All Eyes on the U.S. Senate Prize in 2020 – “Sunday Political Brunch” - July 28, 2019

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CHARLESTON, W. Va. – There is a temptation to write about Robert Mueller’s testimony this week but, a) everyone else is writing about it, and, b) he really didn’t offer anything new, and there was certainly no bombshell testimony. Instead, I’m keeping an eye on what I believe is a bigger story concerning the 2020 election, and that is who will control the U.S. Senate? Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“By the Numbers” – Right now Republicans control the U.S. Senate 53 to 47. They made gains in the 2018 election when Democrats were defending 26 seats, while Republicans had to defend only nine. It was a big advantage for Republicans, because the fewer seats you must defend, the less vulnerable your majority. Fast forward to 2020 and Republicans have the exact opposite problem. They are defending 22 seats, while Democrats are defending just 12. A net gain of four seats (or even just three), will put the Democrats in charge. That would be huge politically. Think Barack Obama in 2008, when Democrats won the White House, House and Senate. That’s how they got the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” passed in 2010.

“Divided Government” – Certainly another scenario is that President Trump wins reelection, his party keeps the Senate, but Democrats hold the House (our landscape now). Two possibilities occur here: gridlock where nothing gets done, or meaningful compromise on issues such as immigration reform. Another scenario is Trump wins reelection, Democrats hold the House and take control of the Senate (a real possibility). Under that scenario, you’d see more Executive Orders, more foreign travel and focus (where Congress has a weak voice), and probably no meaningful joint White House-Congressional domestic legislation.

“Safety in Numbers” – Incumbency, (based on name recognition), is really the strongest weapon in politics. Incumbents in both parties usually win about 96 percent of the time. With that in mind, various polls are ranking 16 of the 34 Senate races as “safe” for the incumbents, which includes 10 Republicans and six Democrats. Among the most vulnerable seats are where an incumbent retires and gives up a safe seat. In 2020 Republicans are vacating seats in Tennessee and Kansas, while an incumbent Democrat in New Mexico is giving up a safe seat.

“Unsafe at Any Speed” – I spoke about the strength of incumbency, but when is an incumbent the most vulnerable? The answer is after just one term. That’s especially true in the House of Representatives, but it can play that way in the Senate, too. Voters often “kick the tires” in the first term and if they don’t like the result, an incumbent can be toast! Again, this favors Democrats in 2020 because seven Republicans up for reelection are just finishing their first terms, whereas only three Democrats are first-termers. Now, once you win a second term you can probably be in Congress for life if you avoid scandal!

“What if I Get Promoted?” – Believe it or not, seven sitting Democratic U.S. Senators are running for president right now. That’s 14 percent of the party’s caucus. Why is this important? Well, it’s possible some of these senators could be elected president, vice president, or both. If that happens, the governor in most states has the power to replace the senator by appointment. If Sen. Kamala Harris (D) California wins, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) California will surely pick a fellow Democrat to replace Harris in the Senate. But what if Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D) Massachusetts is elected president or vice president? Well, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) Massachusetts is free to pick a fellow Republican to replace Democrat Warren in the Senate. This complicates the balance of power even further.

“Fuzzy, but Fun Math!” – Okay, this is about to get fun! CNBC did a great article about the nine most vulnerable U.S. Senators in 2020. It’s worth a read: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/21/top-senate-races-in-2020-election-includ... I post this because three of the most vulnerable are Democrats, while six are Republican. Let’s just assume the opposing party wins each race, and all other races stay status quo in terms of party. Guess what, that would give us a 50-50 split in the U.S. Senate!

“Why All of this Matters?” – If we have a 50-50 tie in the U.S. Senate, the party that wins the White House also controls the Senate! That’s because according to the Constitution, the Vice President of the United States is also President of the U.S. Senate. The VP is the tie-breaker, and in that case the party in power appoints all committee chairs and controls the calendar and agenda. Folks, this is a very real possibility next year. Democrats can control the Senate with just a net gain of three seats, plus they must win the presidential race. A lot is at stake!

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is Chief Political Reporter for the five Nexstar Media TV stations serving West Virginia, its five surrounding states and most of the Washington, D.C. television market. He is a National Contributing Writer for the White House Patch at www.Patch.com.

© 2019, Mark Curtis media, LLC

Photo courtesy: C-SPAN.org

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