Washington Wednesday – Battle for Senate control

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday the 22nd of July, 2020.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. 

First up … Washington Wednesday.

The race for the White House will certainly get the most attention during the next four months. But it’s not the only battle Democrats are waging to regain political power.

REICHARD: In 20-18, Democrats took control of the U.S. House with a commanding majority. They’re hoping to repeat that victory this year in the Senate. To pull it off, party leaders are focused on just a few very competitive contests.

Joining us now to talk about these hotly contested races is Jamie Dean. She’s WORLD’s national editor and a veteran political campaign reporter. Good morning, Jamie!

JAMIE DEAN, GUEST: Good morning, Mary.

REICHARD: Let’s start with some basic math. Where does the Senate stand now, and what would Democrats need to do to win control in November?

DEAN: The Republican Party currently holds a majority in the Senate: 53-47. So if Democrats win three seats in November, they would achieve a 50-50 tie. And that would be with the hopes that a Democratic vice president would break any impasse on voting.

But Democrats are preparing for the likelihood of losing a seat in Alabama, so the party would need to flip four GOP seats (and win the White House) to achieve the same result.

REICHARD: Okay, what if President Trump wins the presidency?

DEAN: In that case, Democrats would need to flip five seats—if they lose Alabama—to achieve an outright majority. Now that scenario (Trump winning the presidency while the GOP loses the Senate) is possible but seems pretty unlikely.

So Democrats are really focusing on winning at least four seats.

The good news for Democrats is that the GOP has more ground to protect: Twenty-three Republican seats are up for grabs this fall. Democrats are defending only 12 spots. But only a handful of all those seats are considered potential swing states that could be in play.

REICHARD: You mentioned Alabama being the one seat Democrats are likely to lose. Remind us what’s going on there.

DEAN: Democratic Senator Doug Jones is up for reelection in Alabama. Jones first took the seat nearly three years ago in an unusual victory.

In 2017, Alabama held a special election after Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions left that post to become the U.S. attorney general. A Democrat had not held a Senate seat in Alabama since 1997, but Jones prevailed over Republican Roy Moore.

Moore was the former chief justice of Alabama, and he looked poised to win the race until he faced sexual misconduct allegations from years earlier. Moore denied those accusations, but Jones won by about 2 percentage points.

Democrats aren’t expecting a similar blip this fall: Jones’ approval rating hovers around 41 percent, and President Trump is popular in the state.

In an electoral twist, Sessions returned to run for his old seat this year, but Trump backed former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville over his former attorney general. Tuberville easily beat Sessions earlier this month in the primary, he’s slated to face off against Jones.

REICHARD: Do Republicans have any other seats they hope to pick up?

DEAN: They’ve had their eye on Michigan. The GOP has had high hopes for Republican candidate John James to defeat Democratic Sen. Gary Peters. James is an African American business owner and a combat veteran and has been considered a rising star in the Republican Party. He lost a surprisingly competitive Senate race in 2018, so this time around he’s running with a higher name recognition.

And he’s running in a state Trump narrowly won: In 2016, Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee to prevail in Michigan since 1988. The president’s prospects in the state are less clear this cycle (he’s trailed Biden in polls this summer). And while James raised more money than his opponent in the first quarter, he’s lagged behind by about 10 percentage points in recent polls.

So Republicans probably won’t strike Michigan off the list, but they’re likely running election scenarios without a Wolverine win.

REICHARD: You said earlier that Democrats are focused on four key seats. They’re the ones pollsters think are most likely to flip. I have a list here, so let’s go through them one by one. First up: Colorado.

DEAN: Colorado appears to be the lowest hanging fruit for Democrats. The state has been moving farther left in recent years: Democratic presidential candidates carried the state in 2008, 2012, and 2016. Democrats gained control of the state Senate in 2018 and retained the governor’s seat as well.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper got into the Senate race after leaving a brief run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner likely faces an uphill battle to keep his seat.

REICHARD: Next up, a state whose long-serving senator seems more and more out of step with the rest of her party.

DEAN: Maine is a fiercely independent state, and Republican Sen. Susan Collins may face a tight contest to keep the seat she’s held since 1997. She faces a Democratic challenge from state House Speaker Sara Gideon.

Collins is the only Republican senator in New England and has largely run on the independent streak that has made her a swing senator when it comes to votes among her Republican colleagues.

She voted to acquit Democratic President Bill Clinton in his 1999 impeachment trial, and she’s flummoxed pro-life advocates with a pro-abortion voting record.

But Collins also cast the pivotal vote to advance Supreme Court Justice Brett Kava­naugh’s nomination, and that’s a move she has since said cost her some votes. It’s difficult to predict how independent voters in Maine will respond to her bid this fall, but Republicans are nervous.

REICHARD: That’s Maine. Now, let’s go to your home state!

DEAN: In North Carolina, the races grow tighter in a closely watched swing state. This is a contest that may turn out to be the most expensive Senate battle this fall. Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is trying to hang on to the seat that he won in 2014.

The president narrowly trails Biden in polls in North Carolina, and Tillis is going to be on the same ballot with a Democratic governor up for reelection, Roy Cooper. And Cooper has enjoyed elevated approval ratings for his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

If those numbers hold, it could make it difficult for Tillis to prevail over Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham in the fall. Tillis has publicly commended Cooper’s response to the pandemic—perhaps a sign his campaign is aware how the governor’s race affects the Senate contest.

REICHARD: Then last on the list, here is Arizona.

DEAN: Arizona seems less likely to be in the most-likely-to-flip category: The state has a Republican governor, and the GOP holds both the state House and Senate chambers. Trump prevailed in Arizona by about 4 percentage points in the 2016 election.

But it’s also a state with an unusual electoral history: Republican Sen. Martha McSally lost her first Senate race against Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. A few weeks later, Gov. Doug Ducey appointed McSally to fill the Senate seat left empty after the death of Republican Sen. John McCain.

This cycle, McSally is running to hold her position against Democrat Mark Kelly. He’s a retired astronaut who raised $11 million in the first three months of 2020. McSally reported raising $6.4 million in the same period and trails Kelly in recent polls.

REICHARD: Ok. So now that we know which races to watch, remind us what’s at stake in the outcome of the Senate election.

DEAN: That partially depends on the outcome of the presidential election. If the GOP does manage to maintain control of the Senate even with a Biden victory, the party could exercise “the power of prevention,” blocking major legislation and judicial appointments.

If Democrats win a narrow Senate victory and a Biden presidency, they would still face difficulty passing some pieces of major legislation: In the Senate, it usually takes overcoming a 60-vote threshold to pass major bills that don’t involve spending.

Democrats did use a process called budget reconciliation to bypass the 60-vote threshold and pass key portions of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans used the process to pass tax cut legislation in 2017.

That means Democrats could try to use that process to pass legislation with spending attached.

REICHARD: What about judicial appointments?

DEAN: Democrats would be able to approve judicial appointments with a simple majority: Democrats changed the Senate rules in 2013 to eliminate the filibuster on federal judicial nominees. In 2017, Republicans changed the rules to allow a simple majority also to proceed on Supreme Court nominations.

The GOP has used that smoother process to confirm a record number of judicial nominees, including two Supreme Court justices.

REICHARD: And what about that so-called “nuclear option” for passing legislation?

DEAN: A handful of Democratic senators have advocated abandoning the 60-vote threshold on major legislation—a move some call “the nuclear option” because of its power to allow a simple majority of the party in power to pass laws far more easily.

In 2018, Trump urged Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to use the “nuclear option” to pass legislation funding a border wall.

But senators on both sides of the aisle have resisted calls to allow a simple majority to gain nearly unfettered power in passing legislation: They realize neither party stays in power forever.

But as the presidential elections approach, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren is leading an effort to push Democrats to abandon the 60-vote threshold if the party wins control of the Senate in November.

Other prominent Democratic senators have said they still don’t favor changing the threshold. But one very notable Democrat has now said he’s open to it: Joe Biden has opposed eliminating the filibuster in the past, but just last week told a group of reporters he may be open to it.

And depending on the political climate next year, it may be tempting: Democrats would only need 51 votes to change the rules.

REICHARD: Well, we’ll keep an eye on that, won’t we? Jamie Dean is WORLD’s national editor. You can read her story about the Senate races in the latest edition of WORLD Magazine. We’ll link to it in today’s transcript. Thanks so much for joining us today!

DEAN: You’re welcome!

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, speaks during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Al Drago/Pool via AP, File)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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