Margin Voting: How Red State Democrats Keep Their Seats, and Why That’s Good

17 mins read


Democrats and progressives across the country have displayed increasing frustration and feelings of betrayal following certain votes cast by red state Democratic leaders. Particularly after Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh took their seats on the Court, voters expressed frustration toward the Democratic senators who voted to confirm them.

Understanding how and why those party members sometimes vote in ways that seem at odds with the Democratic agenda can help strengthen our party and reassure voters that our leaders are on the same team. In reality, red state Democratic leaders are true Democrats who work collaboratively to help achieve the party’s goals.

For simplicity, this analysis will focus on the US Senate, though red district Democratic House members also engage in similar voting behavior, even when they are from bluer states.

For our purposes here, the phrase “red state Democrats” refers to elected Senators who represent states Donald Trump won by a significant margin and/or are predominantly Republican.

  • In West Virginia, Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 43.2% in 2016, securing 68.7% of the vote.
  •  In North Dakota, Trump defeated Clinton by 36.3%, with a total of 64.1% of votes. 
  •  In Missouri, Trump secured 57.1% of the vote, beating Clinton by 19.1%.  
  •  In Alabama, Trump got 62.9%, with 28.3% more than Clinton.
  •  In Indiana, Trump won by 19.3%, winning 57.2% of the total votes cast. (Source: BBC News)

These numbers are important because when the votes on Trump’s Supreme Court nominees took place, each of the above states had a Democratic senator up for re-election in 2018, except for Alabama. (In 2017, Alabama Democrat Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore, a highly controversial candidate facing myriad allegations of sexual misconduct with minors, by a razor-thin margin of about 2%. Jones is up for re-election in 2020, and he has a tough battle ahead; his GOP opponent is not likely to be as scandal-ridden as Moore.)

Each Democratic senator from the red states listed above voted for some of Trump’s cabinet and judicial nominees. Those and other votes have angered some activists and party faithful, some of whom maintain that red state Democrats are “the same as Republicans.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Of the red state Democratic senators who were up for re-election in 2018, four lost, leaving the party with a net loss of two Senate seats. This is extremely important because politics is about numbers. We cannot get to a majority if we lose Democrats in Congress. We cannot get to 60, the number needed to invoke cloture and prevent a filibuster, if we lose senators. And we cannot reach 67 (the number required for the Senate to convict and remove the president from office following impeachment) when we lose seats. If red state Democrats served no other purpose but to increase our numbers, that alone makes them a better option than GOP counterparts.

If they gained a majority in the Senate, Democratic leaders would set the agenda. The Democratic Senate Minority Leader would become the Senate Majority Leader, and everyone has seen the tremendous power that Mitch McConnell wields. That leader can prevent bills from reaching the Senate floor, determine the agenda, and block appointments, a tough lesson from Merrick Garland’s nomination. When Nancy Pelosi became Speaker and Democrats regained the House, many things became doable that were impossible before. The majority party has subpoena power, controls committee actions, and much more. All Democratic leaders add to our numbers, and that alone makes them worth having.

Every Democratic senator votes to protect healthcare and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). If the ACA were repealed (a GOP priority for 11 years), 20 million people would automatically become uninsured. If Republicans prevail and end coverage for pre-existing conditions (which the ACA protects), 130 million people would be affected.If red state Democrats did nothing else but vote for healthcare and the ACA, they would help save millions of lives and preserve care. This alone is a difference between the parties that cannot be overstated.

Similarly, with the GOP tax scams, all Senate Democrats voted against both bills. Trump’s own economists now concur that the tax cuts will not lead to the economic growth the GOP promised. In fact, the tax scam raised the average household’s taxes by $4000, added $2.6 trillion to the deficit, will cause a cumulative deficit of nearly $15 trillion in the next 10 years, and triggered massive cuts to earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare. Every Senate Democrat opposed those tax cuts. This is another big difference between the parties.

Despite the good that red state Democrats do for the party and the nation, they are sometimes the most criticized. It is understandable to disagree with certain candidate positions and votes, but it is important to realize the value every party member brings. Red state Democratic leaders vote with the party on major issues affecting everyone, but many people do not understand why they sometimes vote with the GOP. When red state Democrats vote, they have to balance their constituents’ wishes with the party’s, and they have to think ahead to future elections. While some Americans were glad to see Senators Heitkamp, Donnelly, Nelson, and McCaskill vote against Kavanaugh, that vote may very well have cost them their seats. As the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus explains, for our red state senators, voting no was a “political suicide mission,” and casting such votes meant Democrats would not be able to gain a majority in the Senate in 2018. Had we obtained a majority in both houses, Democrats could have passed legislation that the GOP-controlled Senate currently blocks, and could have prevented Trump’s far-right judicial nominees from getting confirmed for lifetime appointments..

Margin Voting

When red state Democrats vote with the GOP, they are employing a strategy called margin voting. Democrats from predominantly Republican states (or districts) have to find a way to support party goals but retain their seats. They consult Democratic leaders, who give them permission to vote with the GOP if their vote cannot change a preordained outcome. With the Kavanaugh vote, Democrats could do nothing to prevent the confirmation. There were 49 at the time, and although Alaska GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski stated that she would vote “present” (rather than yes or no), she refused to vote no out of respect for Montana GOP Senator Steve Daines, who planned to miss the vote to attend his daughter’s wedding. With every other Republican senator voting for Kavanaugh and Murkowski voting “present,” the Senate would have confirmed even if all Democratic senators voted no. If every Democrat opposed the nomination, Daines planned to borrow Greg Gianforte’s private jet to attend the vote and ensure a confirmation. Democrats could not change the outcome of Kavanaugh’s appointment, and they did not have the ability to filibuster because McConnell exercised the nuclear option after the Gorsuch vote. 

Margin voting means a Democrat only votes with the GOP when there are insufficient votes for a Democratic win. With respect to Kavanaugh, four red state Democrats who voted no were replaced by highly-conservative GOP opponents, many styled after Trump. Senator Joe Manchin faced a very tough re-election campaign, and he won by the smallest margin of his Senate career. In all likelihood, that win is attributable to margin voting. Had he voted against Kavanaugh, he would have almost certainly lost his seat, leaving only 45 Democrats in the Senate. The smaller our number, the more GOP votes we have to peel off to get Democratic legislation passed. Margin voting is a vital way Democrats from red states can help support party goals without alienating their constituents to the point of a GOP win.

The Kavanaugh vote was hard for many survivors like me, but when it became evident that certain Democrats’ no votes could cost us Senate seats but would not change the outcome, the importance of margin voting was clear. Survivors need healthcare—Democrats are the ones who preserve that. Survivors need jobs, reasonable taxes, a good economy—Democrats vote for those necessities. Survivors may need earned benefits like Social Security and Medicare, and Democrats support such programs. 

Margin voting is done with the approval of Democratic leadership. Democrats do not criticize colleagues who use this strategy because they know red state party members are in the greatest danger during election season. Democrats never vote with the GOP to give Republicans a win; they do it when their vote cannot gain a Democratic victory but can reassure their constituents. Margin voting is not a betrayal—it is a survival technique for our most vulnerable Democrats to stay in office and help accomplish the most good.

Red state Democrats do a lot of good that often goes unnoticed. For example, Senator Manchin has a rating of 85% on issues concerning the LGBTQ community from the Human Rights Campaign. He strongly supports increased salaries and improved conditions for teachers. He advocates for veterans and campaign finance reform, and he recently sponsored a bill to make the FDA accountable for public safety. He voted against certain Trump appointees, like Wilbur Ross and Eleventh Circuit of Court of Appeals nominee Newsom

That certainly is not the same as the GOP. In fact, one only has to compare his record to a Republican colleague to see the point: former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana has a 0% rating with the Human Rights Campaign. Shelley Moore-Capito, West Virginia’s GOP senator, votes against healthcare, for the tax scams, and with Trump almost 96% of the time. Based on FiveThirtyEight’s findings, Manchin’s voting record was with the Democrats 60% of the time during the 116th Congress. Manchin’s Kavanaugh vote would not have changed the outcome of the confirmation, but his votes on healthcare have. As his state’s former governor, he knows his constituents and how far he can go. Manchin had been considering running for governor and returning to his old post, where he is appreciated by West Virginians, and attacks on him may encourage that move. If he left the Senate, we would suffer, and his vacated seat would almost certainly belong to the GOP.

Democrats are a team, and the demographics in Alabama or North Dakota are vastly different from California or New York. Blue state Democrats have more latitude to vote with the party every time because their constituents are more liberal, but such candidates would not survive in Missouri or West Virginia. The proof is in the midterms—when red state Democrats went farther than their constituents were comfortable with, they were replaced by Republicans. This is never a victory for us. Every Democratic Senate candidate from 2018 was better than the GOP challengers, and losing four red state Senators was a loss for the whole party.

As the Georgetown Public Policy Review explained, “Trump’s victory in 60 percent of states means that red-state Democrats will continue to be a crucial piece of any secure Democratic coalition for the foreseeable future… .These Democrats must navigate a difficult political landscape to maintain credibility at home while generally adhering to the national party platform.”

By paying careful attention to the numbers we need to pass our agenda, whether a vote can alter an outcome, and the bigger picture (the policies red state Democrats help accomplish), voters should be able to appreciate margin voting. In many respects, red state Democrats have it harder than those in blue states—they endure criticism from people who do not understand how margin voting works, and they often are overlooked when credit is due to them for Democratic victories they help achieve. Margin voting allows the party to be competitive in more states—without it, there would be far fewer Democrats in Congress.

Red state Democrats cannot be replaced by flipping other GOP seats. Gaining seats in Arizona and Nevada in 2018 offset our losses, but it did not and could not get us a majority. Many people feel that voting for a third party is a betrayal to the American people. It is similarly important not to apply purity tests to our own party members. By supporting all Democrats, we can best advance the party platform.

The Democratic party is strong because of its diversity, and it is united in its desire to further the greater good. Margin voting allows Democrats in difficult situations to keep much-needed seats without sacrificing our goals. 

Originally posted on DemWritePress in April 2019. Slightly updated for re-posting.

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Seleste is a civil rights activist & attorney, volunteer for various campaigns & organizations, Director of the non-profit social welfare organization '10 Minutes A Day', & a published author.

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