One of the real surprises of Election Night was the added strength of Senate Democrats. While going in, Republicans had hopes of taking over the Senate, when the dust finally settled by mid-day on Wednesday, Democrats had actually gained 2 seats, giving them 53, with 2 more seats held by independents (Sanders in Vermont and Angus King in Maine) expected to caucus with them. Sanders is essentially a given, while King may prove a little more true to the independent label at times, but most analysts put him in the Democrat-leaning camp. What this does is put Senate leader Harry Reid closer to that magical number of 60, the number of votes needed to defeat a filibuster (or in today’s political reality, a threatened filibuster). He would need to carve out 5 Republican votes, certainly not an easy task. But if he chose to try, who might he target? There aren’t many Republicans left who would qualify for the moderate or maverick label, but there are a few, under the right circumstances:
- 56 – John McCain – he’s shown an independent streak in the past, and is probably secure enough back home to fend off a challenge from the right – which wouldn’t happen until 2016, anyway.
- 57 – Susan Collins of Maine. Up for election in 2014, she is also probably secure enough to hold on to her seat during a primary challenge. Beyond her, it gets tricky…
- 58 – let’s say Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. In the past, he has at times acted like he wanted to be considered an elder statesman of sorts. If he chooses to run again, he certainly wouldn’t be immune to a challenge from the right, however.
- 59 – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She won re-election as an independent, after losing in the primary to a Tea Party type backed by Sarah Palin. But she’s in office until 2016, which would give her time to repair the damage that might result from a defection to break a filibuster – although Republicans have long memories.
- 60 – if the previous 4 were wishful thinking, getting to 60 represents fantasyland, I guess. But let’s play along. At one time I might have put Charles Grassley in this slot, but I think he’s moved into the conservative camp pretty solidly. Lindsey Graham has occasionally displayed a maverick streak, but defection for him would mean a strong challenge from the hard right. So I’ll go with Thad Cochran of Mississippi. At one time, Cochran was a pretty solid moderate. Like most Republican senators, he’s sounded much more of the conservative message for a while. But his term is up in 2014, and there’s wide speculation that he won’t run again. The right issue might pull him back to his more moderate former self.
So are the chances any better if you wait until 2014 and try to pick up seats in that election? Unfortunately for the Democrats, probably not, unless the Republicans nominate more crazies that don’t know when to keep silent. Republicans will be running in Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. There’s almost zero chance for a Democrat in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas (in Mississippi there is one Democrat who could mount a serious statewide race, but he seems to have little stomach for office now). Wyoming, Idaho, and Nebraska could, I suppose, see a Democrat in the mold of Jon Tester rise from the stubble, but I have no idea who that might be. If Susan Collins chose to retire, Maine could easily see a Democratic pickup, and Alaska is a bit of a wild-card, I suppose. But unless there is some earth-shaking change in the political environment in multiple states, there just doesn’t seem to be any chance for the Democrats to pick up 5 seats in 2014. Filibusters or the threat of filibusters, then, will continue to paralyze the US Senate (unless Harry Reid can somehow change the rules). It doesn’t bode well for problem-solving at the national level.