Mitch McConnell's Job Just Got a Lot Harder

Soon, it will take merely two rebellious Republicans to threaten legislation.


Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Republicans are once again paying for nominating an unusually unpopular candidate for the United States Senate. It was worse this time, given the charges of sexual misbehavior against the candidate involving minors, and given the unusually unpopular Republican president.  

Senator-Elect Jones: Alabama Took the 'Right Road'

But the toll in recent years is devastating. The GOP's advantage in the Senate could be standing at 55 or even more. Instead, Roy Moore lost Tuesday to mainstream Democrat Doug Jones in -- of all places -- Alabama, joining (among others) the recently defeated Todd Akin in MissouriRichard Mourdock in Indiana, and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. Now, the Republicans only have a 51-49 advantage in the Senate. Nominate minimally competent and acceptable candidates in those contests and Republicans probably win 3 of them. Yikes.

The most important thing about the Senate is that each of its 100 seats matters -- a lot. Just to begin with: Vice President Mike Pence has already voted to break six ties this year. Would all six votes have turned the other way in a theoretical Senate featuring Jones instead of reliably Republican Luther Strange? It's always possible that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could have rounded up one more Republican. Possible, but likely? And that's not counting any times there was a one-vote margin, so that switching Alabama's junior Senator would have either flipped the outcome or forced McConnell to wait on the vote.

That's just the beginning of the effects. The truth is it takes a lot less effort to coordinate the two Republican votes that will now be needed to block something than it takes to coordinate three. Take the tax bill. Florida's Marco Rubio and Utah's Mike Lee had an amendment to expand the child credit. They were much chided for failing to press their point and attempting to force McConnell to accept the amendment by threatening to vote against the whole bill. But they couldn't be certain that a third vote would materialize (as it turned out, Bob Corker did vote no, but they couldn't have been certain of that). Now they're in a much stronger position if they want to press their case. 

But this kind of static analysis may miss even bigger changes. McConnell may come to find that it's easier to build a majority by attempting to sway the half-dozen or so moderate Democrats -- Jones included -- on some issues going forward. There's no guarantee that McConnell, one of the most partisan people out there, will attempt that path, but it's a lot more likely after Moore's loss.  

(That's all after the tax bill, if McConnell and Speaker Ryan stay on the rushed course they have set; Jones won't be sworn in until early January, and Republicans will now have a new reason to rush the bill through, with predictable consequences in the quality of the legislation. That is, unless the whole thing falls apart, which is still unlikely but possible.)

The other big effect, of course, is on the chances of a Democratic Senate in 2019. All of a sudden, it's quite easy to see how that happens, although Republicans probably remain favored to hold on. All Democrats have to do now is to net two more flips, and they would have 51 Senators. Assuming they successfully defend all of their own incumbents, which is not impossible in a good election cycle, they would have to pick up the open seat in Arizona and defeat Dean Heller in marginally Democratic Nevada. And even if Democrats fall short in 2018, the extra Alabama seat is there through 2020, making a difference (so it's very possible the 2018 cycle could produce, say, a 50-50 Senate instead of a 51-49 Republican advantage thanks to Doug Jones). 

Now, I wouldn't look very hard at Alabama for hints about what will happen in the midterm elections, let alone 2020, that we don't already know from other contests. Republicans aren't going to put up a bad candidate every time (although a very bad candidate is a possibility in both Arizona and Nevada). But the importance of this election on the Senate in 2018, 2019, and 2020? Yes, that's a very big deal. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net

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