How Independents Could Seize Control of the Senate

There's a small but real chance a bloc of unaffiliated senators could form after the midterms and help moderate the chamber.

Orlin Wagner/AP

As the bulk of close election observers have pointed out, the odds favor the Republicans capturing enough Senate seats to make a majority next year. Of course, it is not a certainty (to any except the election modelers at The Monkey Cage). There are clear routes for Democrats to maintain a narrow edge. But there are many more routes for Republicans to achieve their goal—and perhaps for Mitch McConnell to achieve his greatest aspiration, to become Senate majority leader. Back in March, I wrote a column on the consequences of a GOP majority in the Senate. It is time, with less than two weeks to go, to revisit the subject, which I will do next week as well.

I don't know how things will come out. There are many contests that are still up for grabs on both sides. Many may tilt to the GOP, because the party out of power does tend to find its support coalescing in the final stages of the campaign, and because events in the next 10 days or so are more likely to involve the kind of bad news that cuts against the president's party than good news, which doesn't often have the equivalent effect on the other side.

Still, local and idiosyncratic dynamics may also prevail. Beyond the seven Democratic seats in states that are quite red, there are also Democratic seats that are surprisingly tough for the party, including Colorado, Iowa, and New Hampshire. But there are more Republican seats in the "up for grabs" or at least "watch list" category than anyone realistically predicted months ago, including Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, and South Dakota.

Other observers have noted that two of the seats that are contestable—the Democratic one in Louisiana and the Republican one in Georgia—require a winner to get 50 percent of the overall vote, or they go to a runoff. Louisiana's would be December 3; Georgia's, January 6. Senate control, in other words, could be elusive until three days after the new 114th Senate convenes as scheduled on January 3 (which happens to be a Saturday, so it may be postponed until January 5). If we have runoffs, we can expect an unprecedented flow of outside money in the weeks after Election Day. Keep in mind that North Carolina's Senate contest is likely to hit the $100 million spending mark, most of it dark money. This is a good time to invest in the two states' local television stations. Also, regarding Louisiana and Georgia, keep in mind that turnout in runoff elections is generally low, especially among African Americans. One twist: If the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, declines to bring an indictment in the Michael Brown shooting case, that will become a major lever used by Democrats to try to motivate African-American voters.

So there might be 51 Republican seats in the clear on November 5, or in December or January. There might be 52 or even more. But what should not be lost in the shuffle is that we might not have either a stable Republican or Democratic majority but something far more intriguing. The most interesting twist in the election is the strong showing of Greg Orman, running even or (in most polls) ahead as an independent in Kansas against Republican Pat Roberts.

Let's have a little fun. Imagine that Orman wins and joins two others elected as neither Democrats nor Republicans, independents Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Now imagine that the Senate ends up with 50 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and the three who did not get elected as either D's or R's. Sanders almost certainly would continue to caucus with the Democrats—making it 50/48/2. King has said publicly that he is not wedded to continuing to caucus with Democrats—that it would depend on the numbers, and on what he could do for Maine. But King, who is a deep thinker with strong views on many policies and on how government should work and who has decried the deep dysfunction in the Senate, will also have broader objectives than a few narrow things for his state.

What if King and Orman align, and perhaps bring in one or more other senators—Joe Manchin of West Virginia is an obvious one—to form a Centrist Caucus. They go to both party leaders and offer to provide the votes for majority status in return for commitments on a list of policy and process priorities. But there is a twist: If the party that makes the commitments fails to deliver, the Centrist Caucus members will switch to the other side, changing the majority, including all the committee ratios, committee chairs, and so on. And if the other party fails to deliver, they might switch back. I am not sure what would be on their list; it might include Manchin's bipartisan background-check bill, an infrastructure package, corporate or broader tax reform, some spending priorities, maybe immigration. In my wildest dreams, it would include a demand of McConnell that to become majority leader, he would have to bring up meaningful campaign-finance reform, an issue King has championed.

There is an uncomfortable twist here, to be sure. Even if the independents succeeded in getting some bills up in the Senate and passed, they would die in the House, so accomplishments in this case would not lead to laws. But passage would still be significant. And there are other ways the institutionally minded independents could exercise constructive sway: pledges by Republican leaders not to hold show trial-style investigations into Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service, Ebola, or other faux scandals; a requirement to bring to votes, without filibusters, most presidential nominations; a promise not to use reconciliation in the budget or the debt ceiling for hostage taking.

This scenario may be far-fetched, but not by much. We have precedent for Senate majority control changing in midstream, with the switches of Jim Jeffords and Arlen Specter. It could happen again, and maybe more than once. It would certainly make life interesting for the next two years. And it could include another interesting twist: a group of other senators unwilling to leave their parties, but willing to craft a coalition across party lines to reduce obstruction in the Senate and restore the regular order.

Of course, this is not the most likely scenario. The most likely is that McConnell wins reelection and has just enough votes to become majority leader. I recently finished the insightful and incisive new ebook by New Republic reporter Alex MacGillis, The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. MacGillis is no fan of McConnell, and was not given cooperation for his book by the senator or those close to him. But diligent reporting and digging provide a fact-filled analysis of a man who started as a moderate with his role model being the legendary John Sherman Cooper, a straight-shooting, problem-solving mainstream Republican senator from Kentucky. McConnell came to the Senate as a centrist or center-right problem-solver, but he morphed into a fully political creature, dedicated to using the hardest of hardball tactics to achieve his goals—not policy goals but political ones, gaining short-term partisan advantage for himself and his party. McConnell has himself made clear that when he cut deals with representatives of the Obama administration, or with current Majority Leader Harry Reid, it was because failing to do so would harm the Republican brand or soften the GOP edge in the next election.

To be sure, McConnell is also an avid student of the history of the Senate, a creature of the Senate, and someone who has pledged to return the Senate to its regular order—open amendments, free debate, a fuller schedule. But McConnell will have a Senate with a razor-thin majority, where several of the senators whose votes McConnell would need to get things passed will be regularly AWOL and out on the presidential campaign trail; where achieving unity will require securing together the votes of Ted Cruz and Susan Collins, John Barrasso and Lisa Murkowski; and where he will have to find ways to protect the two dozen Republicans up in 2016. Will he allow the "gotcha" amendments from Democrats that Reid has blocked from Republicans to protect his vulnerable candidates? Not likely. Will he be suddenly transformed into a leader more interested in enacting constructive policies by working with Democrats and the president? Even less likely.