As Democrats watched their opportunities to take back the Senate evaporate one by one Tuesday night, an increasingly likely future came into focus: President Joe Biden could take the White House, but Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would keep hold of the Senate.
Biden doesn’t have the White House locked down quite yet, though he appears to have bagged Wisconsin and Arizona, and the outstanding vote in Michigan looks encouraging for him. Pennsylvania and maybe even Georgia may come through as well. And Democrats could maybe, possibly, conceivably counterbalance big, likely Senate losses in North Carolina and Maine by pushing the second Georgia Senate race to a January runoff like the first, and over-performing in the final round of both.
But from the viewpoint of Wednesday afternoon, a White House-Senate split looks likely. That’s bad news for Democrats who dreamed of a Biden presidency with a robust, lasting legacy.
The View From Here
“We’re still waiting for final numbers, but based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s gonna be very difficult to imagine getting much of the progressive wishlist out there through the Senate anytime soon,” Jim Manley, former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the Senate Democratic caucus, told TPM. “Obviously they’re gonna try, but if anyone thinks Mitch McConnell is gonna be willing to compromise, they need to get their head examined.”
Just days ago, bolstered by what now looks like over-optimistic polling projecting a Democratic majority in the Senate, many veterans of the chamber and progressive groups alike were laser-focused on advocating for the elimination of the filibuster. With that institutional barrier hypothetically dismantled, reformers’ heads were filled with visions of democratic and voting reforms, climate change legislation, health care expansion.
Now, they’re predicting four years of obstruction at the hands of McConnell and the GOP, where Democrats may have to woo a few Republicans every time they want to get anything done.
“President Biden would likely try to mount a charm offensive to win over the few Republican Senators who pass for moderate these days, but those so-called moderates have little influence in their increasingly right-wing caucus,” Bill Dauster, Reid’s former deputy chief of staff and a 30-year Senate veteran, told TPM.
If Senate Republicans refuse to cooperate — they made obstinance their trademark during the Obama years — President Biden would have to get creative.
He’d likely have to make ample use of executive orders, as Obama did, and do so very carefully to avoid his actions being challenged and sent up to the now-extremely conservative Supreme Court. Dauster suggested that Biden may turn his attention overseas, to repair some of the damage done by Trump in an arena less hindered by a hostile Republican caucus.
But those are scant silver linings compared to the prospect of the House-Senate-White House juggernaut Democrats were salivating over just days ago.
“The Senate,” Dauster predicted, “would continue to be the place where good ideas go to die.”
What Went Wrong
Going into Election Day, polls looked good for Democrats and models interpreting them from both FiveThirtyEight and The Economist had the party’s chances of winning the Senate above 70 percent. Candidates like Democrats Cal Cunningham in North Carolina and Sara Gideon in Maine were slight favorites to topple the Republican incumbents, smoothing Democrats’ easiest path to a four-seat pickup. (Even the wide-eyed and hopeful Democrats of Monday predicted Alabama Sen. Doug Collins’ loss.)
Those prospects soured relatively early Tuesday night, as Cunningham cratered in North Carolina. Maine dragged out a little longer, with Gideon conceding to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), one of the Democrats’ top targets, Wednesday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the Republican incumbents triumphed in Iowa and Montana, essentially tearing down Democrats’ safety net. Democrats did flip seats in Colorado and Arizona, so far collecting a net yield of one seat.
These results, so baffling to Democrats confident in winning at least a bare majority earlier this week, may just be a byproduct of one simple factor: President Donald Trump exceeded expectations, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia.
“Trump ended up doing fine in the red states that had Senate races, and that was more than enough for the reach targets to win,” he told TPM. “In the end, the map reverted to the key races that we’ve been looking at for much of the whole cycle — Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina. It seemed like Democrats had to sweep these to win, and it appears that they will fall short.”
With Trump running well enough ahead in those red states, Democrats would have to put their hopes in ticket-splitting voters, who might choose the President at the top but temper that pick by opting for the Democratic Senate challenger down below. There was hope that the electorate might follow Montana’s quirky example from 2016, when the state reelected Gov. Steve Bullock (D) while going for Trump in huge numbers in 2016.
But ticket-splitters, like anti-Trump Republicans and compromising senators, are a dying breed.
“Fewer voters now split their tickets than once did,” Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told TPM. That means that in general, where goes the top of the ticket goes the bottom.
And when there is ticket-splitting, she added, it’s usually done by politically informed voters when they expect one party to win the presidency.
“So, this year, we may have seen some politically informed voters expect that Biden would win and then vote for Republican Senate candidates down ballot,” she said. “This would help explain, for example, what seems to be happening in Maine.” Biden easily scooped up Maine with a nine percent vote margin, while Collins retained her seat.
But whatever the ultimate diagnosis of Democrats’ likely great swing and miss at recapturing the Senate, the future with Biden in the White House and McConnell leading the Senate would be much easier to divine.
“President Biden’s election would provide a welcome relief from the daily trauma of President Trump’s tenure,” Dauster said, “but without a cooperative Senate, the Biden Presidency would likely fall short of the hopes that progressives had for real change.”