Washington Report: 2014 Election Rundown

by Craig Piercy

With the unexpected primary defeat of Eric Cantor, the 2014 pre-election session of Congress is effectively drawing to an early close.

There are still several “must-do” legislative items that must be resolved before members leave for the campaign trail, including an interim 2015 budget bill, reauthorization of the export-import bank and a temporary patch to the Highway Trust Fund. However, Cantor’s defeat has killed what little appetite remained from the GOP leadership in the House and minority members of the Senate to address major legislative items like immigration reform and tax legislation.

The midterm elections continue to look bleak for Democrats, especially in the Senate where party control is up for grabs. Currently, there are nine vulnerable Democrat seats, and possibly a few others that could yield surprising results. The GOP needs six seats to take the majority in the Senate, without losing the seats they already have.

Current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is neck and neck with Democrat nominee Alison Grimes in Kentucky. Likewise, Scott Brown is fighting to keep the lead in polls for the New Hampshire seat. In Mississippi, incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran was able to narrowly defeat Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel in a recent runoff. Many have suggested that had McDaniel won, Democrat nominee Travis Childers would have won the general election.

Retiring senators have left several seats up for grabs. The former South Dakota Republican Governor Mike Rounds is running for retiring Senator Tim Johnson’s seat. Rounds faces weak competition from the Democrats. West Virginia Republican Representative Shelley Capito is also looking to take a retired seat, as Democrat Senator Jay Rockefeller plans to step down. Capito is currently leading in the polls, but faces a real challenge from West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. Open seats in Georgia, Iowa and Michigan are also proving to be competitive races where GOP candidates are currently leading in the polls.

Montana Democrat Senator John Walsh is likely to lose his seat to Republican challenger Representative Steve Daines. Walsh was appointed in January after Max Baucus left the Senate to be the U.S. Ambassador to China, and recent numbers show Daines in a solid lead. Meanwhile current Democrat senators in Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Alaska are facing serious threats from GOP challengers. Predictions are if current Senator Mary Landrieu in Louisiana loses, so will Senator Hagan in North Carolina and Senator Pryor in Arkansas, as they are all Democrats in typically red states. Louisiana has an open primary, which means that Landrieu has to not only worry about her likely competitor Representative Bill Cassidy, but also the pool of other Democrat and Republican candidates just to make it into the general election.

So, Republicans have a good shot at taking the Senate. What would the flip actually mean from a practical perspective?

Even if the GOP wins control, it is extremely unlikely they will reach a filibuster-proof 60 seats. Thus, Democrats will still have the ability to block passage of legislation on a straight party line vote. It is true that some controversial issues, like the Keystone XL Pipeline, enjoy some democratic support and may actually reach the president’s desk. However, the president still holds the veto pen, thereby making it highly unlikely that any blatantly partisan measure would ever become law. Realistically, while they will control the legislative agenda, Republicans are not much better off with a slim majority.

In fact, there is a practical disadvantage for Republicans if they capture the Senate: they can’t blame Harry Reid for every failure to act. In the public’s eye, the GOP will control Congress and thus will be held responsible for every piece of legislation it does—or doesn’t—pass.

Both the GOP leadership and rank and file in both the House and Senate would collectively have to be very clever. They will need to resist the temptation to load up bills with partisan provisions, instead crafting them to get just enough Democratic support to force a showdown with President Obama—easier said than done given a fractious GOP conference in the House and a Tea Party that, while in retreat, has proven that if the conditions are right, it can take out senior leaders´ primary elections.

Ultimately, political victories beget the responsibility of governing. Is the GOP up to the task? I have no idea, but it sure will be fun to watch.