While national attention is riveted by the presidential horse race, a more important contest — or series of contests — is unfolding for control of the Senate.
No matter who occupies the Oval Office, the political majority that runs the Senate will play the decisive political role for at least the next two years, perhaps longer. In what is shaping up as a difficult year for Republicans, the House of Representatives seems virtually certain to remain under the gavel of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Republicans would need to gain 18 seats there to hand the gavel to another Californian, Kevin McCarthy.
But an array of intriguing scenarios all depend on a handful of crucial Senate seats.
Former and sitting vice presidents have pathetic political records of becoming modern presidents. Ask Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale or Al Gore. An exception was George H.W. Bush, who was essentially a third Reagan term.
If Joe Biden defies the pattern of history and the illogic of his intentionally invisible campaign somehow allows antipathy toward President Donald Trump to prevail, a Senate run by Democrats would create a one-party federal government and grease the way for a tsunami of promised liberal dreams, policies and judges, including new taxes, slashes to the military, green energy mandates and quite possibly two new Democratic-leaning states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
If Biden becomes the 46th president, but the GOP somehow clings to its narrow grasp of the upper body, then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his troops will be the only political barricade to that tidal wave.
If Trump keeps the Oval Office, as most incumbents do, but Democrats take the Senate, Americans are in for another period of that bitter Washington gridlock that tends over time to produce a simmering revolt in that vast space between the liberal coastlines. If the GOP keeps the Senate and the White House, there’s always a chance the D.C. crowd learns a valuable lesson and gets down to the business of compromise for the nation’s good.
No, not really. Forget that.
Americans in modern times have tended to prefer a divided government with one party controlling at least the White House, House or Senate. The apparent collective theory, of course, is that they will check each other’s more extreme instincts.
Convulsed by the historic excitement of the first Black president falsely promising to end Washington’s bitter partisan divide, voters in 2008 went against those instincts and handed Democrats complete federal authority. Such lopsided political control by any party usually leads over time to silliness, waste, poor decisions and ultimately an often-harsh counterreaction.
Those two years of total Democratic control led to, among other things, ObamaCare with its botched rollout and broken promises and a largely ineffective trillion-dollar stimulus spending plan that Vice President Joe Biden promised would almost immediately produce hundreds of thousands of “shovel-ready jobs” that failed to appear for years.
In the 2010 midterm elections, Democrats reaped the whirlwind of their heady initial success. Republicans gained seven Senate seats and captured another 63 House districts, the largest historic political turnaround in more than six decades. It was worse for Democrats at the state level, where they lost six governors’ chairs and saw control of 20 state legislative chambers flip to the GOP.
Who cares, you might say? But that devastation under President Barack Obama gave Republicans immense control over legislative redistricting mandated by the 2010 Census, which has benefitted that party for the last decade. Democrats have regained only some of those 1,000 local seats. The next redistricting begins next year.
No one ever accused American voters of having a long memory. A recent Gallup poll found a majority now favor a return to one-party Washington control, which we may see come Nov. 3. Trump, of course, maintains he’ll win re-election. But a weekend newspaper report claimed he recently told donors that keeping the Senate will be difficult for the GOP.
That’s correct. Currently, Republicans hold 53 of the 100 seats. But also currently they’re defending 23 of the 35 seats up, a challenge even if their president were popular beyond his party.
Of those 22 seats, 15 like Wyoming are safely Republican by tradition, history and Trump’s showing four years ago. Seven of the 12 Democratic seats seem safely noncompetitive.
Democrats need to gain only three or four seats to seize control, while losing one or none. The vice president breaks any tie Senate votes.
The most vulnerable for GOP losses now are Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine. Keeping Alabama will be a Democratic challenge. But if 2020 has taught anyone anything, the unexpected now is to be expected.