The Senate is by far the more important of America’s two legislative chambers. It alone has the right to confirm Presidential appointees, including to the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. It alone can ratify treaties with foreign governments. And it alone can remove a president from office after the House impeaches him. President Trump’s entire agenda – even his survival – depends on continued Republican control.
That control is under threat in the fall’s midterm elections. Republicans control the Senate by just 51-49. A loss of a mere two seats, therefore, would shift control to the Democrats. And that would exacerbate rather than soothe the country’s existing political divisions.
Democratic control of the Senate would make it unlikely that Trump could fill any vacancy within his administration. To date, Democrats have often put up a united front against Trump’s nominees to office, but especially to the Cabinet. If they kept that up, Trump would eventually run out of political appointees able to set the direction of the country.
That in turn would set up a massive battle for public opinion between Trump fans and foes. Trump foes would exult in bringing the tyrant to heel; Trump fans would say this is denying the will of the people by preventing an elected president from doing his job. Each would paint the other in the most nefarious of terms, further poisoning the body politic.
Democrats could avoid that if some Senators broke ranks and joined with Republicans to confirm enough appointees to keep the government running. But that would then exacerbate tensions within the Democratic party. Their ideological left wants the party leadership to ‘resist’: if Trump’s agenda went forward because of Democratic votes, the base would become even more motivated to take over the party apparatus and ensure the 2020 nominee was beholden only to them.
Senate leaders could in turn try to assuage the base with a series of hearings designed to tie the administration in knots, by constantly forcing them to respond to Congressional subpoenas and inquiry. That too, however, carries its risks. Trump fans will again feel the slow march of a silent coup. And if those inquiries unearthed issues that the Democratic base disliked, calls for impeachment of lower officials or cabinet officers might follow.
This would be unprecedented, but then we seem to live in unprecedented times. Already 71% of Democrats favour impeaching President Trump. There is no reason to think support for impeachment would be any lower for lesser officials.
With the stakes so high, it’s no surprise the parties are mobilising to fight. America’s wide open political system permits official campaigning to go on for months, with most communication with voters taking place via expensive television adverts. With one notable exception, the road ahead will be Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, but long.
Senate control will be determined by individual, first-past-the-post elections. Each state is represented by two Senators (100 in total), but only one-third of the total is up for election every two years. This year that places Democrats at a severe disadvantage: they hold 26 of those 35 seats, and ten of them represent states that voted for Trump in 2016, and five backed Trump by a minimum of 18%.1
But while the math may seem to favour the Republicans, Trump’s continued unpopularity gives many of these Democrats a fighting chance. According to the Morning Consult’s monthly poll of Trump’s approval rating in each state, Trump gets barely more than 50% approval in four of the Democratic-held states he carried by large margins just two years ago. Democrats in these states will find it much easier to pick off a few Trump backers and secure their re-election.
The polls for these seats bear this out. Democrats are leading, or only a bit behind, in each of the five states Trump carried by 18% or more. They are also well ahead in four of the other races in states Trump won, with only Florida’s race currently rated a toss-up. If the Democrats win five of these six races, they have a shot at taking control.
That’s because Democrats are serious challengers in three states currently occupied by Republicans: Nevada, Arizona, and Tennessee. Nevada is the most likely of these to turn Democratic. It has not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 2004: Hillary Clinton beat Trump here by 2.5% and Republican incumbent Dean Heller is polling about 41% in recent polls.
This makes the other two states of crucial import. Each typically elects Republicans, yet Democrats are leading in the polls. That may well change. But among educated, affluent voters Trump is a drag on the Republican ticket – and each state has plenty of them. If his approval ratings drop even a little, those states might just fall.
Most observers still think Democrats will find it difficult to win back Senate control because so many things must break their way. But if they do, America’s political civil war will get much, much worse.
American presidents have recovered after suffering dramatic losses in first-term midterm elections. Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost control of the House and the Senate in 1994, yet he was easily re-elected just two years later. In 2010, Barack Obama’s party was on the losing end of the worst first-term midterm defeat since 1930, then went on to win re-election in 2012. But in each case, the president’s domestic agenda was largely set aside, and the resultant political maneuvering weakened the president overseas until he was re-elected.
Loss of the House of Representatives would be bad enough for President Trump. Loss of the Senate could be disastrous, placing him under extreme scrutiny and potentially tying up his next two years with Congressional investigations or impeachment. That would make America’s already potent divides even deeper.