What If Republicans Capture the Senate?

A winning midterm would encourage the GOP's worst impulses toward obstruction, hearten the 2016 presidential field, and bottle up Obama nominees.
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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Nate Silver is back, and back in the news. Silver’s appearance on ABC’s This Week on Sunday, where he said that if the election were held today, the Republicans would likely win the Senate, got immense attention. On Fox News, anchors gleefully announced that Silver, their bête noire in 2012, had predicted a Republican majority in November, a “fact” dutifully reported in many news outlets. Other reports said that Democrats, who loved Silver’s tracking of the 2012 presidential elections and his spot-on analysis then, were now furious with him.

The breathless reporting was kind of amusing. What Silver actually said was anything but shocking or particularly newsworthy; as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein noted in his blog, it was pretty much what our best analysts of congressional elections, Charlie Cook and Stu Rothenberg, have been saying for some time, and fits some basic facts.

Democrats have more seats, and more vulnerable seats up (duh—it is the cohort elected in 2008, when Democrats won many seats in Republican states). Midterm elections, especially in a president’s second term, see a sag in turnout for the party in the White House. Barack Obama’s approval rating is in the low to mid-40s, dangerous territory for his party. So a net loss of six seats or more for Democrats is clearly feasible.

But Silver did not “predict” that outcome (in fact, he gave a quite broad range of possible outcomes). He provided a snapshot as of last Sunday. It is an accurate snapshot—but we have a whole photo album ahead for the next seven-plus months.

Let’s put the caveats aside and explore what the policy process would look like if Republicans do win a majority in the Senate and hold their majority in the House. The bottom line is that the prospects for significant advances in solving problems in key areas would be bleak. But it is more complicated, and more interesting, than that.

First, the real downside. Start by imagining what the GOP zeitgeist will be if the party picks off six, seven, or eight seats. My guess, the same as after the 2010 midterms: “Man, did that politics of obstruction work like a charm! Let’s double down on it and take the whole enchilada in 2016!” If there is no public backlash against an utterly dysfunctional Congress and a near-complete lack of productivity, why rock the boat?

That attitude would combine with a common reaction of lawmakers outside the president’s party in the final two years of a two-term president: Why do anything now that involves compromise when we have a chance to do what we want after the next election? And there would be another factor moving toward a radical-right dominance: an explosion of interest from Republican candidates for the presidency, and a jolt of confidence on the right that things are going their way and there is no need to compromise on a nominee. More candidates would emerge from the right, joining the Ted Cruz/Marco Rubio/Rand Paul/Mike Huckabee contingent. Watching the putative presidential candidates all vote against the budget compromise pulled together by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray—and then watching Ryan join them and vote against the debt-ceiling bill that basically ratified his spending deal—made it clear to me that the energy on the presidential nominating side is all on the bedrock right edge.

But it is more complicated than that. While Americans tend to look at the president as the symbol of government in Washington—giving him and his party more blame if things are not going well in Washington—the perception would be altered if Republicans took full control of Congress. It would be much harder to diffuse blame for a “Do-Nothing Congress.” The pressure to act, to pass legislation to deal with major problems in the country, would be enhanced, and the conspicuous failure to act could, in the memorable words of Mitch McConnell, “damage the Republican brand.” The president would undoubtedly use his platform to push hard for immigration reform, maybe tax reform, a serious jobs program, and an infrastructure plan, among others. Spurning action on all of those would have its costs.

Second, there would be a strong impetus for Republicans to pass legislation that had some political appeal but would draw presidential vetoes—something Democrats would have done regularly in the final two years of the George W. Bush Administration but for GOP filibusters in the Senate. So we might get a passel of bills that provide money for popular programs by cutting the heart out of things Democrats love—such as the recent bill that added funds for pediatric-health research by cutting the public financing of party conventions.

The problem is that House-Senate tensions often supersede or at least rival partisan ones—remember that in the Clinton era, Speaker Newt Gingrich had worse relations with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole than he did with the president. And even if the filibuster were not a potent tool for Democrats, getting all the Republicans—including the problem-solving-oriented contingent of Susan Collins, Lisa Murkow­ski, Bob Corker, et al—to go along with hard-edged bills would be a major challenge for the leadership.

There is one last set of elements that is less complicated. A Republican Senate would undoubtedly stop confirmation on virtually all Obama-nominated judges, and probably on most of his executive nominees. And we would see a sharp ramp-up of investigations of alleged wrongdoing, with Benghazi and IRS redux. If you like Darrell Issa, you will love having his reinforcements and doppelgangers in the other chamber. If you are Barack Obama, not so much.

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Norm Ornstein is a correspondent for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research.  More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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