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Horowitz: McConnell Influenced by Less Favorable 2020 Senate Map

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell PHOTO: Senate.gov

While it is unlikely that the Democrats will be able to gain the 4 net seats required to take back control of the US Senate next year, given an electoral map that is much friendlier to them, it is not out of the question. Of the 34 US Senate seats up in 2020, 22 are currently occupied by Republicans.  This compares to the fact that only 9 out of the 35 seats up in 2018 were held by Republicans. Similarly, Democrats only have to defend one seat in a red state in 2020, as opposed to the 10 seats in red states they had to defend in 2018.

An expert campaign tactician and vote counter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) is well aware of the decidedly less favorable 2020 electoral map. It already appears to be factoring into his calculations as he picks some spots to distance Senate Republicans from President Trump.  One can see 2020 politics at work in McConnell’s decisive move to end the partial shutdown, his insistence that Trump sign last week’s bi-partisan compromise on border security even-though it included no funding for the Wall and no additional funding for so-called fencing or barriers, and his advancement of resolutions withdrawing American support for Saudi Arabian military actions in Yemen and opposing “precipitous withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.  As the 2020 election moves closer, it is likely that McConnell’s distancing efforts will step up.

Incumbent Republican Senators who are likely to face tough -re-election battles, such as Susan Collins in Maine, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Martha McSally in Arizona, and Joni Ernst in Iowa are with McConnell’s blessing beginning to carve out records of at least some independence from President Trump. On some key votes, they will be joined by Lamar Alexander of Tennessee who is not running for re-election and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska who is not up in 2020 and occupies a relatively safe seat--two Senators who have shown at least some willingness to stand up to the president.

One of the first tests of the change in the political dynamics from nearly universal, if sometimes, reluctant support of the president’s priorities among Senate Republicans to more of a willingness to oppose him on selected issues will be the upcoming vote on the resolution to reject Trump’s declaration of a National Emergency on the border. He is using this declaration as the justification for unilaterally re-purposing $6.3 billion of funds appropriated by Congress for other specific purposes for use in constructing the Wall in a blatant usurpation of the legislative body’s constitutionally mandated power of the purse.  It is a sure bet that the House of Representatives will pass this resolution and then a vote in the Senate is a requirement, according to the legislation that gives the president the power in limited circumstances to declare a national emergency.

Like pretty much all other legislative leaders, Senator McConnell is far more concerned with maintaining his majority than with getting the president re-elected.  The 2020 Senate battlegrounds will be fought out mainly in states where the president is unpopular--a decided change from 2018.  It remains the case that McConnell and his fellow Republican Senators will still toe the Trump line on most issues, despite many of them expressing their private reservations. This is because the president is still very popular with Republican primary voters and no one wants to face a primary challenge from someone backed by the president. There is now, however, a strong political counterbalance in the possibility the Democrats could take back the Senate. Trump’s dismally low approval ratings-- if they continue --will bring added political pressure for certain Senate incumbents to distance themselves at least occasionally.

That is the new political dynamic that Senator McConnell must navigate--one he well understands as evidenced by his recent measured political independence from the president. It will be interesting to see if the president can adjust to this new political reality; how rough a ride he will have over the next two years will depend on his ability to do so. So far, President Trump has shown little or no willingness to adapt, seemingly rejecting one of Senator McConnell’s favorite sayings, ‘that there is nothing to be learned from the second kick of a mule.”

 

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

 

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