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OPINION

Dems’ chances of taking Senate improve with Isakson's announcement

By PAUL WALDMAN | The Washington Post | Published: August 29, 2019

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., recently announced that because of health concerns, he will retire from the Senate at the end of 2019. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the fate of the republic could rest on what happens in Georgia next November, and the chance that a Democratic president could actually implement their agenda just got significantly better.

There was already going to be one Senate race on the Georgia ballot in 2020, as David Perdue is up for reelection. The state is one of a few that have been solidly Republican in recent years but have been moving away from the GOP year by year as they grow more diverse, a list that includes Arizona and Texas.

President Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney in Georgia by 8 points despite winning easily nationwide in 2012, while Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump there by only 5 in 2016. In 2018, Stacey Abrams lost to now-Gov. Brian Kemp by only 1.4 points, in an election marked by allegations of widespread voter suppression on the part of Kemp, who just happened to be the state’s chief election official at the time.

The potential for chicanery hasn’t disappeared by any stretch. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution just published an investigation into irregularities in the 2018 election, including bizarrely anomalous results in certain precincts (which for some reason benefited Republicans — go figure), and the fact that there was an inexplicable drop-off in votes for the lieutenant governor race.

“Even though it was the second race on the ballot, fewer votes were counted for lieutenant governor than for labor commissioner, insurance commissioner and every other statewide contest lower on the ballot,” the report reads.

Naturally, the Republican secretary of state has refused to open an official investigation. And the state is one of a few whose election machines still produce no paper trail.

There’s no way to tell this early how next year’s elections in Georgia will turn out, since we don’t know who either Democratic nominee will be or what Republican will be running for Isakson’s seat (though Abrams has made clear she is not running). But given the trend in the state, and given the possibility of huge turnout driven by the presidential race — especially among Democrats angry at President Donald Trump — these races will almost certainly be highly competitive. And given the realities of partisan polarization, there probably won’t be much ticket-splitting, so one party will probably win both seats.

All else being equal, that’s more likely to be Republicans. But just imagine for a moment that Democrats pull off those wins, since all things may not wind up being equal. Where would that put them? Let’s look at the national picture.

Right now, Republicans have a 53-47 advantage in the Senate. But next year they’ll have to defend 23 seats, while Democrats will be defending only 12. However, the number of actually competitive races is much smaller. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, for instance, lists only three races as true toss-ups, in Arizona, Colorado and Alabama. If Democrats won all three, Republicans would still be in control by 51-49, since the Alabama seat is held by Doug Jones, a Democrat.

But there are a number of other possibilities for Democratic pickups. In Maine, Sen. Susan Collins is facing what will probably be the toughest race of her career. North Carolina and Iowa are possible for Democrats, though the odds are a little longer.

Other states like Texas might come into play if Trump is headed for a historic beating. But reasonable expectations are that there are five possible Democratic pickups (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, North Carolina and Iowa) — and Georgia makes six. At the moment, no Democratic incumbent looks to be in real danger.

In order to win three or more of those seats to get to at least a 50-50 Senate, it will have to be a great election for Democrats and a terrible one for Republicans. With Democratic candidates routinely beating Trump by double digits in current polling, that looks like a genuine possibility.

Here’s why this is so important: It’s almost impossible to overstate how much the fate of the next president rests on who controls the Senate. If the Democratic nominee beats Trump and Democrats take the Senate, then they’ll at least have a chance to enact their agenda: health care reform, action on climate change, increasing the minimum wage, and so much more. If Republicans hold the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will do exactly what he did to Obama: obstruct everything.

He’ll also — I promise you — simply refuse to allow a Democratic president to fill any vacancies on the Supreme Court, and perhaps lower courts as well. He may demand that in the name of bipartisanship only Republicans will be allowed to lead Cabinet departments; he’ll just refuse to hold confirmation votes for any Democratic secretaries the president might appoint. He will make it impossible for that Democratic president to govern. If you thought it was bad when Obama was president, just you wait.

The only way that future won’t come to pass is if Democrats can find their way to a three-seat net gain in the Senate in 2020. Now that another seat will be opening up, at least they have a chance.

Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Washington Post’s Plum Line blog, and a senior writer at The American Prospect.

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