Biden agenda hinges on Senate majority

August 26, 2020

The Hill: Biden agenda hinges on Senate majority
By: Alexander Bolton

To achieve much of his agenda, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will need voters to do more than elect him to the White House.

The battle for control of the Senate will play a crucial role in determining whether Democrats can notch major victories early on in a potential Biden administration, from confirming judicial and executive nominees to passing legislative priorities.

Polls show the former vice president has a sizable lead over President Trump heading into the final two months of the campaign, but where things stand in battleground Senate races is much harder to gauge.

Republicans are highlighting those races in hopes of driving turnout among GOP voters, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) arguing the party needs to maintain control of the chamber to create a firewall against what he’s called a liberal takeover of government. Democrats are largely expected to keep their majority in the House this November.

But Democratic strategists think their efforts to paint McConnell as an obstructionist — a project they have worked on for years — makes him as much a liability for centrist GOP incumbents as Trump.

Democratic candidate M.J. Hegar, an Air Force veteran running in Texas, is framing her race against Sen. John Cornyn (R) as a battle against McConnell’s “right-hand man” who has helped turn the Senate into a “legislative graveyard.” 

In Iowa, Democrat Theresa Greenfield is pitching her campaign against Sen. Joni Ernst (R) as an engagement in a larger battle to “stand up to McConnell” and “flip the Senate.”

In Maine, state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D) is tying Sen. Susan Collins(R) to both McConnell and Trump.

Gideon has zeroed in on McConnell’s refusal to provide additional relief funding to cash-strapped state and local governments, something Collins has sought but without success in the face of opposition from Senate GOP colleagues, many of whom are not up for reelection this year.

The outcomes of those races, combined with the results of reelection bids by vulnerable Republicans like Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, could set the stage for either a string of successes in a potential Biden presidency or another period of congressional gridlock.

A slim Democratic majority, though, would end up igniting a different fight: whether to nix the 60-vote legislative filibuster.

Newly elected presidents have rarely had to deal with a Senate controlled by the rival party during their first two years in office, when one of the most immediate priorities is filling Cabinet posts and other key executive branch positions requiring Senate confirmation.

George H.W. Bush was the last president who had to contend with a Senate controlled by the opposing party during his first months in office. Democrats controlled 55 Senate seats at the start of Bush's term in 1989.

Democrats also controlled the Senate when President Nixon started his first term in 1969 and when President Ford took the oath of office following Nixon's resignation in 1974.

The message Democrats are now hammering home, as evidenced by last week’s convention speeches, is that winning the White House alone won’t be enough to advance Democratic priorities such as providing $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, nearly a trillion dollars in state and local fiscal aid and protecting the status of Roe v. Wade.

“Democrats are proposing a change in what’s going on right now and that includes both defeating Trump and defeating Mitch McConnell as majority leader. We need a government that functions again and it won’t function nearly as well with Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist.

“I think it’s a great rallying cry. From polling I’ve seen, McConnell is at least as unpopular as Donald Trump and maybe more so,” he added. 

He said that argument from Democrats “is being made on the campaign trail in a lot of places.” 

Lux and other strategists believe Democratic voters are paying more attention to the Senate’s role in shaping the composition of the Supreme Court at a time when abortion rights and the 2010 Affordable Care Act are facing serious legal challenges.

A Morning Consult/Politico poll released earlier this month found that a majority — 57 percent — of Democratic voters now say they consider the balance of the Supreme Court “very important” in deciding who to back for president, an increase of 9 points compared to early May. 

“There’s ample evidence on the Senate campaign trail of Mitch McConnell’s legislative graveyard being held against him and also against Republican senators,” said Ben Ray, senior director of campaign communications for EMILY's List, a political action committee dedicated to helping Democratic female candidates.

“Just this week we saw it again. The House passed a significant aid package for the Postal Service to make sure that not just ballots but medication for seniors and veterans can get through” and the Senate failed to take action, he said. 

“The majority leader is content to let that sit in his graveyard along with gun safety bills that 90 percent of Americans support,” Ray added. “Democratic Senate candidates are comfortable talking about this.”

He also cited the argument from Democratic candidates that it could take months for Biden to get his nominees confirmed if Republicans hold their majority. Those delays could extend to Senate action on a Supreme Court nominee if a vacancy were to open up.

The dynamic of a newly elected Democratic president and entrenched Senate GOP majority would put a new twist on McConnell’s decision in 2016 to refuse to hold a confirmation hearing or floor vote for Merrick Garland, former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee.  

A Senate GOP strategist said Republicans stand to improve their odds on Election Day in more conservative leaning states like Georgia, Iowa, Montana and Texas if they highlight how McConnell could be a major obstacle to a Biden on nominees and legislation. 

“As Republican senators are talking to voters, the Senate is seen as backstop to an entire liberal takeover of the federal government,” said the strategist. “It is the firewall.” 

The strategist noted that to secure reelection, Trump will likely have to win in places that have a history of voting Democratic, such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — states where Trump pulled off major upsets in 2016.

“Control over the Senate is going to be brought up on both sides of this race,” said Mark Brewer, a professor of political science at the University of Maine, about the contest between Collins and Gideon.

He said Collins “doesn’t want to come out and say the top of the ticket of my own party is likely to lose the presidential race, but I’m sure she’s telling donors and supporters, ‘Hey look, if you want to have any kind of check of a Democratic presidency and a Democratic House … you need to put me back in the Senate.’” 

Republicans control 53 Senate seats and are heavily favored to defeat Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama. That means Democrats will likely need to pick up at least four Republican-held seats and win the White House to control the Senate with 50 seats. 

To make that happen, Democrats will have to win in states with a history of voting Republican: Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina — more states that Trump won in 2016. While Democrats are favored to knock off Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), the races in Montana and North Carolina are much closer, and Republicans are considered more secure in Iowa and Georgia. 

Given the varied battleground map, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) is emphasizing the qualities of individual candidates over the macro view of the battle for control of the Senate. 

“Democratic Senate candidates will put their constituents first, not a political party, and will be independent voices who do what’s right for their states, from protecting and expanding health care access to delivering more coronavirus relief that helps hardworking families and rebuilds our economy,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the DSCC.