A Democrat has won in Alabama for the first time in 25 years. The Republican majority is now down to 51-49, which means two Republicans can doom any legislation.
So, what is the real impact of Doug Jones’ election?
The most immediate impact is that Jones will empower moderate Republicans and the ultra-conservatives. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, who were the two dissenters in five of the six Senate votes Mike Pence has had to tiebreak so far, can now kill legislation. Collins was a dissenter in all six cases, which is perhaps even more important. She has been a no vote for the Senate Republicans on many key issues, and will be a no going forward on any plans to reduce Medicare or Medicaid, meaning that the GOP can only lose one more Republican on any of those issues.
Mike Lee and Rand Paul will also experience a key power surge. As ultra-conservatives, they will now have the power to kill any legislation they don’t think goes far enough to the right. Indeed, Paul, who is more rogue than Lee, can also “team up” with Collins in the sense that legislation trying to “thread the needle” could be killed by both the most moderate and most conservative voices in the Senate.
The Republicans – looking past the tax bill – already have a problem with 2018 priorities: despite few legislative achievements, they don’t have any major goals that are actually realistic in 51-49 Senate. Paul Ryan’s dreams of passing radical Medicare-Medicaid-Social Security are dead on arrival in a Senate where only one Republican past Susan Collins has to vote against it. The mandatory cuts from the 2011 rules sequester will still come into effect, but those are annual and perhaps more of a curse than a blessing. Exactly when in American political history have drastic military and social benefits cuts due to government shutdown or inaction been popular for the ruling party?
Jones’ presence will also potentially embolden Republican senators concerned by the low quality and extreme conservatism of many of the Trump judicial nominees. Just this week, two Trump nominees withdrew themselves from consideration because Senator Grassley indicated he would block their approval. Once Jones is in, with Senator Collins already voting against nominees who are too conservative on women’s rights, the judicial confirmation process could slow considerably. At one point, conservatives were stating that, if Trump held the Senate in 2018 and kept up the current pace, he could turn over 30 percent of the Federal Judiciary. If that pace slows and he loses the Senate in next year’s midterms, it could be closer to 10 percent.
Further, Jones totally changes the Democrats’ Senate math. Now, they are a very winnable – indeed favored – Nevada seat away from a 50/50 tie in the Senate where Susan Collins would be the sole derailing vote for any Republican priorities for the last two years of Trump’s term. Beyond that, they are a winnable – though more of a tossup – Arizona seat away from the majority and unlocking the power to launch investigations and block all Trump legislation and judicial nominees for the last two years of the term. They also have options: whereas before Jones the Democrats needed a Phil Bredensen moderate upset in Tennessee or a Beto O’Rouke titanic upset in Texas to win the majority, now that would just pad their total.
Last, he really changes the tone headed into 2018 and beyond. The Republicans are on the back foot, their base is disengaged, and the president is demotivating. If they lose several Senate seats – and if Alabama is in play, then any state is in play, and the House in 2020, then previously unimaginable things such as impeachment come into sharper focus.
After all, if a Mueller investigation brings indictable criminal charges against the president in a 2019 Senate with 53 or 54 Democrats, its far more realistic to imagine a dozen establishment Republican Senators switching sides than if they still controlled the Senate and had to impeach their own president.