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What’s more powerful than Trump?

Trump needs to keep the Senate on his side. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Trump needs to keep the Senate on his side. Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

July 15, 2019   5 mins

There is a hugely important election in the United States next year. But it’s not the one you’re thinking of. This one could limit the power of the Trump second term to the point of impeachment, or enable a President Warren to destroy Facebook and introduce a USA NHS while packing the Supreme Court with social liberals – and the world is ignoring it.

It’s the Senate, stupid. The Senate is the key to everything. And it’s currently on a knife-edge. The Republicans control it at the moment, but a majority for the Democrats, winnable next year, would transform US politics, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. And among those accusing the Democratic party of chaotic, un-strategic thinking are many of its Washington-savvy supporters who understand that while the White House is nice to have, the Senate is essential.

What an odd body the Senate is. Because only a third of members are up for election in any one poll, it is the result, at any point in history, of three elections held at different times and in diverse political circumstances. And because Senators sit for six years they are not bound by the rules that affect all other American politicians. As a result, this is an institution that – how shall we put this? – does not wear its dignity lightly. The place drips with ‘noblest Roman’ hauteur.

Visit a Senator if you ever can. In outer offices, young staffers keep the outside world at bay. Inner offices reveal West-wing style hard men and hard women doing deals with their counterparts in other offices or with White House staffers or foreign ambassadors.  And then, if you can find it, there is a further room where The Senator sits. The wall will be decorated with photos taken with presidents, popes, Olympic athletes. I remember my friend Mark Kirk, the Illinois Senator and Navy reservist (we’d known each other since London School of Economics days) sitting under a picture of himself in full military dress uniform with President George W Bush pretending to flick fluff off the collar like some playful Jermyn Street tailor.

They have made it, these Senators. They wield power. These hundred men and women have the duty to conduct impeachment trials, to ratify foreign treaties, to confirm presidential appointments, to defeat legislation and to investigate any aspect of American life that they decide needs investigation.

So here is the challenge for the Democrats next year.

Of the 34 Senate contests in 2020, Republicans are defending 22 seats, while 12 are held by Democrats. They need a net gain of 3 seats to win a Senate majority if the Democrats win the White House (the Vice President has a casting vote) or 4 if Trump wins re-election.

On the downside for Democrats only three Republican held states – Colorado, Arizona, and Maine – look truly winnable, according to the non-partisan and magisterial Cook Political Report. And a Democratic seat in Alabama may well be lost.

But on the upside for Democrats their opponents seem to suffer from Trump induced hubris when it comes to the choice of candidates – if Republican voters again nominate Judge Roy Moore, the accused sexual assaulter allegedly once banned from shopping malls because of his liking for young girls, then Alabama might remain in Democratic hands. There are some other states too where the choice of Republican candidate could have a negative impact.

But, oh dear, this is where the Democrats are letting themselves down. Take two states that the Cook Report does not think are winnable but could be if the Democrats were more serious: Montana and Texas.

Why, oh why, thoughtful Democrats are crying, should we have to have the two men who could win these seats frittering away their time and money on presidential runs that are on the extreme end of quixotic? Remember that in Texas, Beto O’Rourke made Democrats believe winning statewide was possible for the first time in ages when he lost to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz by just 2 points in 2018. But now O’Rouke is running for president — and polling at 2%. He could win Texas; he will not win the White House.

Similarly, in Montana, Governor Steve Bullock could win the state for the Democrats. Indeed, he has proved he can win by being a successful Governor. But he too is running for president. His polling average is described as “a tad over zero”.

And it gets worse. A man called Tom Steyer – a billionaire – has announced a presidential run for the Democrats and pledged 100 million dollars of his own money in the fight for the nomination. For context: that’s about half what Hillary Clinton raised and spent in her primary campaign in 2016. It’s a big sum even in American politics.

So why not spend it – for crying out loud – on the Senate races the party has to win? Tom Steyer is never in a hundred million years going to get the nomination. He is a 62-year-old white guy who runs a hedge fund.

There is a more profound reason why all this matters. It looks as if the Democrats don’t want to run for the Senate because, in their heart of hearts, they have given up on the institution. It represents what they hate about modern America. It is out of kilter with their view of where the nation should go. So they can summon little enthusiasm for being there.

They have a point. Another of the oddities of the Senate is that two Senators are chosen by each state – the 40 million people of huge diverse California get to choose two but so does tiny Maine and sparsely populated Wyoming where 600,000 people are eligible to vote. A person in Wyoming has 67 times the voting power of one in California.

This is a break on social progress – Democrats would argue – because it gives power to the places where few people live and reduces the power of the populated spaces of America – the places where the massed ranks of woke folk are dreaming their dreams of public transport or gun control or other freakish un-American plots. These are the big cities, such as San Francisco and New York. Everything is happening in them except the accretion of political power.

And in the age of Trump, race once again matters. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia says that by 2040 just half the country’s population will control 84 of the 100 seats in the Senate.

That is racially explosive – if race is still a political factor as it has been under Trump – because although white people will probably be a minority nationally they will still be a majority in most of these states. So the states where most non-white people live – California being the obvious example – will be heavily populated but few in number and so in most states the white majority will last much longer than it will nationally.

Of course, the Democrats could still win those states by saying and doing the kind of things that appeal to white people; keep them in the tent. Talk more about class than race. But look at the row going on right now in the House of Representatives between the modern progressive wing of the party led by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the old guard represented by Nancy Pelosi, with accusations of racism flying around even between Left-wing Democrats, and you get the impression that this is not a party about to mount a campaign to charm cowboys in Wyoming.

But that means losing. Losing Wyoming. And in the electoral cycle losing Alabama, losing Montana. Losing the ability to get a majority in the senate and so losing the ability to change America whosoever is president. It’s really as simple as that.

In the longer term, the United States is almost certainly going to face some huge constitutional upheaval – perhaps the creation of more states. But that’s not the issue now. The issue now is winning the Senate. And the Democrats being properly up for the task. At the moment, they are not. Come January 2021, on presidential inauguration day, they will almost certainly regret it.

Justin Webb presents the Americast podcast and Today on Radio Four. His Panorama documentary “Trump the Sequel”, is available now on  Iplayer


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