Warnock wins. Sinema goes Independent. Still time to exhale?

Whew! Senator Raphael Warnock was reelected to the United States Senate, giving the Democrats a 51-49 margin. But wait! Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, concerned about holding her seat in 2024, just switched from Democrat to Independent. So the numbers are now 50-49-1. Even with Vice President Kamela Harris’s tie-breaking role, Warnock’s win was all the more significant.

While many of us can now breathe more easily, it’s important to consider the closeness of this race. Hershel Walker, a man totally unfit to be a U.S. Senator, a man who couldn’t string two sentences together and make any sense, got nearly half the vote in Georgia.  With 99 percent of the vote counted, 1,719,522 allegedly sentient human beings chose a man of no moral fiber, a political cypher, outrageous misogynist,  hypocrite and liar. Walker lost by just 2.8 percent of the vote. This, though the Democrats
outspent the Republicans three to one in the Peachtree State, out-organized them and flooded the airways and streets with campaign messages.  Someone less noisome than Trump’s candidate might well have won in a state in which other Republicans were uniformly victorious.

Still, despite unfavorable ratings and dyspeptic public attitudes toward the country’s track forward, Biden and the Democrats have a lot to be happy about.  This is the first time since 1934 that a sitting President’s party has gained in both the Senate and governors’ offices in a midterm. Democrats lost control of the House but by a dramatically smaller margin than historically predicted.

A variety of forces, from reaction to the Dobbs abortion decision, to recognition of some substantive legislative achievements, to a visceral revulsion to further undermining of our fragile democracy made the outcome possible. But Democrats should not read the results as a mandate. Cumulatively, the midterm election wasn’t a landslide. Just as 2020 was a modest cry for “normalcy,”  the message of 2022 is that a small majority voters don’t love most extremist wackos, especially if touted by Donald Trump. 

So, what does a 50-49-1 Senate really mean? If Sinema caucuses with the Democrats, it means not needing 50-50 power sharing arrangements, and Democrats could have more clout on committees. They should be able to move legislation,  and President Biden’s nominees for judicial and high-level executive positions will not be held up indefinitely, just because they could be. Committees would be able to issue subpoenas and conduct their own investigations. But Democratic partisans may have to swallow hard and moderate their goals, lest they lose their edge in 2024.

The map for 2024 is daunting. Democrats will have more than twice as many Senate seats to defend as will Republicans. Some of those Democrats are in heavily red states, such as in Ohio (Sherrod Brown) , Montana (Jon Tester), and West Virginia (Joe Manchin).  Republicans will surely target highly competitive swing states in Arizona (Sinema), Michigan (Debbie Stabenow), Nevada (Jacky Rosen), Pennsylvania (Bill Casey) and Wisconsin (Tammy Baldwin).  The most potentially vulnerable Republicans might be Ted Cruz in Texas and Rick Scott in Florida. But results from 2022 state races demonstrate Texas and Florida have become redder, and neither is likely to be a battleground swing state.  It’s sobering to remember that this year, while Democratic incumbents all won, the only race they flipped was in Pennsylvania. Wisconsin and North Carolina were clear lost pickup opportunities. There won’t be these opportunities in 2024.

Now,  with the House now in Republican hands, albeit by the same narrow margin the Democrats had for the past two
years, Biden’s ambitious legislative agenda will likely be hobbled. The House Republicans will likely have a field day, initiating
investigations, possible impeachments, holding Medicare and Social Security hostage to raising the debt level if Congress can’t do that during this lame duck session.  There will be plenty of outrageous headlines, not too much serious policy debate. But on many matters, the Senate should be able to block the madness.

Sinema frames her decision as in the tradition of independent-minded (Republican) John McCain and sees her move as “right for my country.” It’s also self-serving for a now extremely unpopular Arizona politician who likely would be successfully primaried by Congressman Ruben Gallegos.

In an op ed in the Arizona Republic, Sinema wrote “Americans are told that we have only two choices – Democrat or Republican – and that we must subscribe wholesale to policy views the parties hold, views that have been pulled further and further toward the extremes.”  Many would agree that the party system has broken down. A whopping 42 percent of American voters identify themselves as Independents. While many among them still “lean” in one direction or the other, there’s clearly dissatisfaction with the idea of being a straight-up or straight-down partisan. In much of the public discourse, the great big moderate middle of the country has lost out to the extremes of both parties, who act as gatekeepers in partisan primaries.

And, while Sinema has been a headache for the Democrats (as has Joe Manchin), it is also true that she has been able to negotiate compromises on issues like gun control, infrastructure, immigration and border security and LGBTQ rights, a deliberative process that is, after all, what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Can you imagine a balance-of-power controlling caucus of real Independents in the U.S. Senate? Not including Bernie Sanders, it could include Angus King (ME), Manchin, Sinema, Tester, Lisa Murkowski, and possibly Susan Collins or even Mitt Romney. So, tighten your seat belts. There are interesting times ahead.

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