The Playing Field

So, apparently Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is releasing vulnerable Republicans to “distance” themselves from Trump. I’ve already seen this breathlessly tweeted a few times this morning, and yes, it’s encouraging. But as Winston Wolf put it in Pulp Fiction, let’s not start celebrating too early.

McConnell is one of the worst things to happen to American democracy maybe ever, but he wouldn’t have been able to earn that assessment if he weren’t ruthlessly good at his job (at least, how HE defines his job: electing Republicans and passing their legislation). McConnell knows how to count, and we shouldn’t let ourselves forget how either, in all the anti-Trump fervor that is picking up as we head into the fall.

Yes, it’s looking increasingly like Donald Trump will be an albatross around the neck of many Republicans, but not in the way that sometimes happens with unpopular top-of-the-ticket politicians. In more-normal years, an unpopular (or lame-duck) President might be able to be opposed either strategically or even in whole by more vulnerable members of his own party, down-ballot. But that would be if the unpopularity at the top of the ticket was reasonably evenly distributed across voter party identification. In other words: if the President had lost standing with both Republicans and Democrats. Though he (barely) won re-election, this was the case, for example with George W. Bush — both Republicans and Democrats’ opinion of the President had slipped by 2004, and so it was OK for some Republicans to truly distance themselves. 

There are two things working against that — and it being a very effective or decisive element — this time around:

  1. Trump literally IS the GOP these days, however much McConnell and other GOP strategists might wish it were otherwise. The “Trump train” is a real thing, and there is a sizable-enough segment of his base that will literally follow him anywhere (and burn to the ground anyone else who does not, see recent Republican attacks on the Lincoln Project). Yes, there’s plenty of disillusionment with Trump…but it’s virtually all on the Dem side, which doesn’t help vulnerable GOP Senators feel they can safely abandon or distance themselves from him without losing too many of their own base.
  2. Math. I know, I’ve railed against the people who attempt to chivvy others into voting one way or another during primary season because of “math,” but when it comes to the general election, the calculus changes and counting the numbers realistically shouldn’t be overlooked. In this fall’s lineup, the GOP still holds a 53-45 seat advantage (53-47 if you count Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders). That means, to turn over the Senate, Dems need to pick up at least three seats. 

How likely is that? There’s no way to know for certain. The most-vulnerable senators are Martha McSally from Arizona, Thom Tillis from North Carolina and Cory Gardner from Colorado. All three are in tight races, have drawn strong opponents, and might very well lose. But remember, picking up all three only gets Dems to equal representation in the Senate – straight 50/50. In such cases, the “President of the Senate” is the VP (which means if you assume Trump loses, then it will be Biden’s VP choice), gets to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of Dems as Biden himself was never called upon to do (more on that in a moment). 

There’s another wrinkle here too, however, and that’s keeping in mind that for even that “tie” situation to be viable, Dems not only have to pick up all three of those vulnerable seats, they also have to not lose any of their own. And that’s where things get a little dicey. In Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones defeated scandal-plagued Roy Moore by only two points in 2017 despite Moore enduring a firestorm of credible child molestation allegations. They like their Republicans down in ‘bama, and they don’t much care how horrible they are, as long as they hate taxes and “them.” This time around, Jones is facing the popular ex-football coach Tommy Tuberville, and although some June polling had it as close as three points, that was before Tuberville actually won the primary. Recent polling puts Tuberville ahead by as much as 25 points, which would be a blowout by any standard. 

I have no idea how accurate any of those polls are, but 25 points is the kind of eye-popping number that makes party funders decide their money is better-spent elsewhere, even if it’s off by ten points. The likelihood is that Jones is a goner, whether it’s by a few points or a blowout. That makes the path for Dems to reclaim the Senate – even just at 50/50 – even more difficult. Beyond the three already mentioned, other possibilities for pickup include the ever-disappointing Susan Collins of Maine and from there, it drops off into a more-unlikely rogues gallery of admittedly awful GOP Senators from genuinely red states: Steven Daines in Montana, Kelly Loeffler and (arguably) David Perdue in Georgia and Joni Ernst in Iowa. Any of those could conceivably break for Dems…but any individual one of them, looked at individually, isn’t likely to. Maybe the sheer number of them makes it more likely that one of them will have an unusual event (such as new revelations in Loeffler’s insider trading charges or the like). But Montana went for Trump by 20 points in 2016, even though a recent in-state poll showed Bullock up by 5

But here’s the breakdown: Democrats “only” need to pick up three IF you assume a) Jones wins in Alabama AND b) Biden beats Trump. That’s a tough lift, even in a “momentum” year. And if any one of those things goes south — and Jones’ loss is by far the likeliest, then Dems need FOUR, just to get to 50/50. 

And there’s one final point that’s most important of all. Barack Obama understood it at John Lewis’ funeral:

And if all this takes [ensuring every American citizen can vote] eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do.

Exactly. Whether we need to win three or four seats to get to 50/50, no one on earth thinks we’re going to win fourteen seats, which is what it would require to have a filibuster-proof majority. The last time we had one of those, ironically, was the first half of Obama’s first term. And the Democrats simply refused to believe that McConnell would quite happily blow up all notions of tradition along with the vaunted “comity” of the US Senate to achieve his literal stated goal of opposing everything Obama did and making him a one-term President. McConnell failed at the latter part of his aim, but he achieved much of the former, and in the process, made the filibuster radioactive. The main reason Joe Biden never got to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to uphold Democratic legislation is because it was almost never a 50/50 vote — McConnell filibustered everything — all but ensuring that no vote ever got close enough to require a tie-breaking vote from the Veep.

If the filibuster ever did resemble the rose-colored vision of Jimmy Stewart talking himself hoarse on the floor of the Senate, those days have been gone for quite some time. Now, the minority leader simply registers his intent to filibuster, and *poof* – sixty votes are now required for every piece of legislation. This was never intended to work this way for every single vote. But because Senate rules – not even US law or the Constitution, but merely Senate internal rules – don’t expressly forbid it, McConnell began using it as a way to force the majority to either do the minority’s bidding, or at least ensure that nothing meaningful got done. The filibuster has to go — or we can look forward to another four years of the pace of things getting worse slowing only minimally…and then President Tom Cotton in 2024. It isn’t Democrats’ fault that McConnell began abusing the filibuster — but it will be if they continue to allow him having done so to serve as an excuse for why they can’t accomplish what they say they want to achieve (or anything else).