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Midterms: how important is the senate?

By Karthik Tadepalli

The relevance of the US Senate results in the November midterm elections

November’s midterm elections are going to dictate how much traction President Obama’s agenda can get in a divided Congress over the next two years. It’s more a case of “how little” than of “how much”–with the House firmly in Republican hands and the Democratic Senate majority looking precarious, the chances of the Democratic Party actually legislating any partisan agenda are low. A lot of commentators speculate that the Senate will be a deciding factor in the path the administration takes.

The Senate does not matter as much as it’s made out to matter, for the simple reason that neither party is likely to gain a decisive majority in the midterms, enough to push legislation comfortably with the two-thirds majority required by the Senate rules. With the current split of the seats being 53-45 plus two independents, let’s look at the three possible scenarios:
One, Democrats keep the Senate, with a net loss of 4 seats. (On an average, since 1947, the president’s party has tended to lose 4 seats in the Senate midterms.) Their majority has shifted from 53-45 (in practice 55-45, since the two independents generally vote with the Democratic caucus) to around 51-49 (49-49 and the Democrats keep majority by retention.) The majority is razor-thin but still there.
Two, Republicans take the Senate, with a net gain of 6-8 seats.  They have at least a 51-49 majority.
Three, Democrats make a net gain of 2-4 seats and increase their majority to at least 57-43. They have a comfortable majority and a greater chance of passing legislation and/or procedural amendments to counter Republican filibusters.

Scenario three is unlikely, but not improbable. If the Democratic Party can bolster President Obama’s flagging image (an effective way to do this would be to revamp a much-criticised foreign policy; nevertheless, the US should refrain from playing games with its foreign policy, especially for the sake of elections), appeal to young, non-white voters (the lowest turnout voters; these voters are found to find civil rights issues, gay marriage, minimum wage and other such agendas decisive), effectively sell voters on the Affordable Care Act (approval of the ACA is wavering, and with the GOP set to make opposition to it the centerpiece of the midterms, getting voters to support Obamacare may be crucial) and exploit the GOP’s image as traditional and out of step with a progressive America, then such a situation could be in the works.

Scenarios one & two, however, are the likely ones. In both cases, the Senate is held by a thin majority. Except for a switch in the positions of the Majority and Minority Leaders, there would be little change. Passing of legislation would become even more gummed up and only the most bipartisan issues would make it out alive. It’s true, then, that the Senate will decide the administration’s ability to push its agenda; but almost all the scenarios have a single result: no majority substantive enough for partisan legislation.

However, the Senate results this year are significant for another reason; they can signal how well each party will do in 2016. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are already looking at the future: Republicans try to find a strategy to bridge the divide between the conservatives and the libertarian moderates in the Party while fighting off Tea Party candidates in the primaries, and Democrats decide how to get their disillusioned voters to turn out. With several Senate seats from both parties likely to be even more hotly contested than they will be this year, as their senators become primary candidates, 2016 will be much more decisive for the Senate–and maybe even the House–than 2014.

Karthik Tadepalli is a student at NAFL Bangalore and an alumnus of Takshashila’s Public Leadership Camp. 

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