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Boston Political Review

The Race for Control of the Senate

Boston Political Review co-Editor-in-Chief Justin Dynia on the current struggle between Republicans and Democrats for control of the US Senate.

The headlines in any presidential election year will always bow to the foremost focus of who will win the White House. Just as consequential, however, are the 33 Senate seats up for election this November. The Senate remains one of the most pivotal parts of government, so Democrats and Republicans will both clash for outright control of the chamber.

Senate elections occur in three cycles every two years, with three classes comprising ⅓ of all seats being up for election. This year’s class two elections will prove to be especially contentious, with the Cook Political Report rating fourteen of these races as highly competitive. Twelve of those fourteen seats are currently held by a Republican incumbent, and Democrats only need to win five of those races to retake a majority.

The Republican Party currently holds a 53-47 majority in the Senate. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats took back the House of Representatives to gain a 232-197 majority. The Senate most recently flipped parties in 2014 – the last time there was a class two election cycle. Democratic President Barack Obama watched as his party’s majority of 55-45 switched to a Republican majority of 54-46.

The last time the Senate and Presidency changed hands in the same year was in 1980, when President Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party ushered in a new wave of conservatism. Although this historical challenge may seem to indicate a flip is unlikely, the class two Senate races this year could once again prove to realign the power balance of the Senate. Democrats will hope that forty years later, Vice President Joe Biden and a Democratic Senate will usher in a new era of progressivism just as impactful.

Of the 33 seats up for grabs, Republicans are defending 23 of them. Democratic and Republican challengers have received an outpouring of donations and media coverage in order to boost their bids to secure these valuable seats. Incumbents with seats that previously seemed safe – such as Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Senator Thom Thillis (R-NC) – face the toughest challenges of their electoral careers. Other tight races of candidates on thin ice – such as Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Doug Jones (D-AL) – look likely to flip. In Georgia, where two seats are up for election after the retirement of Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, there is even the possibility of a double runoff election in 2021 if no candidate wins 50% or more of the votes outright, a rule that traces its history to Jim Crow Era election laws. Other senators facing noteworthy challenges Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI).

Current senate goings-on demonstrate exactly how valuable the chamber is. The Senate Judiciary Committee is currently having Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, nominated by President Trump to fill the vacancy left by the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Although Barrett is virtually guaranteed to be confirmed before the 117th Congress is sworn in on January 3, 2021, the party in control of the Senate can determine the future of the Supreme Court. Still outraged by Republicans’ refusal to host hearings for President Obama’s appointee Merrick Garland in 2016, Democrats view having a Senate majority as a mechanism to halt the transformation of the Supreme Court to an even more concretely conservative majority.

The Senate will also be highly involved in any future coronavirus relief bills. After announcing that he would end all negotiations to pass a stimulus bill until after the election, President Trump has since softened his stance and called for negotiations over the $1.8 Trillion relief package the White House has proposed. The party with a majority in the Senate will have much greater bargaining power to determine the final details of any stimulus package that gets passed, so the direction of America’s economic recovery hinges directly on which party controls the chamber.

The odds are not in favour of the Republican Party to keep their hold over the Senate. Political data outlet FiveThirtyEight’s polling model–which runs thousands of simulations by compiling polling data from across the nation– has the Democrats as slight favourites to retake the Senate, with a 69% chance of winning control. FiveThirtyEight’s third and final election forecast goes a step further in declaring the Democrats to be the clear favourites to keep the House with a 95% chance, while Democratic Candidate Joe Biden is a strong-but-not-overwhelming frontrunner to win the general election with an 87% chance.

Political polling has faced immense scrutiny since the 2016 presidential election, in which frontrunner Hillary Clinton lost in spectacular fashion. FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver still called that result “within the ‘normal’ range of accuracy” and has defended the “modifications” made to new polling models.

Democrats are hoping the Senate’s pendulum will swing to their side and allow them to control both the Executive and Legislative branches, depending on whether or not Vice President Joe Biden wins the upcoming presidential election. Republicans want to keep their firm hold over the Senate and ensure the re-election of President Trump. Regardless of who wins the presidency, both parties are vying for control of one of the most powerful facets of American government. The nation’s most illustrious democratic institutions have been wrapped in the tendrils of turmoil, and the skirmish over the Senate represents just one battle in the warfare our democracy has endured this year.

Further articles written in collaboration with the Boston Political Review can be found on our website.

Justin Dynia



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