As polls show Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden holding what appears to be a solid and durable lead over President Donald Trump, there is a growing assumption among Republicans that Trump is heading for defeat, possibly a big one, and could take their Senate majority down with him.
If Biden wins, the House maintains its majority, and as vice president Kamala Harris gets the tiebreaking vote in the chamber, it would take a net gain of only three Senate seats to give Democrats all the levers of power in Washington come January.
That appears well within reach, with Republicans facing stiffer-than-expected Senate challenges in red bastions such as South Carolina, Montana and Alaska. In an analysis this week of the state of the map, Jessica Taylor of the authoritative Cook Political Report declared Democrats to be “the clear favorite to flip control of the Senate.”
So some Republicans are making a new line of argument, one that embattled Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina voiced recently in an interview with Politico: “The best check on a Biden presidency is for Republicans to have a majority in the Senate. And I do think ‘checks and balances’ does resonate with North Carolina voters.”
It is not clear where Tillis gets that idea. I checked, and the last time his state voted for one party’s candidate for president and the other’s for Senate was in 1968, when it went for Republican Richard M. Nixon and elected Democrat Samuel Ervin to a third term in the upper house.
So is there any way for endangered Senate Republicans to just bail on the top of the ticket?
In 1996, when GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole fell far short in his bid to unseat President Bill Clinton, Republicans picked up two seats in the Senate.
I caught up recently with Trent Lott, the retired Mississippi Republican who succeeded Dole as Senate majority leader in 1996, and asked him whether there were lessons from those years that might apply today.
“It’s a very different time, and I watch with a lot of fear and trepidation,” he told me.
Lott said his survival strategy was a simple one: getting stuff done.
With election day fewer than three weeks away, it is probably too late for Lott’s eventual successor as majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to rack up big achievements beyond putting Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court. And although confirming Barrett is likely to energize the Republican base, it may energize the other side as well.
Most urgent, Lott said, is action on the covid-19 crisis that has gripped the nation for more than seven months. Negotiations for a relief measure don’t seem to be going anywhere, though Trump has said he would like to see a package that is bigger than the $1.8 trillion proposed.