PARSONS, Kan. ― Barbara Bollier, a onetime GOP state senator who switched parties and is now this state’s Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, had some bad news.
“I’ve got members of my family that I’d love to be able to nudge to support you, but they’re afraid you’re going to kill babies,” a voter had just asked her at a socially distanced, outdoor town hall at a park here. “Can you talk about abortion and your thoughts on abortion?”
Bollier burst his bubble. She had supported abortion rights even when she was a Republican.
“I’ve always supported the right for women to have a private patient-physician relationship,” she said. “These are heart-wrenching decisions that a politician should not be in the middle of.”
Throughout the United States, Bollier’s position is in the mainstream. It’s not even a dealbreaker in a statewide race in Kansas — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelley won in 2018 as an abortion rights supporter. But it’s not the mainstream in Labette County, the county in southeastern Kansas where Bollier was campaigning and where Hillary Clinton won just 28.3% of the vote in 2016.
The problem facing Democrats as they seek to win control of the Senate is a simple one: They need to win over a lot of voters in places like Labette to win control of Congress’ upper chamber, and even more of them to build a sustainable majority. The average voter in a rural area has 37% more power in determining who controls the Senate than a typical American.
The disproportionate power granted to rural Americans ― who are far more likely to be old, white and conservative than other voters ― in the Senate is arguably the key fact of American political life. It enables Republicans to rule with a coalition reliant on a shrinking minority of the population, with little need to appeal to voters of color, and empowers their iron grip on the federal court system and the Supreme Court. It makes it near-impossible for national Democrats to follow the demands of their most progressive supporters, who have little presence in many rural states, and difficult to pass even their most popular policy ideas into law. It means the votes of Black people and Latinos effectively count less than the votes of white people.
Rural areas’ disproportionate power is only set to grow in coming years, as more and more of the American population ― especially its most diverse and educated members ― settles in urban areas clustered in the union’s largest states. When combined with the decline of split-ticket voting, it paints a gloomy picture for Democrats’ long-term future in the chamber. The existence of the filibuster only adds to rural states’ power, and to Democrats’ problems.
“Senate elections are becoming more and more nationalized, and that accrues to the detriment of Democrats. There are fewer and fewer senators that are from the opposite party of how their state voted for president,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA and a former executive director of Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. “And there are more states that vote Republican for president than vote Democrat for president.”
Republicans have a 53-47 majority in the Senate, but Democrats have made strong challenges for 11 GOP-held seats, giving them a multitude of paths to win control of the chamber and making them slight favorites to do so. But the possibility that consecutive Democratic wave elections — ones in which the party has expanded its appeal to rural voters and working-class white voters — could deliver them only a narrow majority drives home the party’s disadvantage.
In recent months, the battle for Senate control has increasingly become about the future of the chamber, and of American politics as a whole.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has issued a series of apocalyptic warnings. Democrats are threatening to “disfigure the Senate,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor. Getting rid of the filibuster, the 60-vote requirement required to move most legislation, would mean moderates get “stampeded by the hard left,” he told reporters. The Kentucky Republican told the hosts of “Fox and Friends” that giving statehood — and two senators — to both Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico would put the country on the road to “full-bore socialism.” Incumbent Republicans running for reelection, including Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner and Arizona Sen. Martha McSally, have echoed those warnings.
McConnell’s rhetoric about socialism is overblown, but he has real reason to worry. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has made clear D.C. and Puerto Rico statehood, and the end of the filibuster, are a real possibility if Democrats win Senate control ― even if it’s unclear if a caucus heavy with moderate members would be willing to pull the trigger. Those moves would weaken the Senate’s tilt toward rural areas and white voters, moving American politics to the left.
But before Democrats can fix the Senate’s bias toward rural voters, they need to overcome it.
Bollier, running in Kansas, did not sign up for partisan warfare. Over the course of a day of pandemic-era, socially-distanced campaigning ― starting in the college town of Pittsburg, making stops in rural areas and ending in the upscale Kansas City suburb of Overland Park ― she strove to project moderation.
A huge portion of her stump speech is dedicated not to taking down President Donald Trump, but to explaining her decision to switch parties and criticizing the right-ward rush of the Kansas GOP under former Gov. Sam Brownback, blasting her former colleagues for slashing education funding and blocking Medicaid expansion. She emphasizes her willingness to vote against parts of Kelley’s agenda after switching parties.
“We are in a time where our nation needs to heal, not just from the COVID, but from this leadership that encourages divisiveness,” she told the crowd in Parsons. “I am about eliminating this hyperpartisanship and working together.”
Her harshest criticism is reserved for her opponent, GOP Rep. Roger Marshall, for ignoring coronavirus guidelines.
“You can let Roger know: It’s OK to wear a mask,” she said. (Both Marshall and Bollier are medical doctors.)
Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator in over 70 years, but national Republican groups have been forced to spend more than $30 million to prop up Marshall. Bollier is widely considered the underdog, though many polls show a close race, and national Republicans have long been frustrated with Marshall’s relatively paltry fundraising. (Marshall has raised just shy of $6 million, according to FEC reports, while Bollier has raised roughly $24.5 million.)
Marshall’s campaign did not respond to emails.
Bollier is not a rough-and-tumble candidate who can appeal to rural voters on a cultural level, the way Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester or West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin relate to their GOP-leaning constituencies. She’s a doctor, married to a Swiss immigrant, and lives in Mission Hills, one of the wealthiest municipalities in the entire country.
But Democrats believe Bollier’s strength comes from her ability to dominate in the Kansas City suburbs, which have both rapidly grown over the past decade. That growth means roughly one-third of Kansans now have a college degree, well above the national average. The suburban growth also means the 3rd Congressional District, which Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids won in 2018, now has 105,000 more registered voters than Marshall’s sprawling, rural 1st District.
“The difference in this race will be Johnson County,” said Kansas Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, who introduced Bollier at the event in Parsons, referring to the suburban county that is the state’s most populous. “If she can get three or four votes out of 10 in the rural counties, she can win it.”
Bollier, at times, can seem frustrated with rural voters’ focus on cultural issues. When talking with administrators at Pittsburg College, she lamented that voters in Kansas voted against their own interest.
She elaborated in an interview: “When election time comes, the focus seems to be on partisan hot-button issues rather than on the most important things — a job, health care, safety. It’s disappointing.”
Republicans have aggressively tried to nationalize the race. “Chuck Schumer’s plan?,” a narrator declares in one ad from Marshall. “Ram Biden’s $4 trillion tax hike through the Senate, using Barbara Bollier to rubber stamp it.” (The ad falsely calls Biden’s plan, which would not hike taxes on people making less than $400,000 a year, “the largest middle-class tax increase in American history.”)
Republicans are running similar ads against other Democrats running in conservative and rural states ― Gov. Steve Bullock in Montana, Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, physician Al Gross in Alaska. While Democrats have made all of these Republican-leaning states competitive, public surveys and internal polling from both parties indicates they’re not favored to win any of them.
Losses across the board would fit with broad trends: Since 2013, there have been 108 elections for U.S. Senate seats. Ninety-seven of them were won by the same party as the presidential candidate who had won that state in the prior election. Considering Trump won 30 states in 2016, it’s easy to see how the problem could get worse. (Of the 11 cross-party wins, eight came from Democrats winning in Trump states during the 2018 election cycle. Without those victories, Republicans would have a lock on the majority for the foreseeable future.)
A Pew Research Center poll found just 11% of voters planned to split their ticket between multiple parties on Election Day, and just 4% planned to split their votes for Senate and president between Democrats and Republicans.
The advantage can be seen in each party’s behavior. National Republicans rarely extend much energy toward recruiting credible candidates in Democratic-leaning territory ― they’ve allowed supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory to claim GOP nominations in both Oregon and Delaware this cycle.
Schumer and national Democrats, meanwhile, are often obsessive about making GOP-leaning rural states competitive.
“The committee ethos has always been to recruit the very best possible candidate for every possible race, and then see what happens,” said Martha McKenna, a former top official at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But new breakthroughs have been few and far between. While Tester and Manchin won reelection in 2018, Democrats lost Senate seats in Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota. High-profile recruits in Missouri and Indiana ran far ahead of Clinton in 2016, but still lost.
Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander was one of those candidates — he lost by three percentage points to GOP Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016, even as he ran nearly 10 points ahead of Clinton.
In an interview, Kander said Democratic candidates don’t need to run to the center or right to win in rural states, but that the party needs to do a better job of explaining why their policies will benefit rural communities and help voters keep their family members nearby.
“Every single voter is trying to have their family be happy, healthy, safe and nearby,” Kander said. “‘Nearby’ is the part the coastal focus of our party tends to miss. We just want our kids to be able to get our good jobs near where we live, and be able to raise their grandkids there.”
Kander thinks Democrats have done a better job on this front lately — linking Medicaid expansion to keeping rural hospitals open, for instance.
Republicans are even pushing back on that front, however. National GOP groups have run ads and mailers in nearly every competitive Senate race arguing Democrats’ support for a public health insurance option will lead to rural hospital closures – an assertion backed up by analysis from a front group for the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.
There are a multitude of ways to describe the problem Democrats face. Of the nation’s 15 largest states, six would be considered safely blue and the other nine are considered at least toss-ups in this year’s presidential election. The largest safely red state is Tennessee, the nation’s 16th largest. (This is why the rural bias of the Senate is significantly worse for Democrats than the rural bias of the Electoral College, which gives larger states more influence.)
Another way to describe it: The six senators representing Texas, California and New York represent the same number of people as the senators representing the 31 smallest states in the union ― which is more than enough senators to maintain a filibuster. A third way: FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver calculates the average Senate seat is 6 to 7 percentage points more Republican than the country as a whole.
The previously mentioned statistic that rural voters have 37% more power to determine control of the Senate comes from Michael Ettlinger, the director of the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire and a former official at the liberal Center for American Progress.
The rural bias of the Senate has existed for a long time, though partisan shifts have meant it only started directly damaging Democrats recently ― the party had senators in both North and South Dakota as recently as 2012. Ettlinger notes it has always given rural states extra policy influence, making gun control legislation more difficult to pass and leading to lavish agricultural subsidies.
But the problem is getting worse: A report from the Roosevelt Institute’s Todd Tucker found the ratio between the largest and smallest states in the union was relatively stable for most of the United States’ early history, before spiking during the late 1800s as sparsely populated western states entered the union ― In 1900, Nevada’s 42,335 residents had as many senators as New York’s 7.3 million residents. The ratio shrank as Americans moved west, before beginning to increase around 1990.
Today, the population ratio between California, the most populated state, and Wyoming, which is the least populated state, is 67 to 1. But those ratios are projected to steadily increase throughout the rest of the century, potentially reaching a 154:1 ratio. In 2100, according to demographic projections cited by Tucker, states comprising just 16% of the American population will be able to elect a majority of the Senate.
But it’s how the Senate discriminates against racial minorities that may force the hand of a party increasingly focused on racial injustices. The average Black voter has 16% less power in determining who controls the Senate than the average American. For Latinos, who are clustered in the nation’s two largest states, the problem is even worse: The average Latino has 32% less power than the average American in determining who controls the Senate. The average white person? They have 13% more power.
And this tilt against racial minorities will only grow worse in the future: Even as demographers expect the country’s population to become majority people of color around the year 2050, they also expect most states to remain majority-white until at least 2090.
Progressive groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, Indivisible and Demand Justice, are already agitating for reforms. First, if Democrats win control of the Senate, they should eliminate or reform the filibuster, which exacerbates the institution’s bias in favor of rural states and white votes. Then, Congress should vote to admit both the plurality-Black District of Columbia and majority-Latino Puerto Rico as states, which would diminish but not eliminate the Senate’s bias toward rural states and against racial minorities.
Momentum is building against the filibuster within the Democratic Party, with even moderate members becoming radical on process issues following the Senate GOP’s sprint to confirm Amy Coney Barrett. Former President Barack Obama labeled the filibuster, which was historically deployed to block civil rights legislation, a “Jim Crow relic” and called for D.C. and Puerto Rican statehood during a eulogy for former Rep. John Lewis earlier this year.
Some on the party’s left wing are pushing even further: The Roosevelt Institution report says Democrats should consider giving American territories in both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean two senators each, and giving Native American tribes two senators of their own. A report from Data For Progress calls the Senate an “irredeemable institution” and suggests a long-term goal of abolishing it altogether.
But it remains unclear if elected Democrats are willing to engage in the partisan warfare it would take to even slightly limit the rural bias of the Senate. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is deeply attached to the Senate’s traditions, and many Senate Democrats won elections promising to work with Republicans rather than battle them. The party’s majority may rest on a single vote, or even on the ability of Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris to cast tie-breaking votes.
For her part, Bollier is dodging questions on the future of the Senate. When a voter in Parsons asks about the filibuster, she says she can’t evaluate it ― Kansas’ state Senate doesn’t have one, so she’ll want to get to Washington, study it, and consult with Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran. (Moran has previously called for the end of the filibuster, but that was when Republicans were in power.)
“What I need to do to get there and ask questions of people who have worked with it, on both sides of the aisle,” she said.
And in an interview, she punted on statehood. “I don’t have a position. I’m not there,” she said. “But I do know that it’s really important that all people get represented.”
National Republicans have attacked Democratic candidates who support ending the filibuster, accusing them of trying to “change the rules” to pass left-wing policies. It’s unclear if the ads have had much impact.
At the end of the day, Bollier’s campaign rolled into Overland Park, joined by Davids and greeted by a significantly larger crowd than the first three stops of the day. The terrain was friendlier ― these voters were Bollier’s base. There, she delivered her stump speech, attacking Republicans for not providing aid to states and localities to deal with the pandemic.
“Of course we fund the police,” she said. “You know how? By passing a relief bill so local governments can fund the police.”
But when the time for questions came, not everything was friendly. A man stood up, and urged both women “not to be too nice, not to be too eager to cross the aisle, not to be too eager to compromise.”
“We need to do with the power what they’ve done with the power,” he pleaded.
Bollier let Davids answer the question. But in many ways, she had given her answer a few minutes earlier. As she spoke about the importance of health care, two pickup trucks repeatedly drove by, honking their horns and waving Trump 2020 flags out the window and trying to disrupt the event. Bollier didn’t curse them, or even crack a joke.
“It would be a lot more helpful if they would come down here and talk,” she said. “We would find some common ground. I know it.”