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The Forgotten History of How Abraham Lincoln Helped Rig the Senate for Republicans

The Great Emancipator has a lesson for today's Democrats about how to play constitutional hardball.
In 1860, the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Nevada was a desert wasteland with fewer than 7,000 residents. Indeed, the Silver State didn’t even exist on the day of Lincoln’s election. Two days before the lame-duck President James Buchanan left office, he signed legislation carving off part of Utah Territory, which stretched across most of modern-day Nevada, about a third of Colorado and some of Wyoming, to form part of what we now know as Nevada. Congress would soon pass two more bills expanding Nevada at Utah’s expense.

This largely forgotten act of line-drawing enabled one of the most consequential gerrymanders in American history. Because the virtually unpopulated Nevada became its own territory, Republicans could admit it as a state just four years later. That gave the Party of Lincoln two extra seats in the Senate — helping prevent Democrats from simultaneously controlling the White House and both houses of Congress until 1893.

Nor was this selective admission of the Republican state of Nevada an isolated case. Among other things, the reason why there are two Dakotas — despite the fact that both states are so underpopulated that they each only rate a single member of the House of Representatives to this day — is because Republicans won the 1888 election and decided to celebrate by giving themselves four senators instead of just two.

There’s a lesson here for modern-day Democrats. The history of the American statehood process is the history of political factions selectively admitting new states in order to bolster their own fortunes and harm those of their opponents. The American West, with its wasteland of states with two senators and approximately zero residents, was shaped by this brand of constitutional hardball. And if Democrats do not embrace it today, they risk being doomed to the political abyss.

By 2040, according to a University of Virginia analysis of Census population projections, about half of the country will live in just eight states — which means 16 senators for one half of America and 84 for the other half. Meanwhile, according to Stanford political scientist Jonathan Rodden, partisanship closely correlates with population density — “as you go from the center of cities out through the suburbs and into rural areas, you traverse in a linear fashion from Democratic to Republican places.”

So America is fast approaching a tipping point where one party will enjoy a permanent supermajority in the United States Senate — and with it, permanent control over the federal judiciary.
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