The Senate Must Not Remain In McConnell’s Grip

Sen.+Mitch+McConnell+%28R-Ky.%29+speaks+at+the+U.S.+Capitol+on+June+11%2C+2019%2C+in+Washington%2C+D.C.+At+least+10+judicial+nominees+McConnell+helped+to+block+under+President+Obama+have+been+confirmed+after+Donald+Trumps+election.+%28Alex+Wong%2FGetty+Images%2FTNS%29+%2A%2AFOR+USE+WITH+THIS+STORY+ONLY%2A%2A

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at the U.S. Capitol on June 11, 2019, in Washington, D.C. At least 10 judicial nominees McConnell helped to block under President Obama have been confirmed after Donald Trump’s election. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS) **FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY**

Amanda Wilcox

The Senate is a problem for Democrats.

Tonight, however, when ten of them face off at the third primary debate, that problem may be too easy to forget. After all, visionary progressive agendas and snappy “clap-backs” are what rule the day amidst the political theater of the debate stage.

But as long as Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his Trumpist lackeys hold fast to control of the Senate, the bold ideas that Democrats promise tonight will be dead on arrival. Even if Democrats regain control of the White House — which is not a foregone conclusion — without the Senate in hand, they will lose a longer-term battle against the Republican Party that enabled Trump. There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that any Democratic agenda could survive in McConnell’s Washington.

If Democrats are serious about advancing progressive goals, they must fight for the Senate with every bit of the fierce urgency that they deploy in the fight against Trump. It won’t be easy, and it would be extraordinarily flippant to rely on our presidential candidate’s coattails. Although Democrats will largely be on the offensive, given that Republicans hold 23 of the 35 seats to be contested in 2020, only two are in Democratic-leaning states. To secure 50 seats, which is enough only if Democrats win back the White House (the Vice-President breaks ties), a net three seats will need to flip blue. There would be an added complication if Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont defeated Trump — the Republican governor of the winner’s state would be allowed to appoint an interim senator until a special election could be held.

The urgency with which Senate races should be treated cannot be overstated. Liberal-wing Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are both well into their eighties, and if Trump is elected to a second term and has the unimpeded chance to replace one or both of them, he could almost completely remake our highest court in his Constitution-defying image in the span of his presidency.

On the other hand, if Democrats defeat Trump but do not wrest the Senate from Republicans, McConnell will stop at nothing to paralyze the nascent administration. As Majority Leader, he stole a Supreme Court seat, torpedoed the chamber’s rules to help confirm dangerous right-wing judges and executive branch appointments and abdicated the legislature’s duty as a check on the presidency. Without the White House and the Senate, Democrats might as well forget about making meaningful legislative progress. Far be it from the world’s greatest deliberative body; McConnell’s Senate is where progress goes to die.

Clearly, a Democratic Senate would be the lifeblood of a successful Democratic presidency. I fail to understand, then, why so many Democrats have chosen quixotic presidential bids over Senate campaigns. The Senate is where we need the Beto O’Rourkes of the world; the Senate is where low-polling would-be presidential candidates actually stand a fighting chance of repairing our country and sustaining our democracy. Following the tragic shooting in El Paso this summer, the Houston Chronicle issued a heartfelt plea to the city’s former congressman: “Beto, if you’re listening: Come home,” the newspaper said in an editorial. “Texas needs you.” Thus far, O’Rourke has declined to leave the presidential race, but he still has time. He would do the country a great and selfless service if he launched a primary bid against Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, who shares with McConnell the responsibility of breaking our upper chamber and turning the Senate into an approval factory for Trump’s judicial and administrative nominees. Likewise, Montana Governor Steve Bullock should consider suspending his presidential campaign and starting a run against Sen. Steve Daines. Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ought to be commended for recognizing that his presidential bid was unsustainable and pivoting to a run against the vulnerable Sen. Cory Gardner, turning a likely Republican win into a possible Democratic one. O’Rourke and Bullock would likely have the country behind them if they followed Hickenlooper’s lead.

The good news is that there are some openings for Democrats — so long as the national party leadership commits to pouring its heart and soul into those races. In Arizona, Sen. Martha McSally will have to re-run a race she lost in 2018 (after she was defeated by Democrat Kyrsten Sinema for former Sen. Jeff Flake’s open seat, she was appointed by Arizona’s Republican governor to serve out the remainder of the late John McCain’s term). McSally will face off against retired astronaut and gun control activist Mark Kelly, husband to former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was shot in the head at a campaign event in Tucson in 2011. Kelly has been outraising McSally and is well-liked; the race is within reach for Democrats even in ruby-red Arizona. In addition, in Maine, Sen. Susan Collins is underwater. She has incensed both sides of the political spectrum, as Republicans are furious with her pivotal nay vote in 2017 on the GOP bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats still seethe over her yea votes on the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act and the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. Her opponent, Maine Speaker of the House Sarah Gideon, is seen as formidable.

Other challenges and opportunities for Democrats will include holding on to Sen. Doug Jones’ seat in Alabama; in 2017 Jones barely scraped a victory in a special election against an accused child molester. In addition, with the simultaneous re-election bid of Sen. David Perdue and the departure of Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia will have two seats in play in a state that is trending blue. Here in swing state North Carolina, former state lawmaker Cal Cunningham could have a fighting chance given Sen. Thom Tillis’ unpopularity.

To be sure, there are many fronts on which the battle against Trumpism can be fought. Much will be lost if the Senate is dismissed as one of those fighting grounds. The so-called greatest deliberative body in the world could be so again one day — but at the moment, the Senate needs saving, and the Democrats have their work cut out for them.