Opinion | How a Simple Twist of Fate Could End Democrats’ Control of the Senate

However there’s one other risk that also needs to have the Democrats reaching for the Maalox: A random act of destiny may flip the Senate over to the Republicans not subsequent January, however subsequent summer time, or subsequent month, or subsequent week. An sickness or dying may properly set off a political earthquake — by nearly immediately switching management of the nation’s high legislative physique.

States have a vary of legal guidelines about changing a departed senator, however the massive majority — 37 — name on the governor to choose a successor. Of these, solely seven require the governor to choose somebody in the similar get together. So there are 30 states the place the governor can decide no matter new senator she or he needs.

What that provides as much as, in sensible phrases, is that in 9 states (as of Jan. 15), a Republican governor has the authority to interchange both one or two Democratic senators. If a single Democratic senator in any of these states needed to depart workplace, the Republican governor of that state may appoint a GOP substitute that will instantly give the get together a 51-49 Senate majority.


When Glenn Youngkin turns into Virginia’s governor later this month, he’ll be a part of a group of GOP governors from states with two Democratic senators: Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, Georgia and Arizona.

Two different states, Ohio and Montana, have one Democratic senator and a Republican governor. (There’s one other set of states, of course, with the reverse dynamic: Louisiana, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas all have a Democratic governor and two Republican senators; three others, Maine, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have a single Republican senator with Democratic governors. Of the aforementioned states, solely in Maryland, Arizona, North Carolina and Kentucky are the events assured of holding their seats below state regulation.)

There was a temporary flutter of concern about senatorial succession final January, when 80-year-old Vermont Democrat Pat Leahy went into the hospital. If well being compelled him out of workplace, who would Republican governor Phil Scott identify? Scott’s about as “un-Republican” a Republican determine as any, and Leahy recovered shortly. However the broader situation, uncomfortable as it might be to ponder, stays.

And it’s a problem magnified by the erosion of collegiality and comity that when outlined a lot of how the Senate operated. In an earlier period, an evenly divided physique handled an unstable stability of energy by sharing it, or making lodging. At present, such prospects appear extra like a pastoral fantasy.

It might sound morbid to suppose too concretely about what occurs when a senator dies or is compelled by sickness to depart workplace. However in a means it’s irresponsible to not. Whereas solely three senators have died in workplace in the final decade, the actuarial actuality — 26 senators are 70 years outdated or extra — deserves consideration. (Fate, of course, is not any respecter of age; Robert Kennedy was 42 when he was assassinated; Paul Wellstone was 58 when he died in a place crash). Furthermore, there have been instances when the Senate has misplaced a exceptional quantity of its members. In 1953, the 83rd Congress started with 48 Republicans, 47 Democrats, and one unbiased, representing the 48 states that then shaped the Union. Over the course of the session, no fewer than 9 senators died in workplace, and one other resigned.

With such a shut vote to begin with at the time, what occurred? On a number of events, the appointed senator certainly got here from the different get together. However the Senate was a very totally different place then — and successfully its energy didn’t actually change arms.

When Ohio Republican Robert Taft died in workplace in July 1953, Ohio Gov. Frank Lausche changed him with Democrat Thomas Burke. This gave Democrats a 48-47 majority — however the unbiased, Sen. Wayne Morse, who’d left the GOP out of his antipathy towards Richard Nixon and Joseph McCarthy, voted to maintain the GOP in management of the chamber for the sake of comity and continuity.

Different deaths throughout the session would once more give Democrats a single-vote majority, however Democratic chief Lyndon Johnson by no means pressed the situation. Why not? In the first place, Johnson was acutely conscious of President Dwight Eisenhower’s recognition, and he wished to place his get together as cooperative. Certainly, he was savvy sufficient to see that some of Ike’s most fervent opposition in the Senate was coming not from Democrats, however from extra conservative Republicans. Second, the filibuster rule and the Republican in the White Home would have primarily stopped Johnson from enacting something like a Democratic legislative agenda. As for energy over judicial confirmations, the course of again in the ’50s had none of the partisan implications it has at present. Lastly, the relative collegiality of Washington meant that in an evenly divided Senate, Johnson may achieve concessions on points like committee assignments in return for not difficult the Republicans’ organizational management.

Because it occurred, in November 1954, Democrats received management of the Senate — a management they’d maintain for the subsequent 26 years. Since that point, no senatorial dying has shifted numerical management of the chamber (although it practically occurred when South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson was struck by a mind hemorrhage in 2006).

At present, if a Republican governor despatched a get together member to interchange a deceased Democrat, it’s laborious to think about Mitch McConnell — or any Republican chief — agreeing to let Democrats hold the energy to arrange the Senate. And to place a bipartisan spin on the query: when Jeffords left the GOP in 2001 and introduced he’d align with the Democratic caucus, did Daschle decline the probability for his get together to turn out to be the majority?

It’s this mixture of an evenly divided Senate and the scorched-earth nature of at present’s political battles that makes this train extra than simply morbid hypothesis. Governors have been selecting members of their very own get together to interchange senators of the different get together for many years. (It even occurs in nationwide tragedies: When the Democratic icon Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, the Republican New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller, changed him with a Republican, Charles Goodell.) In additional than 200 circumstances going again greater than 100 years, governors have named a substitute from the different get together solely 3 times.

Now, nevertheless, with the Senate majority hanging by the thinnest of threads, that conventional gubernatorial energy looms as a probably deadly blow to Democratic management over the subsequent yr. (Confronted with a potential shift of energy that a sudden Senate emptiness would set off, would McConnell emulate Lyndon Johnson and keep his hand, allowing Democrats to retain organizational management over the Senate? It’s doable, however is there something in his previous that implies McConnell would decline to know one other lever of energy?)


One postscript: this risk to Democratic dominance of the Senate isn’t the most excessive risk. The twenty fifth Modification particulars how our system offers with a president unable to discharge the duties of the workplace: the vp and a majority of the Cupboard could make such a discovering, and in that case, the vp would briefly assume the duties of the workplace.

However what occurs if a vp turns into unable to carry out the duties of the workplace? If he or she falls unwell, or is severely injured, there’s no mechanism to off-load the job to anybody else — which signifies that in a 50-50 Senate, there’d be nobody to interrupt a tie. (If this appears past the pale, do not forget that we realized simply this week that Harris was inside Democratic Nationwide Committee headquarters as an undiscovered bomb was mendacity exterior the constructing on Jan. 6, 2021.)

Is there something remotely comforting about such ideas? Nicely, it makes worries over Joe Manchin’s doable defection a lot simpler to ponder.

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