It’s looking pretty good for Joe Biden. Polls have been putting the presumptive Democratic nominee well ahead of President Trump in the 2020 campaign, and a New York Times survey in late June saw Biden opening up a comfortable lead in each of the half-dozen battleground states that will decide things in November. But before Democrats start making too many plans for undoing the damage done by four years of Donald Trump, let alone for the “big structural change” that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and other progressives propose, they need to consider an unfortunate truth.
If Biden is elected but Republicans maintain control of the Senate, he will enter office as a lame-duck president. After the inaugural celebrations are done, Biden will settle into a dysfunctional relationship in which Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will determine precisely how ambitious his agenda can be. “If we remove Trump but we don’t remove McConnell, people need to understand how frustrating that will be,” says People for the American Way president Ben Jealous. “What good will a new president be if we can’t get new laws passed?”
This prospect is so depressing that Democrats do not rush to discuss it. They focus on the feel-good politics of a presidential race that seems to be going well rather than the stark reality that ending mass unemployment, expanding health care, addressing the climate crisis, and implementing genuine criminal justice reform will be all but impossible with a Republican-led Senate.
Democrats need to confront this reality. In a moment of tremendous instability and potential for progress, old expectations about what is possible have to be discarded in favor of a sense of mission that seeks to mobilize new voters and increase turnout everywhere. A winning strategy for November has to be grounded in a deep recognition of the fact that the combination of a Democratic president and a Republican Senate is fraught with peril. “A capable Senate minority leader who is opposed to the president can cause a lot of problems for that president,” says Rebecca Katz, who served as a top aide to former Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “A capable Senate majority leader can stop almost anything.”
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Like it or not, McConnell is capable. The most honest political history of the 2010s would be a biography of the Kentucky Republican, whose mastery of the Senate’s rules and politics has enabled him to disempower an honorable Democratic president and to empower a dishonorable Republican one. McConnell is the reason Judge Merrick Garland is not on the Supreme Court, while Brett Kavanaugh is busy tipping the balance to the right on 5-4 decisions. And the high court is just the tip of the iceberg. When McConnell appeared on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show last year, the two men talked about the federal courts. “I was shocked that former President Obama left so many vacancies and didn’t try to fill those positions,” Hannity said. McConnell chortled in response. “I’ll tell you why,” he said. “I was in charge of what we did the last two years of the Obama administration.” The Senate majority leader maintained his grip on power after Trump’s inauguration, steering the new president’s rogues’ gallery of judicial picks through the confirmation process and then ensuring that Trump had nothing to fear even after Democrats took control of the House and made a credible case for impeachment. “Let’s be very clear,” says Robert Reich, a labor secretary under Bill Clinton, “Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans are sacrificing the world’s greatest deliberative body to serve their Dear Leader.”
If Trump is defeated while McConnell retains his seat and remains majority leader, the Kentuckian will no longer have to provide cover for an erratic president, but that doesn’t mean proper order—as least as it is understood in civics books—will be restored. Even before Trump began remaking the Republican Party in his image, McConnell had remade the Senate GOP as a fully owned subsidiary of the corporate interests and billionaire donors that fund campaigns. That’s not going to change if Biden is elected, despite the dim-witted fantasy the former vice president entertains about sitting down with a former Senate colleague to work things out.
McConnell and the Senate Republicans will put the brakes on every meaningful policy initiative that Biden advances. Hundreds of measures that have been approved by the House since the Democrats took over in January 2019—including the Heroes Act package of Covid-19 relief measures that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues passed in May—have been laid to rest in what Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer describes as “Leader McConnell’s legislative graveyard.” The Republican lawmaker and his cadre of obedient partisans have made it perfectly clear time and again that they will not be moved by the fact that a legislative initiative is essential.
The challenges that a President Biden will face on Day One—pandemic surges, mass unemployment, a climate crisis, and demands for racial justice—are daunting enough. The prospect of seeking to address them in a process defined by McConnell ought to send chills down the spines of Democrats. As the majority leader has proved beyond a reasonable doubt, his caucus will do whatever it takes to maintain conservative control of the Supreme Court—which is no small matter, since Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will turn 88 in the early months of the next presidential term and Justice Stephen Breyer will turn 83 that summer. To fill those positions with jurists who respect civil rights and civil liberties, Jealous says, requires not just the election of a president who will make sound appointments but also “the firing of Mitch McConnell.”
To disempower McConnell, Democrats need a clear-eyed political calculus that recognizes that the fight for control of the Senate matters just as much as the battle between Biden and Trump—perhaps more. They must fully embrace an understanding expressed by the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a leading Democratic contender in the special election for one of two Georgia Senate seats up this year. In order to “restore moral leadership to our government,” says the pastor, it is necessary to “flip the Senate.” Democratic candidates, strategists, donors, volunteers, and voters all talk about the need to fundamentally alter the direction of our governance and our country. If fundamental change is the point, winning the Senate has to be understood as the defining struggle of a definitional election year. To that end, even as he mounts his own reelection bid this year, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley is fundraising and campaigning for Democratic challengers nationwide with a message that pulls all the pieces together: “Dump Trump. Ditch Mitch. Save America.”
“That’s my six-word mantra. It ends with ‘Save America’ for a reason,” says Merkley. “I am absolutely trying to send the message that all the things we’re campaigning on won’t happen if we don’t win the Senate.” To do that, the chamber’s Democratic caucus must grow.
It currently has 47 members (45 Democrats plus two independents, Sanders and Angus King of Maine). If Biden wins, the party will need at least three more seats to take charge of the chamber in a 50-50 scenario, with a Democratic vice president casting the deciding vote. Ideally, the party would gain a clear majority. But even a 51-49 split would remain problematic, as it could hand outsize influence over the party’s agenda to more socially or economically conservative Democrats, such as West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Virginia’s Mark Warner. So what progressives are looking for is a substantial shift of five or more seats. That’s a tall order in any election cycle, and on paper at least, it’s even more challenging this year.
Thirty-five Senate seats are up for grabs in 2020. Twenty-three of them are held by Republicans, while just 12 are held by Democrats. That sounds good because, in a moment of tremendous turbulence, when unemployment numbers could rival those of the Great Depression, the Republicans have to defend a lot more seats than the Democrats. The trouble is that most of the Republican seats are in deep-red states where Trump won in 2016, where be will probably win again in 2020, and where incumbents like Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton—whose Democratic challenger quit the race, leaving the party’s ballot line empty—won’t be defeated. At the same time, there is at least one Democratic seat, Alabama Senator Doug Jones’s, that could well fall to the Republicans. Another Democrat, Michigan’s Gary Peters, was once considered vulnerable, but a late June New York Times poll had him up by 10 percentage points.
So where will the Democrats find the seats they need? And what’s the best strategy for winning them?
In what are frequently identified as red states. Unless Biden scores a victory along the lines of Lyndon Johnson’s thumping of Barry Goldwater in 1964 or at least Barack Obama’s defeat of John McCain in 2008, some of the Democratic victories needed to flip the Senate are going to have to come in states where Trump prevailed in 2016 and might do so again this year.
Of the five Republican-held seats that The Cook Political Report labels as toss-ups in 2020, two are in states that Biden is likely to win: Colorado and Maine. Two more are in battleground states where he also could prevail: Arizona and North Carolina. The last is in Montana, a state that went for Trump by 20 points in 2016 and where the president’s ahead this time. But there’s a twist: Montana voters have shown a penchant for supporting Democratic candidates—like three-term Senator Jon Tester and this year’s Senate nominee, popular incumbent Governor Steve Bullock—even when they back Republicans for president.
The Democrats need to win the toss-up seats before they can entertain the prospect of governing in a meaningful way. Right now, there’s a chance: Polls have Democratic contenders like former astronaut Mark Kelly in Arizona and state House Speaker Sara Gideon in Maine ahead, respectively, of Republicans Martha McSally and Susan Collins. The two incumbents have long been seen as vulnerable, as has another senator who joined Collins in the ill-fated 2018 vote to confirm Kavanaugh, Colorado’s Cory Gardner, who trails Democrat John Hickenlooper. What’s notable is that, as of now, Democrats can point to polling advantages in all five toss-up states. In Montana, for instance, Bullock, who made his name as an attorney general who took on corporate interests and crusaded for campaign finance and ethics reforms, leads Republican incumbent Steve Daines by seven percentage points in the latest Montana State University survey. With the president’s personal approval rating tanking amid widespread frustration with his dangerous response to the coronavirus pandemic and the protests over police violence, CNN reported in late May that “Republican strategists are increasingly worried that Trump is headed for defeat in November and that he may drag other Republicans down with him.”
Even if things are going very well for Biden, it’s unlikely Trump will lose a state like Montana, which last backed a Democrat for president in 1992. But if Biden can gain more than 40 percent of the state’s vote, as Obama did in 2008 and 2012, then it is realistic to suggest that Bullock can take things the rest of the way. However, if Biden gets stuck in the mid-30s, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, the climb gets steeper. To get a Democratic-controlled Senate, Biden has to do what Clinton did not in 2016: run an aggressively progressive national campaign that expands its focus beyond a small group of traditional battleground states. By mobilizing voters and expanding Democratic turnout in red states and red regions of swing states, Biden can increase his national popular vote—which is important for claiming a mandate—and grab back battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania for the Electoral College win. But the benefit of a 50-state strategy, of the sort then–Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean implemented when the party was at the top of its game during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, is that the Democrats can still win Senate seats even in toss-up states where they fall short in the presidential race.
The same goes for states that The Cook Political Report labels as leaning Republican or in some cases likely Republican—such as Georgia (with its two 2020 contests), Iowa, Kansas, South Carolina, and Kentucky (where former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath won a close primary with progressive legislator Charles Booker and will now take on McConnell). All of these states went for Trump in 2016. If the current polling numbers hold, they’ll be more competitive in 2020, and states such as Iowa and Georgia could back Biden. Even more important, all of them could back Democrats for the Senate, thus empowering a Biden presidency.
Let’s start with South Carolina, where no Democrat has won a presidential race since Jimmy Carter in 1976 or a Senate race since Fritz Hollings in 1998. Trump won there by 15 points in 2016, but he was up by only 10 points in a May Civiqs poll. The big news from that survey had to do with the state’s Senate race. Jaime Harrison, the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party, was tied 42-42 with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. Yes, tied.
Harrison is one of a number of Black candidates who are out to change assumptions about what is possible in Southern states. Others include former secretary of agriculture Mike Espy in Mississippi and Georgia’s Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who is challenging the appointed and scandal-plagued Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler.
Jealous, a former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, argues that Democratic strategists and commentators need to recognize the potential of these African American candidates to expand turnout and forge new coalitions. “Pundits who dismiss the ability of Black candidates to win US Senate seats south of the Mason-Dixon Line should consider whether the bigger issue is not the bias they see in voters but the bias in their own hearts,” he says.
In South Carolina, Harrison has benefited from a turn against Graham, who once dismissed Trump as “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” but now serves as the president’s most ardent defender in the Senate. Harrison isn’t making the mistake of trying to run to the right of Graham. Rather, he is running against Graham’s blatant hypocrisy and hoping to attract at least some swing voters. But the key to states like South Carolina, Kentucky, and Georgia is not so much swing voters as new ones. “Harrison’s campaign knows where it has to boost turnout across the board, citing 400,000 unregistered people of color in South Carolina who need to get on the books to vote for Harrison along with white, college-educated voters who are starting to shift to the left politically and constitute the fastest-growing demographic in the state,” reads a recent analysis of the race by The State, South Carolina’s second-largest newspaper.
Boosting turnout is part of the strategy for a number of candidates who are challenging suddenly vulnerable Republican senators. In 2018, Democratic congressional candidates made some of their most important gains in states where Trump won in 2016 but where a surge in participation by women, people of color, and young voters tipped the balance. That’s something Iowa Democratic Senate nominee Theresa Greenfield is talking about in her bid to unseat Republican Senator Joni Ernst. Noting that Democratic voter registration numbers are now higher than those for Republicans—and that Democratic turnout in the state’s June primary significantly exceeded that of Republicans—Greenfield says, “There’s a lot of momentum here.” She argues voters understand the need for a politics that recognizes “health care is a right, not a privilege” and that is resolute in taking on corporate special interests. A June Des Moines Register poll put Greenfield ahead of Ernst, drawing attention to a race that remained off the radar until recently. Greenfield is stressing her family farm roots and making a big deal about the need to defend the United States Postal Service, declaring, “Continued attacks on USPS are an attack on the people who depend on its services, especially those living in rural areas where other delivery services don’t reach.”
An emphasis on issues that are important to the states where the candidates are running is vital, says Katz, the former Reid aide, who argues that “voters in these states don’t want a cookie-cutter approach.” Instead of sending talking points from D.C., party leaders must recognize that “you need candidates who are grounded in the experience of their states, who actually understand what is happening on the ground and are ready to talk about it.”
Merkley gets it. Twelve years ago, he was a state legislator bidding to dislodge Republican Senator Gordon Smith from a seat no Democrat had held since 1967. Merkley trailed Smith until the fall race heated up and then—with a progressive campaign that challenged the incumbent’s stances on the Iraq War, tax policy, and climate change—began to close the gap. In November, with a boost from Obama’s landslide win in Oregon, Merkley narrowly upset Smith.
This year, Merkley looks to candidates like Warnock, Greenfield, and Kansas’s Barbara Bollier to be among the winners who build a meaningful Democratic majority. Of course, says Merkley, those are tough races. But in years that go well for the top of the Democratic ticket, prospects for Senate wins open up in unlikely places. The key is to provide the resources and the support necessary for those candidates to seize those openings—as he did in the 2008 elections, which saw eight Senate seats flip from Republicans to Democrats. “Everything I care about depends on winning the Senate. Unless we win it in November and then reform it so the minority cannot block action on the issues that matter, the Senate will continue to be rigged for the powerful,” says Merkley. “We’ve seen that movie way too many times before. We’ve got to change the script.”