Elizabeth Drew is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall.
With the world mesmerized by the U.S. presidential race, the race for control of Congress has been largely overlooked. But the outcome of the congressional elections could make or break the next president’s agenda.
For all the power a president has, the 100-member Senate determines the fate of international treaties as well as the president’s nominations and legislative proposals. The 435-member House of Representatives does not have as much power as the Senate, but control of the White House, the Senate and the House by the same party could overcome much of the gridlock that has debilitated governance in recent years.
Without party-line elections, Americans can either punish a party (usually the one that has been in charge) by voting against all of its candidates; or fully support a particular party; or split their support by voting for one party’s presidential candidate and another party’s congressional candidates.
Events have moved quickly since the tape emerged of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump bragging about his sexual aggressiveness. Not only have the Democrats’ chances to retake the Senate improved, so, too, have their prospects for retaking the House. Previously, almost no one considered the House to be in play.
Still, winning the House won’t be easy for the Democrats, because congressional districts have been heavily gerrymandered, and Republicans control more of the governorships and state legislatures that oversee that process.
The Democrats must net at least 30 House seats and four Senate seats to retake control of each chamber, respectively. A net Democratic gain of four Senate seats would produce a 50-50 split, in which case, if Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wins, her vice-president, Tim Kaine, would be on hand to break tie votes in the upper chamber.
Senate candidates who have stood apart from Mr. Trump have been faring better than those who have not. When the tape came out, Ohio Senator Rob Portman (along with nine other senators) rescinded his endorsement of Mr. Trump, and he still has a solid hold on his seat. Still, after Trump supporters attacked Republicans who had broken with him, a few re-endorsed him.
It is widely agreed that the top of a ballot influences the votes further down. Although the extent to which this happens isn’t clear, when it happens overwhelmingly, it is known as a “wave election,” as occurred in 1980 when Ronald Reagan trounced Jimmy Carter and helped the Republicans to reclaim the Senate and 34 House seats. Although the Republicans didn’t have formal control of the House, Mr. Reagan effectively had a working majority because many Democrats from the South voted with them.
While a lot may yet happen in this long campaign’s final days, Americans could be heading toward another wave election. Certain Senate races have long been considered in the bag for the Democrats. In Wisconsin, for example, former senator Russ Feingold is decisively ahead of incumbent Senator Ron Johnson, after having narrowly lost to him six years ago; and in Illinois, the GOP has effectively written off gaffe-prone Senator Mark Kirk.
Senate seats in New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere that were considered toss-ups before the Trump tape’s release are now closer to being within the Democrats’ reach. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who ran against Mr. Trump in the primaries, was considered likely to win re-election; now, he’s vulnerable. If there is a wave election, even Republican senators whose seats are still considered safe, such as Arizona’s John McCain, could be toppled.
Even if Senate Republicans do lose in a wave, they could still limit a President Clinton’s agenda by using the filibuster to prevent bills from being voted upon. If Republicans keep control of the House, Speaker Paul Ryan, who may be eyeing the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, might try to co-operate with the president on some issues to show that he can get things done; but highly conservative House Republicans would likely rebel.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court still has only eight members, instead of the usual nine, creating the possibility of split votes on key decisions. Republicans are anxious to keep the court’s ideological complexion intact after the death of conservative Antonin Scalia last February. That is why they have been blocking President Barack Obama’s more liberal nominee, Merrick Garland, since March.
But even if the Democrats come to control the Senate, Republicans could still block a President Clinton’s Supreme Court nominations and policies. And because the Democrats are unlikely to control the House, the prospect for paralysis in Washington remains.
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