California plays no role in the biggest political story of the year, the Democrats’ desperate struggle to hold off a Republican takeover of the Senate. No matter: a handful of faraway national political battles carry enormous importance for the state, and the high stakes may be summed up with a few names and numbers:
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, age 82
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, age 78
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, age 78
Why it matters: At first glance, the high probability that Republicans will seize control of the Senate may seem to Californians with…you know, actual lives…little more than yet another partisan, inside-the-Beltway, tit-for-tat drama, of genuine interest only to elected officials, lobbyists, political hacks, professional media blowhards, plus assorted plutocrats and greed heads.
Conservative corporate interests, Tea Party populists and denizens of the right-wing “news” bubble have treated President Obama’s presidency as illegitimate from his first day in office, an obstructionist stance that greatly deepened when the GOP won control of the House in the 2010 mid-terms. With Republicans already effectively stonewalling and shutting down his every action, idea and utterance, reflexively and in lockstep, what practical difference would it make if they do so more loudly?
As David Leonhardt argues persuasively in “The Upshot,” however, a GOP takeover of the Senate portends escalating trouble for progressives everywhere, in at least three key ways:
–Climate change: Thwarted by science deniers in Congress in his bid for a comprehensive national strategy, Obama more recently has used executive actions to impose lower carbon standards on power plants and automakers. Republican Senate leaders are already crowing about undoing these moves through federal budget ploys and schemes.
–Rear guard actions – House Republicans became a staple of late night TV jokes by futilely voting to roll back the Affordable Care Act 54 times in four years – (Bill Maher: “The Republicans in Congress voted to repeal Obamacare for a 40th time today. It’s really now less a governing philosophy – it’s more like Charlie Manson applying for parole”). If the Senate joins their reactionary effort, not only against health care, but also by attacking the Dodd-Frank Wall Street and banking regulations, however, Obama would face a non-stop barrage of such efforts, with bitter political and legal trench warfare the most pleasant possible outcome.
–The judiciary. Actuarial tables suggest at least one sitting Supreme Court justice will die or retire in the president’s final two years in office, so it’s worth comparing the type of replacement Obama – or his successor — might get through the Democratic Senate with one able to win approval from a Republican-dominated, um, World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, at a time when the conservative court has moved the country ever further rightward on a host of ideological issues since it hijacked the 2000 presidential election. At least as important, Obama’s ability to populate lower, but crucial federal circuit and appellate courts with moderates would be thoroughly hamstrung.
Fun with numbers: At least four major political websites have developed elaborate computerized statistical models to track the day-to-day odds of a Republican takeover, based on the latest polls and events. Frankly, however, trying to keep up with it all requires a full-time commitment to sitting in mom’s basement in your jammies, staring into your Mac. We name no names.
The cheat sheet arithmetic is this: Democrats currently hold an effective 55-45 majority in the Senate, counting their members and two reliable Independents. This means that Republicans must win a net six seats in the 36 states with Senate elections next month.
Just trust us on the preliminary calculus; then the deal comes down to who wins in five states – Alaska, Colorado, Iowa, North Carolina and Kansas. If GOP candidates win two of those five, they are all but guaranteed to capture the Senate.
Writing in Beltway-speak, frenetic Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza, explains:
Of the quartet of Democratic seats, North Carolina — somewhat amazingly — looks to be the toughest pickup for Republicans. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), thanks at least in part to a spending edge on television over the last month or so, has managed to build a steady four-ish-point edge that state House Speaker Thom Tillis (R) has been unable to narrow. Republicans feel increasingly positive about Alaska — where the Chamber of Commerce released a poll this week showing Dan Sullivan (R), whom the group has endorsed, ahead of Sen. Mark Begich (D) by six points — and Colorado, where three straight polls show Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) ahead. Iowa is, today, the purest toss up race in the country.
But for Republicans, Kansas has become a major headache. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), having survived a contested primary in August, seemed to think reelection to a fourth term was ensured and stopped doing, well, much of anything. Meanwhile, independent businessman Greg Orman was spending seven figures on an August media buy that boosted him significantly. Democrat Chad Taylor’s decision to drop out of the race — and the subsequent legal ruling that his name could be removed from the ballot — further endangers Roberts by coalescing the anti-Roberts vote.
No animals were harmed in the production of those two grafs.
The Obama factor – As a practical matter, the GOP’s strongest weapon is Obama himself. Nearly every mid-term election boils down to a referendum on the president; this one’s job performance and personal favorability ratings have plummeted since his 2012 re-election, due to a long, sad and familiar list of setbacks and failures, from the flawed roll-out of the Affordable Care Act website, to a series of ginned up Fox News “scandals” – Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi! – and a growing perception of presidential weakness, confusion and uncertainty on roiling national security matters around the world.
The GOP Senate strategy is simple: “President Obama is not popular,” Cillizza writes, wading deep into the weeds to explore the historic relationship between a president’s stature and mid-term results. “The closer you can link a Democrat to Obama, the better.”
Through seniority, both have ascended to powerful positions in Washington, and at their ages – Feinstein, 81, and Boxer, 74 next month – would find returning to minority status a repulsive development. Rumors already are rife that Boxer will not seek re-election in 2016; Feinstein’s term ends in 2018.
In an assessment of the situation, Carolyn Lochhead, longtime Capitol Hill reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes:
Boxer, a key backer of the administration’s controversial plan to cut carbon emissions from power plants, would cede the helm of the Environment and Public Works Committee to climate-change denier Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Feinstein would lose the chairmanship of the Intelligence Committee, where she has spearheaded a multiyear fight against the CIA to expose torture practices during the George W. Bush administration — a campaign that Republicans have boycotted.
Feinstein, who long has played a central role in California’s water fights, would also cede the chairmanship of the energy and water panel of the Appropriations Committee, which has given her outsize clout on water issues. The panel controls spending on every water project in the country.
So there’s that.
Can’t tell the players without a scorecard: For those eager to surrender the next four weeks of their lives to scurrying down deep, online rabbit holes in pursuit of endless factoids and trivia about the great 2014 fight for the Senate, here are the go-to sites:
Election Lab. The Washington Post’s computer model tends to be the most bullish on Republican chances.
The Upshot. The New York Times model strongly leans Republican.
538. The ESPN-owned site of idiot savant Nate Silver is recommended for serious gamblers.
Princeton Election Consortium. Princeton professor Sam Wang is an outlier, having consistently touted Democratic chances of hanging on to a majority; for junkies, his ongoing online feud with Silver on the subject is worth the price of admission.
(A version of this column was published by the Santa Barbara Independent on Oct. 2)