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Douglas Andrews / May 19, 2020

The Threats to Republican Senate Control

The GOP faces an uphill task to keep the chamber, but it’s not impossible.

A little more than three years into his presidency, one of Donald Trump’s most important achievements has been a thorough rebuilding of the third branch of government. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Judicial Tracker, the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have to date partnered to place 193 judges on the federal bench. This includes Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and 51 judges to U.S. Courts of Appeals. (For comparison, Barack Obama had made 137 appointments to the federal bench by May 7 of his fourth year.)

Why does this matter? Aside from their obvious differences in judicial philosophy, these appointments are for life, so their impact will be felt long after President Trump has left the stage. But Trump’s ability to appoint constitutionally conservative judges will come to a screeching halt this November if Democrats take control of the Senate in a target-rich election year.

Republicans currently hold a 53-47 majority in the upper chamber, but they’re defending a whopping 23 seats this fall, while Democrats defend just 12. “We have a lot of exposure, a lot of great members up,” said McConnell. “It’s a challenging environment.”

Left-leaning Politico still favors the GOP to retain power, but don’t be lulled by those soothsayers. Republicans are defending four toss-up seats (Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and North Carolina) and at least three other vulnerable ones (two in Georgia, and one each in Iowa and Montana). On the other hand, Republicans are favored to flip the seat currently held by Alabama Democrat Doug Jones. But beyond that, only Republican John James, who’s challenging incumbent Gary Peters in Michigan, has even a slugger’s chance to flip a seat from blue to red.

Recent developments are also working against Republicans. Or are they? North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who last week stepped down from his Senate Intelligence Committee chairmanship, is under joint investigation by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission for insider trading in the wake of $1.7 million in stock transactions he made on February 13. Burr, whose cell phone was confiscated by the feds, received a series of classified briefings on the coronavirus threat in the days leading up to those trades.

So far, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson is one of very few voices on the Right to call for Burr’s resignation. Perhaps others should join the chorus. Burr’s fellow Tar Heel senator, Republican Thom Tillis, holds one of the aforementioned toss-up seats and faces an attractive challenger in Army veteran Cal Cunningham. And Tillis’s prospects for reelection can only be hurt by the specter of a crooked senatorial colleague. (The DNC attack ads practically write themselves.)

If, on the other hand, Burr resigns, Democrat Governor Roy Cooper would name a replacement to serve out the remainder of Burr’s term, which ends in 2022. But that replacement would, by law, be selected from among three candidates hand-picked by State Senate Republicans. So we’ll say it now: Burr’s resignation would, in more ways than one, be a good thing for the GOP.

Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler is in trouble, too, and on two fronts. Loeffler, who was appointed in December by Governor Brian Kemp to replace the ailing Johnny Isakson, is also fending off charges of insider trading. Here, however, her position seems far more defensible than Burr’s because, as the Washington Examiner reports, Loeffler’s transactions were made by financial advisors, and she had no knowledge of them until afterward.

But Loeffler, who is by far the Senate’s richest member and whose husband, Jeff Sprecher, is chairman of the New York Stock Exchange (we can’t make this stuff up), also faces a primary challenge from Congressman Doug Collins, an energetic lawmaker who holds a significant lead over her in early polling. And with powerful and influential Georgians already taking opposite sides in this race, things could get pretty ugly pretty quickly in the Peach State.

All of this is to say that elections do indeed have consequences, and, come November 3, there’ll be a lot more at stake than merely the presidency.

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