TPM Cafe: Opinion

The Consequences Of An All-Too-Likely Republican Senate

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AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz sums up the conventional wisdom by saying that the Republicans hold “an enviable but not yet commanding position.” Observers across the board agree that the Republican chances of winning a majority are a little better than even.

The reasons for this are many and overlapping. President Obama’s approval ratings don’t look great. The map is weighted heavily toward smaller and redder states, with more Democrats than Republicans running thanks to an excellent blue year in 2008. Normal midterm dynamics tend to favor the incumbent President’s opposition, especially when people are as discontented as they are now, and turnout rates usually make for an older and whiter electorate.

To be sure, I wouldn’t bet against a GOP majority, but I wouldn’t bet a whole lot on it, either.

All of the things that make it a good year for them and a bad year for Democrats are already in place: the bad map, the usual midterm patterns, and Obama’s approval are “known knowns,” to quote Donald Rumsfeld. And yet in spite of all that, the Senate isn’t a foregone conclusion. Democratic incumbents in dangerous seats are staying competitive enough to potentially wind up on top when the dust clears. Democratic field efforts have often proven effective in pulling their candidates across the finish line in close races.

And please, let’s stop pretending that the map is bigger than it is. Dan Balz’ take on the GOP Senate chances names states like New Hampshire and Virginia as within the Republican grasp, but the only the way those wind up in the mix is a shake-up on the level of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen cooking and eating Sen. Mark Warner live on C-SPAN.

That said, though the GOP may not get a big wave, they don’t need one. They have the right opportunities in the right places and it could be enough. There’s no need to ask anymore, “Can Republicans win the Senate?” The more important question is, “What happens if and when they do?”

We don’t need to jump to any big conclusions to say what a Republican Senate would do. We just need to look to the other side of the Capitol, where Republican control of the House provides a model.

Any hypothetical GOP Senate majority would include multiple current GOP House members. Rep. Steve Daines is running for a Democratic Senate seat in Montana, as are Reps. Shelley Moore Capito in West Virginia, Tom Cotton in Arkansas, Bill Cassidy in Louisiana, and Cory Gardner in Colorado. These represent five of the six pickups the Republicans need to win the majority, and they’re all polling close to or ahead of Democratic opponents.

So you don’t need to speculate about what their legislative priorities would look like. We’ve seen their votes.

Those votes include the Paul Ryan budget with its huge cuts to safety-net programs and fundamental changes to Medicare. It includes a bevy of limits on access to abortion and birth control, harsh and punitive measures aimed at immigrants and lower-income people who get public assistance, and repeated attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in its entirety. And it includes a whole lot of ideological grandstanding, including, most recently, the attempt to sue the President. Thanks to the need to negotiate with a Democratic Senate, the House Republicans’ worst impulses are constrained, at the moment.

A case study for what bigger Republican legislative majorities are likely to do comes out of North Carolina, where Thom Tillis, the Speaker of the state House, is in a very close race against Sen. Kay Hagan. There, unified Republican control resulted in policies that massively redistribute power from poorer to richer, including unemployment insurance cuts, restrictions on voting rights, and a shift in the tax burden from income to sales taxes. Other Republican state legislatures, including Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kansas, have used the power they emerged with after 2010 to pursue ideological pet projects.

John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy are the ostensible leaders of the House Republicans. The agenda for the caucus, though, is set by its rightmost members. This bloc has frequently thrown D.C. into chaos, scuttling Boehner’s efforts at deal-making and pulling policy to the right. A Republican Senate majority would face similar pressures. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas is working to build himself into the leader of the hard Republican right in Washington, driving the October 2013 shutdown and helping organize resistance to Boehner’s proposed border bill. What would he attempt to do as part of a Senate majority?

GOP control of the House has meant a weaker economy. Standoffs over government funding and the debt ceiling are routine. The 2011 debt-ceiling fight led to completely unnecessary sequestration cuts. We’ve seen chaos in federal contracts and furloughs for federal employees. “Cut and grow” economics has been a sick joke. Food stamps have been cut and unemployment insurance extensions have lapsed. Time and time again, Republicans have thrown anchors to the recovery.

The next debt ceiling increase is expected to be necessary on March 15, 2015. Mitch McConnell has already committed thoroughly to the lie that raising the debt ceiling is a favor to Obama that requires concessions on Obama’s part. What will be the ransom demands next time?

No discussion of a switch of Senate majority is complete without touching on the subject of nominations. We’ve already seen a Republican minority use the filibuster to stall or block nominations across the executive branch. They even used that power in an attempt to temporarily nullify labor law and financial reform, by blocking NLRB and CFPB appointees. If the GOP takes over, it will essentially put an end to President Obama’s ability to fill vacant positions in his administration — not to mention the federal judiciary, where we’ll see more cases relating to health care, climate, marriage equality and workplace rights.

November may not even be the end for the struggle over a Senate majority. Both Louisiana and Georgia require run-offs if no candidate gets a majority on Election Day, and the presence of multiple candidates makes it quite likely that one or both of these races will stretch into extra weeks. It’s actually pretty easy to come up with scenarios in which either Republicans or Democrats have clinched the majority before Georgia and Louisiana are decided — and just as easy to come up with scenarios in which the majority isn’t decided.

Some suggest that control of both houses of Congress will make Republican act more responsibly, with fewer scorched-earth tactics and forced standoffs, and more reining-in of the wild right wing. When you look around, you have to wonder where in the world the evidence for this theory comes from. Republican control of the U.S. House and of state legislative bodies shouldn’t give observers a lot of cause for optimism.

For pure entertainment value, it’s hard to beat the 2014 Senate races. It stops being fun once you realize how big the policy consequences are.

Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He's on Twitter as @sethdmichaels.