Senate elections hold fate of future democracy

Changing to majority vote in Senate would eliminate important checks and balance of legislative branch.

Jacqui Fatka, Policy editor

October 1, 2020

4 Min Read
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After nearly two decades of covering agricultural policy, I’ve always said a one-party government does not serve the public interest. We are not a red nation or a blue nation but the United States of America. Our forefathers designed three branches of government with proper checks and balances so that no matter what political party may be in control of either the executive, legislative or judicial branch, they would not be able to push their beliefs without allowing the minority to still have a say in final decisions.

I believe those checks and balances also are in place to force sides to come together for the sake of compromise. This is clearly seen in how the Senate has operated in recent years. Even though Republicans have the majority, the 60-vote threshold needed for “cloture” -- being able to prevent a never-ending debate from a filibuster -- has allowed legislation that passes the Senate to include enough provisions to draw members from the other side of the aisle in passage.

That could be at stake if Democrats regain control of the Senate in the Nov. 3 elections.

Ron Racheux, president of Clarus Research Group, said if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the vote for President this fall, and if Democrats hold the House, there is a good chance that Democrats will break the filibuster rule. At that point, they essentially can do almost anything they want -- not everything, but the action undoubtedly would change the whole governing landscape, Racheux said.

Raissa Downs explained that the legislative filibuster in the Senate is the “Holy Grail” for minority rights for the Senate’s institutional history. “It is terrifying for Republicans if we get rid of the legislative filibuster,” Downs said.

Downs co-founded Tarplin, Downs & Young LLC 10 years ago after spending nearly a decade on Capitol Hill and in the Executive branch in senior staff positions. She said if Republicans find themselves in the Senate minority, there may be a lot of soul searching in a chamber that is noted for working in a bipartisan fashion.

Senate Republicans currently hold a margin of 53-47 (two members are independent but caucus with Democrats), but the Alabama seat is considered solidly Republican, so in some ways, Republicans head into this election with likely 54 seats. A total of 35 Senate seats are up for re-election this fall. Republicans can’t lose more than two seats in the Senate -- or three if President Donald Trump wins the White House and Vice President Mike Pence serves as the tie-breaking vote. Democrats have to have a net gain of four seats, or three if Biden wins the presidential race.

Some say there are only three to four competitive races; others say there are as many as nine competitive races.

Faucheux said Democrats have a real shot at picking up the majority in the Senate, with Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Maine all up for grabs. Those seats are currently held by Republicans, but Democrats generally have been leading in the polls in those states.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa) could go either way, he said, and would be likely influenced heavily by the presidential race. Trump took Iowa in 2016, but Barack Obama won the state the two times he was on the ballot. Georgia has two spots open, and Faucheux said there’s a chance that Democrats could pick up one of those seats. Other potential seats in play include those for Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and longtime agricultural influencer Sen. Pat Roberts (R, Kan.), who is retiring.

Republicans have a shot in Michigan with the re-election bid for Democrat Sen. Gary Peters on the line. Tom Tillis (R., N.C.) is at the top of the vulnerable list, Downs said, adding that many in the Republican party are hopeful that Susan Collins (R., Maine) can pull off a win.   

Downs said of Republicans, “I think we are realistic that it is going to be a really challenging night. Candidates are doing their best to stick close to the President when helpful and distinguish when it is not.”

Republicans already created the “nuclear option” of requiring only 51 votes for judicial nominees while they were in control of the Senate after the 2018 elections. Vin Roberti, chairman and co-founder of Roberti Global, said Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel (R., Ky.) should never have allowed the “fairly new senators who didn’t understand the institution” of the chamber change the rules.

“Be careful what you ask for. If we do this, if this thing switches and goes back the other way [and Democrats take control of the Senate], it could be not just about judges but everything,” Roberti said.

The House may represent the “people’s house,” but the “Senate is supposed to be checks and balances on all of this” and ensure that legislation is passed in a thoughtful manner, he said.

All of that is on the line Nov. 3.

About the Author(s)

Jacqui Fatka

Policy editor, Farm Futures

Jacqui Fatka grew up on a diversified livestock and grain farm in southwest Iowa and graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communications, with a minor in agriculture education, in 2003. She’s been writing for agricultural audiences ever since. In college, she interned with Wallaces Farmer and cultivated her love of ag policy during an internship with the Iowa Pork Producers Association, working in Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Capitol Hill press office. In 2003, she started full time for Farm Progress companies’ state and regional publications as the e-content editor, and became Farm Futures’ policy editor in 2004. A few years later, she began covering grain and biofuels markets for the weekly newspaper Feedstuffs. As the current policy editor for Farm Progress, she covers the ongoing developments in ag policy, trade, regulations and court rulings. Fatka also serves as the interim executive secretary-treasurer for the North American Agricultural Journalists. She lives on a small acreage in central Ohio with her husband and three children.

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