The 2020 presidential election is just over a year away, and things are starting to heat up. Twitter is full of soundbites from the Democratic debates, polling numbers are all over the place and President Donald Trump is brainstorming new nicknames for each Democratic candidate. While many Democrats will focus on who can beat Trump, more of them should really be focusing on who can beat Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans who are up for re-election. In American society there is an enchantment with presidential elections, which is understandable. Electing the face of our nation is no small task and deserves a great amount of attention, but the Senate elections may prove to be just as important, if not more so. With recent news of the University of Michigan placing a bid to host a presidential debate, it may become even harder for the students of our school to focus on what is going on in Senate races across the country. 

To truly understand why the Senate elections hold such significant meaning, one must first understand the essential powers of the Senate. The Senate has the power to confirm or reject presidential appointees, approve treaties, conduct investigations, conduct impeachment trials and plays a major role in approving or blocking bills. This gives the Senate power to steer America in the direction it chooses, and the person who currently steers that ship is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell has been a senator since 1984 and has won re-election five times, despite his low approval ratings. For those at home counting, that means he’s been in office for 35 years, making him a real relic of the Senate. 

If I could use one word that perfectly describes McConnell, it would be “obstructionist.” Over the past four years he has done everything in his power to block anything that he doesn’t like, even if it was accomplished through bipartisan compromise. The most obvious example of his obstructionist nature can be seen in 2016 when President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court was blocked by McConnell, who refused to even hold confirmation hearings. “One of my proudest moments was when I looked Barack Obama in the eye and I said, 'Mr. President, you will not fill the Supreme Court vacancy,'” McConnell said. While this is a big deal, this isn’t even the thing that enrages me most about McConnell’s leadership. What should upset every American, let alone every student on campus, is the rate at which he blocks bills that are desperately needed and would greatly benefit the American people. The entire U.S. intelligence community agreed that the Kremlin meddled in our election. In response to this, the House Democrats decided to act. In just the past few months, McConnell has blocked two election security bills. Both bills passed in the House, but when they came to McConnell’s desk, he killed the bills. The bills would have given $600 million to update voting equipment, and included certain paper requirements for voting machines. This was a real attempt to combat a foreign nation hacking our elections. Yet, McConnell saw the bill as hyperpartisan, and refused to hold a vote on it. On top of that, he has blocked numerous bills on gun control that many Americans want. After every mass shooting, we all ask, “Will something be done this time?” Unfortunately, while McConnell is leading the Senate, the answer seems to be no.  

Why does he do all this? Is it because he is a career politician who has been bought by different lobby groups? Yes. Earlier in the year, he received a large campaign donation from the voting machine lobby, then proceeded to block the election security bills that would’ve put a larger financial burden on voting machine companies. Additionally, throughout his career, the National Rifle Association has donated more than $1 million to McConnell’s campaigns. It's clear why he doesn’t want to tackle the gun control issue. But that doesn’t paint the full picture. It’s also because he has had the safety of knowing that no matter what, he will go back to Kentucky and win re-election. McConnell has always been more obsessed with retaining power rather than cooperating with senators across the aisle. In an interview with NPR, McConnell would respond to criticism by continually citing that he has never lost an election for his seat. 

Does this mean all hope is lost? No. In fact, we should be more hopeful than ever. In 2018, the House saw a blue wave that resulted in a net gain of 41 seats for the Democrats, giving them back control of the House. Does that mean we are guaranteed to see the same thing in the Senate? No, not necessarily, but it is possible. First, gerrymandering doesn’t come into play. Unlike the House elections, Senate elections are not affected by gerrymandering or winning without the popular vote. In a Senate race it comes down to who gets the most votes statewide, plain and simple. It is crucial that in the states that have senators up for re-election, the Democratic party does an exceptional job of energizing its base and getting a vast number of Democrats and independents to come out and vote blue. Secondly, if the Democrats were to go on and win the White House, they would only need a net three-seat gain to control the Senate. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Martha McSally, R-Ariz. are widely viewed as vulnerable incumbents. Those three races could end up being key to Democratic success past 2020. Most senators serve for much longer than six years, influencing the direction this country is taking for a long period of time. This influence cannot be underestimated in shaping the Supreme Court, aiding or blocking the Trump administration’s agenda or compromising with their colleagues on key legislation. Who can forget such stalwarts of the Senate like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Sen. John McCain? Kennedy was instrumental in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and we all held our collective breath as McCain was about to cast the decisive vote preventing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Even if the Democrats win the White House, chances are the newly elected president will not be able to achieve any of their goals without the party controlling the Senate. It will be back to status quo for Mitch McConnell and company implementing their obstructionist agenda. 

Jonathan Vaysman can be reached at jvaysman@umich.edu.

 

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