Senate Control and the Barrett Nomination

In the November 2020 election, 35 U.S. Senate seats are in play. The Republican Party holds 23 of them; the Democrats, 12. The composition of the U.S. Senate for the next two years will be of crucial political importance no matter who wins the presidential election. For the party that fails to win the White House, the status of the Senate will be paramount. We talked to Richard Fox, professor and associate chair of political science and international relations in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, about the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and on his thoughts about Senate races around the country. Fox was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

How does the outbreak of the coronavirus, with three Republican senators now ill, impact the Senate’s business in the next four weeks?

I’m not sure it has a substantive impact. We’re right before an election. The Senate would’ve been having meetings, but they don’t do that much at this point. The Senate has been fairly dysfunctional; it has been for years. In terms of legislating and completing work, the Senate would’ve been open with hearings but they might not have been very substantive in terms of outcomes.

What’s the possible impact of senators suffering from the coronavirus on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court?

Right now, we have three Republican senators who have tested positive, and two of them are on the Judiciary Committee, where committee hearings take place. If nothing else happens, there’s probably no impact. The Republican Party and Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, seem entirely steadfast in their desire to make sure this vote happens prior to the November election. Unless those senators get so ill they can’t attend the vote, we probably don’t see much of an impact — other than watching to see if other senators get sick.

Why is McConnell so intent in making the Barrett confirmation vote happen before the election and not between the election and Inauguration Day?

The election can go lots of ways. It could be a nail-biter: a close Trump win, a contested election, a close Biden win, even a Biden blow-out. It couldn’t be a Trump blow-out. So, as concerns rise that Trump is going to lose, the political thinking is the optics are worse if you’ve lost the presidency and possibly lost the senate but you go ahead and confirm Barrett. And, if you’re more cynical — and Trump has even said this, so maybe it’s not cynical at all — if this is a disputed election or the vote counts in particular states are disputed, you need an odd number of justices to resolve those disputes. A 4–4 vote would just cause more confusion. So, that’s one of the urgencies, for some.

If Trump pulls this out and wins in states like North Carolina, Iowa and Arizona, I don’t think it’s conceivable that the Democrats would also win the Senate.

If too many senators remain sick, McConnell, has the authority as majority leader to bypass committee hearings and bring the nomination directly to the floor of the Senate. Is there a chance that he would do so?

The way things are now, he would do that. There have been judiciary committee votes that were either negative or tied in committee that went forward for vote on the full floor. So, he’ll take it to the full floor. We assume, though this may not be true, that the confirmation vote would be something like 51-49. Two Republican senators have said that they believe the Senate shouldn’t be voting until after January’s inauguration, though they didn’t quite commit to not voting. But the Republicans can’t afford to lose more than four votes total. So, if you’re hospitalized, you can’t vote. That could affect the outcome of the vote. But, Ron Johnson, senator from Wisconsin, said he’s going to vote, come hell or high water, and that he’ll wear a moon suit if he has to.

Do you find it useful to think about the Senate results in an election year nationally, or is it the case that senate elections should be seen in their state-wide contexts, and that they’re unlikely to turn as a group on national issues?

When I was growing up—as a political scientist, that is — Tip O’Neill, who was Speaker of the House, famously said that all politics is local. That’s how you won your elections: by serving the interests of the constituents back home. That’s not true anymore. Three are five or six senate seats that are even or plus/minus two in a direction, and if Biden wins big, he would probably bring most of those home. There’s a coattail effect that we’ve seen in recent election cycles. There also are contextual factors: The people in Maine have a long relationship with Susan Collins, so it’s not just about Trump or just about Biden. But in some of these other races, a close race could be tipped by the presidential election going one way or the other.

But consider the 1980 election. Ronald Reagan’s landslide, when he defeated the Democrats’ Walter Mondale, helped to turn 12 Senate seats from Democrat to Republican hands. Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time since 1954. If there were a Biden tidal wave, could there be a turnover of that magnitude?

No. The electorate is more partisan. Most states now have two senators of the same party. We’re down to only a handful of split-state delegations in which one senator is a Republican and one is a Democrat. It’s even hard to identify a senate race in the recent cycles where a Democrat won a race and made you respond, “Gee, that’s shocking.” In the last cycle, Jon Tester held on in Montana, but that may be it. To see a tidal wave like the one in 1980, you’d have to have Democrats winning in Georgia, Texas and South Carolina. Some of those races are close, but flipping 12 would be shocking to me.

That kind of tidal wave is very unlikely, but this is an era when one thing we do know is that anything, whether we can expect it or not, could happen. Could anything wildly unexpected be so powerful as to cause that?

Academics are supposed to take the long view of things, and research suggests that individual moments in campaigns don’t influence the election that much, maybe in a very close election. But there are forces at work. For example, if Trump loses by 7 or 8 percentage points, he can’t win the electoral college. So, political scientists are going to look back at his terrible approval rating — that’s a tremendous predictor. The economy in the second quarter of the election year was quite bad. Things that happen in the moment certainly can move small numbers of voters. But I’m not sure they change anything dramatically. Ten days ago, news about the president’s taxes came out, and there were some real bombshells there. But no one is talking about that now.

Which particular races do you find the most interesting?

This is a very difficult cycle for Democrats because they’re not running in many places where they can pick up seats. The Republicans hold 23 seats, and only two are in states that the Democrats won in 2016— Maine and Colorado. So, it’s not like you can look at the map and say, “Oh, this is ripe for a lot of pick-ups.” Republicans are running mostly in red states. 

I’m interested in several races: Susan Collins has been a senator for Maine for 24 years and used to be the darling of Maine. They loved her, and she got almost 70 percent of the vote. She’s one of the last moderates. There’s an interesting race going on in Alaska, with an independent doctor, Al Gross, running as a Democrat, against a Republican, Sen. Dan Sullivan. Polls have them tied — is that really true? Or in Mississippi, Mike Espy is trying to unseat an incumbent, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smyth. A poll had them tied. I’m always looking for surprises. But clearly there are five or six races that the entire political world will be focused on: Colorado, Maine, Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina, Montana. If the Democrats are having a great night, then we’ll be looking at South Carolina and Georgia. Iowa is interesting. For 18 years, Iowa was represented by Charles Grassley, a Republican, and Tom Harkin, a Democrat. But those two won because they served their communities well. Now, Iowa has swung to the right, and that would have to be for national questions. It would be better for the system if the states weren’t so polarized. But what usually happens is voters go home, so to speak, by Election Day.

You haven’t said much about South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsay Graham is in a tight race.

Well, the last time a Democrat won in South Carolina was in the late ’80s or early ’90s. It’s just a little inconceivable for a Democrat to win a state-wide office there, especially a Senate seat. Even though there have been two or three very reputable polls indicating that it’s a dead-even race, that would be hard to imagine. But that is an interesting race. Graham is not very popular at home, so if he loses it would be related to national trends. Lindsay Graham is running six or seven points behind where a less controversial Republican should be.

If Trump defeats Biden and the Democrats win the Senate and keep the House, are we looking at four years of stalemate?

I would find Trump winning and the Democrats winning the Senate an unlikely outcome. If Trump pulls this out and wins in states like North Carolina, Iowa and Arizona, I don’t think it’s conceivable that the Democrats would also win the Senate. If Trump wins and the Democrats hold one house, we’ll continue to see the concentration of power in the White House with a very dysfunctional Congress. That’s been developing for decades, but it has accelerated under Trump.

What is your prediction? Will the Senate flip from Republican to Democratic control in the 2020 election?

I had a great year once in 2004. I picked correctly every Senate race and how every state would vote in the electoral college. I tried to quit since then.

I will say this: I tend generally to believe polls that are done well and models that are well-constructed. There were problems in 2016, not really with polling but with modeling. Here we are four weeks from Election Day, and if you believe in the social scientific endeavor of statistics and modeling, the Democrats should win the senate by a seat or two.

Richard Fox is a frequent commentator for LMU Magazine. In our Off Press podcast series, he has discussed the Democratic Party primary race as well as the Democratic Candidates Presidential Debate, which was held on the LMU campus in December 2019. In 2016 for LMU Magazine, he discussed the impact of the Trump candidacy on the structure of the Republican Party.