Despite some headlines to the contrary, congressional Democrats were historically united last Congress. Though they had razor-thin majorities in the Senate and House, they managed to pass major legislation with virtually unanimous support in their caucus. But that unity seems to be eroding — at least in the Senate.
So far in 2023, red- and purple-state Democrats seem to be distancing themselves from President Biden on certain issues in preparation for their 2024 reelection campaigns. In the 118th Congress (which began in January), Democratic senators up for reelection in states that Biden either lost or won by less than 10 percentage points in 2020 have voted in line with his position an average of 28 points less often than they did last Congress. By contrast, senators up for reelection in states that Biden won by at least 10 points have voted with his position an average of just 4 points less this Congress.
Vulnerable Senate Democrats are saying no to Biden more
Percent of the time that each Democratic senator up for reelection in 2024 voted with President Biden’s position on a bill or resolution in the 117th and 118th congresses, along with the 2020 presidential election margin in their state
Joe Manchin III
Angus King Jr.*
Bob Casey Jr.
*King, Sanders and Sinema are independents who caucus with the Democrats.
Includes all votes through June 20 for which Biden or the White House had an official position, except district and appellate court confirmations. Senators who have announced their retirement are not included.
Sources: Congress.gov, White House Office of Management and Budget, Daily Kos, News Reports
The senator with the largest decrease was Joe Manchin of West Virginia. So far in the 118th Congress, Manchin has voted in line with Biden’s position just 21 percent of the time — a 67-point decline from the 117th Congress, when he voted with Biden 88 percent of the time. But it’s hardly a surprise that he would want to distance himself from the president: Next year, Manchin faces arguably the toughest fight of any senator up for reelection, running in a state that Biden lost by almost 40 points. In fact, given how red West Virginia is, we’d expect him to vote in line with Biden’s position even less: Based on a model we developed as part of our Biden Score metric, a generic senator from West Virginia would be predicted to vote with Biden only 10 percent of the time.
And Manchin isn’t the only Democratic senator who’s been breaking with Biden more often this year. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who is running in a state Biden lost by 16 points in 2020, has voted with the president just 50 percent of the time, 41 points less frequently than in the 117th Congress. And Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jacky Rosen of Nevada — all up for reelection in swing states — have each voted with Biden about 20 points less than they did last Congress. While most Democratic senators still agree with Biden over 80 percent of the time, these declines are significant. As a whole, Democratic senators are voting Biden’s way 11 points less than in the last Congress.
It’s worth nothing that this is a relatively small dataset — so far this year, only 14 votes in the Senate have met our standards for inclusion. That number is actually up from 2021, though, when there were only five Senate votes by this point (excluding Cabinet confirmations, which dominated the first half of 2021 in the Senate), and it’s on par with the 14 recorded through this point in 2022. With smaller samples like these, a single vote can cause an outsized shift in the data. It’s important not to read into these changes too much, though they still provide valuable insights into how senators are thinking about their reelection bids.
Still, given that decline in Democratic unity, you might expect that Democrats have been losing more Senate votes this Congress. After all, their majority (51-49) is still quite narrow. And indeed, the Senate has passed 11 bills this year that Biden has opposed. That’s almost as many as the entirety of the 117th Congress, when 12 bills passed the Senate without Biden’s support.
So why is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer letting this happen? After all, he controls the Senate agenda; he doesn’t have to schedule votes on bills or resolutions that Democrats don’t want passed. (In fact, it takes away floor time from other party priorities, like confirming federal judges.) But it’s actually probably a deliberate strategy by Schumer. After Democrats lost control of the House in the 2022 midterms, they no longer enjoy full control of the legislative process, and their chances of passing significant legislation are much lower. So instead, they’re using that time to vote on less consequential things that might give vulnerable senators political cover as they run for reelection. No politician wants to see attack ads bashing them for voting with an unpopular president 100 percent of the time. (Slamming a senator for voting with Biden 71 percent of the time just isn’t as catchy, and that number likely sounds a lot more reasonable to swing voters.) And by letting senators like Manchin — who has tanked Democratic policy priorities in the past — vote against the party on pet issues (like a resolution that would re-impose tariffs on certain solar panel parts), Schumer could be trying to bank some goodwill for the next time he really needs their votes.
Indeed, many of the votes in the Senate so far this year have been on resolutions, not full-fledged bills. These resolutions have mostly been introduced to reverse rules that the Biden administration has already implemented. And a lot of them are pretty dull — at least relative to other votes that have come up this session — like rules adding the northern long-eared bat and certain segments of the lesser prairie-chicken to the endangered or threatened species lists (no disrespect intended toward the lesser prairie-chicken, of course). Legislation on combustible culture-war issues, such as bills targeting transgender rights in sports and in schools, have not yet made it to the Senate floor.
Of course, with over a year to go until the 2024 election, there’s still plenty of time for things to change. But as election season gets closer, expect to see more signaling votes from vulnerable senators trying to burnish their moderate credentials. (Personally, I’ll be watching to see if the greater prairie-chicken will get as much attention in the Senate as its lesser counterparts have.) If the Senate vote rolls are any indication, 2024 is shaping up to be a big cycle for endangered species of all kinds, both animals and red-state Democrats alike.
CORRECTION (June 26, 2023, 9:27 a.m.): A previous version of this story included a table that mistakenly listed Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as representing New Jersey. The table has been updated to reflect she represents New York.