Updating the race for control of the Senate

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Michael Sean Winters

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As of this morning, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com gives the Democrats a 74 percent chance of retaking the Senate. A month ago I remember arguing with a politics professor who is way smarter than me that the Dems would reclaim the upper chamber, and he thought I was nuts. But Trump is dragging down the entire GOP, and in states like New Hampshire and Nevada where Hillary Clinton has opened up a significant lead, Democratic candidates appear likely to ride her coattails to victory.

The Democrats have two scenarios by which they can retake control of the Senate if Clinton wins. They can win outright, with 51 of the Senate's 100 seats, or they can split it 50 to 50, in which case the vice president as presiding officer of the Senate would break all tie votes. Currently, FiveThirtyEight thinks the first scenario is the most likely, assigning it a 16.2 percentage chance of occurring, the highest of all possible outcomes. By comparison, the likelihood of the GOP maintaining its current 54 votes earns only a 1.4 percent possibility from Nate Silver and his team.

I hope an evenly divided Senate doesn't happen, as I want Tim Kaine down the hall from the Oval Office bringing wisdom and thoughtfulness to bear on the decision-making in the West Wing, not be hauled up to the Senate repeatedly to break a tie. As much as I disagree with Kaine's position on abortion, I think he is a decent fellow, and his counsel will be much needed in a Clinton White House.

How do the Democrats get to 51 seats according to Silver? They flip New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and hold on to Nevada. Of these contests, the closest is currently in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where Katie McGinty is leading incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey by 57.4. to 42.6 percent. In Nevada, FiveThirtyEight currently has Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto holding onto Sen. Harry Reid's seat for the Democrats by a margin of 57.6 percent against Joe Heck's 42.4 percent. And in Missouri, incumbent Republican Sen. Roy Blunt is trailing challenger Jason Kander with only 38.7 percent to Kander's 61.3 percent.

All numbers cited above are from the "polls-plus" analysis which figures in unemployment rates and historical voting patterns as well as recent voter surveys. That is one of three analyses provided at FiveThirtyEight. The "polls-only" analysis and the "now-cast" both show the Democrats winning control of the Senate, but losing in Nevada and Pennsylvania.

Is it a good thing if the Democrats retake the Senate? Yes. Why? Because Sen. Mitch McConnell is so good at obstruction, it would be best for the country if he is no longer able to control the Senate calendar. He would still have the filibuster to keep the Democrats from doing anything too crazy. But McConnell would have to think twice before deploying a filibuster, whereas control of the Senate calendar allows him to kill legislation without so much as a second thought. And in addition to his talent at obstruction, let us recall that McConnell greeted the election of President Obama not with a commitment to work together for the good of the country but with the stated ambition of making Obama a one-term president.

There is an additional check on how far the Democrats could push through an agenda entirely of their own fashioning: In 2018, they have to defend 25 seats, five of which are in states that Mitt Romney won in 2012, and the Republicans only need to defend eight Senate seats that year. So, Democrats will not eliminate the filibuster, knowing they will have need of it in two years' time when they find themselves in the minority again. Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post looked into this prospect yesterday.

It is highly unlikely Democrats will retake the House, so Republicans will still have a large say in what does or does not get done in Washington. Hopefully on the other side of the candidacy of Donald Trump, morally serious and intellectually mature Republicans will recognize the need to pass comprehensive immigration reform, funding for infrastructure and perhaps a few other bipartisan items if they ever want to win the White House again. I am guessing that Speaker Paul Ryan has the moral seriousness to recognize that it is important for the country that the Democrats and Republicans fund something to collaborate on.

Democrats should see an opportunity here. Republicans have been awakened to the fact that their base is more populist on economic issues than they thought. There is a group of reform conservatives in Ryan's intellectual orbit who have some good ideas about how government programs can work better. Issues like converting the nation to sustainable energy holds promise for both entrepreneurs and the building trades. And Clinton, more than anyone, has an incentive to be seen as working with the Republicans to accomplish good things for the country as a whole. We have to hope and pray that the morning after the election, Republicans recognize the need to do something good for the country too, and not unite around the only thing they probably have in common anymore, a strong dislike for Hillary Clinton.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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