For Democrats looking to win back a piece of national political power, the House is where the heart is. With a gain of 23 seats needed for control, and the Cook Political Report listing 29 Republican seats at risk (and only three imperiled Democrats), it’s a plausible political target.
Last week, Barack Obama’s political action committee, Organizing for Action—granted, with a highly unimpressive track record in the past two midterms—announced it would throw its energies into some two dozen House races with what a spokesman called “an all-hands-on-deck movement.”
But if the goal is to thwart the wholesale, radical changes in policy that President Donald Trump’s administration is pursuing, the House is the wrong target. It’s the Senate that has been the most significant political player of the past four years.
Although the president has made himself the obsessive focus of friends and foes, it was the Republican capture and retention of the Senate in 2014 and 2016 that was and is the key to what Trump has wrought. To understand why, imagine what the political terrain would have looked like with the Senate in Democratic hands.
Republicans took the Senate in 2014 when popular Democratic incumbents in red and purple states (West Virginia, Iowa, Montana) retired, and Republicans avoided nominating wingnut candidates in other states (Indiana, Colorado, Missouri) that had cost them four or five seats in 2010 and 2012.
With that control, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was able to pull off a singular triumph: blocking President Obama’s nomination to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland with almost a year left in Obama’s second term.
With a Democratic Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid likely would have done exactly what Mitch McConnell did in 2017—abolish the judicial filibuster, and elevate Garland (rather than Neil Gorsuch) to the high court.
If Reid had stayed his hand, his successor, Chuck Schumer, might have exercised a “thermonuclear option” of his own: In the 17 days between the start of the new Senate and Donald Trump’s inauguration, Obama could have renominated Garland and a Democratic Senate could have confirmed him. The fallout would have been huge, but Schumer could have pointed to McConnell’s yearlong obstructionism, and the fact that Trump won 3 million fewer votes than his rival.