time today, were the senators still being chosen by one (most likely the lower one, or “most numerous branch”) or both legislative chambers?
    3. Given the close and sharp partisan divisions, control of the chamber is likely to be “obsessed with” by the political media every cycle for the forseeable future, for no party seems likely to seize stable control of the body for 26, or even 14 years!

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