WASHINGTON — Republicans cemented their hold on the Senate Tuesday night for another two years, ensuring President Donald Trump will have a built-in army of allies to advance his agenda, confirm his judges and defend his office.
But the GOP triumph also means Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will have many of the same challenges that have dogged him in the current Congress.
By 10:45 p.m., Republicans had secured 50 seats, giving them a majority because Vice President Mike Pence breaks ties. Republicans beat two Democratic incumbents: Businessman Mike Braun beat Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana, and Rep. Kevin Cramer beat Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota.
Candidates Trump campaigned for in the final days before the midterms — Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — prevailed.
“In a year when Republicans faced stiff political headwinds, an avalanche of liberal political spending and the historic midterm election disadvantage, our successful defense of the Republican Senate majority was a crucial accomplishment,” said Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned political action committee which spent $123.4 million this cycle.
McConnell is currently presiding over a Senate with 51 Republicans.
Next year, he’ll still have to rely on a largely uncooperative Democratic minority, since it usually takes 60 votes to advance major legislation. He’ll also still be working alongside a president whose volatility makes it hard for Republicans to stay on message.
Still, with the retirements of two of Trump’s biggest GOP critics — Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee — McConnell’s Republican Senate stands to have more ideological unity and a shared sense of purpose as it prepares for 2020.
That’s when the president is up for re-election, when he will try to tell voters what his party has accomplished. McConnell will be seeking to deliver the types of legislative victories that can bolster that argument and excite the national Republican base.
McConnell will also face re-election that year, meaning voters will be judging his own job performance.
“(They) are actually joined at the hip in terms of their own re-election campaigns,” said Scott Jennings, a political consultant and longtime McConnell confidante. “Trump’s successes are McConnell’s, and McConnell’s are Trump’s.”
Senate Republicans will have to look to Trump to plot a legislative blueprint.
Congress could be asked to approve an updated trade deal with Canada and Mexico, with McConnell expected to get his members to support the agreement Trump negotiated. And the president recently said Republicans should pass another tax bill that provides relief to the middle class.
McConnell could try to help Republicans fulfill their years-old pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, which would be a major gift to Trump. The Senate GOP in 2017 fell short of the votes to overturn former President Barack Obama’s 2010 health care law and McConnell called the failure “the one disappointment of this Congress from a Republican point of view.”
McConnell and 20 of his Senate Republican colleagues are up for re-election in 2020, and several come from states with rapidly changing demographics that could prove challenging for the GOP.
Though he has already shown an ability to raise a considerable amount of money for the GOP — the Senate Leadership Fund has raised more than $100 million for the midterm elections, including $37.6 million in September — he’ll have to do more than that.
He will have to work to protect incumbent senators such as Thom Tillis of North Carolina, David Perdue of Georgia and Cory Gardner of Colorado — and even outgoing Senate Republican Whip John Cornyn of Texas — against votes that could alienate their diversifying constituencies.
If conservatives from deep-red states want to build Trump’s border wall, they might have to finally grapple with legislation that would provide a pathway to legal status for certain undocumented immigrants.
If the GOP wants to pass an Obamacare alternative, it will have to be mindful not to cut spending for Medicaid. McConnell might have to reconsider his recent suggestion that the Republican Senate could try to overhaul entitlement programs such as Social Security as a way of reining in the deficit.
Ultimately, with all the competing regional, ideological and political factions, there’s only one sure thing McConnell can count on to score wins for Trump and the party: Confirming judges, which only requires a simple majority and doesn’t depend on the dynamics in the House.
Since Trump was sworn into office in 2017, McConnell has made confirming Trump’s judicial nominees a signature accomplishment. He has, so far, shepherded 82 conservative judges to lifetime appointments on federal circuit and district court benches, as well as two Supreme Court justices.
In 2017, he led the effort to change Senate filibuster rules to make it easier to confirm justices, a crucial maneuver for Republicans to confirm Neil Gorsuch with a very slim GOP majority. Gorsuch was promoted in a 54-45 vote.
This year, McConnell risked backlash from women voters by aggressively promoting Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, hoping the gambit would have a galvanizing effect on Republican voters ahead of the midterms.
Democrats, and even some Republicans, have suggested that if there’s another Supreme Court vacancy during the next two years, the Senate would have to wait until after the election to move forward with confirming a new justice.
It would only be fair, they argue. Republicans in 2016 refused to consider Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee, reasoning an outgoing president should not get to make such a crucial appointment.
McConnell has refused to make that commitment.
“You have to go back to go back to 1880 to find the last time a Senate controlled by a party different from the president filled a vacancy on the Supreme Court that was created in the middle of a presidential election year,” he recently said on Fox News.
Anthony Kennedy, whose retirement from the Supreme Court earlier this year resulted in Kavanaugh’s nomination, was appointed by a Republican president, Ronald Reagan, in 1987, and confirmed by a Democratic-led Senate, 97-0, in February 1988.
Moving ahead with confirming a Supreme Court justice in 2020 would be exactly the type of red-meat, hardline gesture that excites the GOP base.
McConnell’s Republican colleagues stand ready to help deliver other wins for Trump, too.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., could become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee if Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, decides to head the Senate Finance Committee, a decision Grassley said he would not make until after the election.
Graham emerged from the Kavanaugh hearings a more hardened partisan, furious with his Democratic colleagues for trying to derail the nominee because of what the senator called false accusations of sexual misconduct. Though Graham has a history of working across the aisle, there’s every suggestion now that he would be unrelenting in moving Republican judicial nominees through the committee pipeline.
He recently promised to introduce legislation that would eliminate “birthright citizenship,” piggybacking on Trump’s own stated interest in ending the practice. Graham also said he would use his potential chairmanship to investigate the “Steele dossier,” a memo making various claims about Trump’s ties to Russia that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign helped fund.
Graham’s interest in helping McConnell help Trump is also self-serving: He is also up for re-election in 2020.