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The Battle for the Senate and the Terrain for Class Struggle

The race to control the Senate has shaped up to be one of election day’s most competitive contests. Here’s what Democratic or Republican control of the Senate means for the working class, and how we must respond.

Sybil Davis

November 2, 2020
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Much has been written (including by the present author) about the state of the upcoming presidential election. The different strategies and politics of Biden and Trump have been examined and reexamined ad nauseum. Far less has been written, however, about the incredibly competitive fight to control the U.S. Senate. Which party controls the Senate and by what margin will have a huge impact on what either a Biden presidency or a second Trump term looks like. For the working class, we must be clear that both options present challenges to our ability to organize, and so we must prepare for either outcome.

The State of the Race

As things stand in the last days before the election, the Democrats are favored to regain control of the Senate. This is both because the 2020 election looks to favor Democrats overall, as well as the fact that the Republicans are defending their gains from 2014, when they picked up nine seats to take control of the Senate. Republicans have 23 Senate seats being challenged this year while the Democrats have only 12. It was going to be a tough year for Republicans regardless. With Trump looking increasingly unlikely to carry the very states in which they need to hold Senate seats, it seems likely Republicans will lose control.

The key races to watch on Tuesday — and the days after — are North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia (where both seats are being contested), Montana, Maine, Alabama, and Iowa. Of those, only Alabama is currently held by a Democrat, Doug Jones. The rest are considered “toss-ups” by the Cook Political Report, while FiveThirtyEight gives Democrats the edge in North Carolina, one Georgia race, and Maine — three states where Biden is polling ahead of Trump. A tide of Biden voters could help the Democratic senatorial candidates in those states. Both polling sites also give the Democrats the edge to pick up Republican seats in Arizona and Colorado.  

The situation in Georgia could turn out to be quite interesting. An early retirement last year created a situation with two simultaneous senate races. In addition, under Georgia law candidates must win50 percent plus one vote on election day or the top two candidates must have runoff on January 5, 2021. If one or both Georgia races go to a runoff we might not know who controls the senate for several months — and many experts think at least one will. That’s the special election that quickly developed into a “who is furthest right” contest between fellow Republicans both vying for the seat, Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who had been appointed to fill the seat until the election, and Rep. Doug Collins. That has elevated the Democratic candidate’s chances. Picking up at least one of those seats is part of the Democratic path to control. 

On election night itself, North Carolina will be one of the first states where polls close, at 7:30 pm EST. North Carolina will be a good barometer of what kind of night Democrats are going to have. The state plans to announce all the early and in-person votes on election night, but can still count absentee ballots up until November 12 meaning we won’t know all of the results on Tuesday. Whether Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham can defeat sitting Republican Senator Thom Tillis straight out, vice versa, or if we have to wait weeks for the results could foretell how the rest of the election will go. At this writing, Cunningham is slightly ahead in polling in what has been an incredibly contentious race that included Tillis diagnosed with Covid-19 and salacious details about Cunningham’s extramarital affair aired continually in Tillis advertisements. These attacks based around conventional ideas of “morality” seem to be less effective in the age of Trump, who abounds with scandals that don’t seem to affect him significantly. A Biden win in North Carolina would help propel Cunningham over the top, as would a successful reelection campaign by Democratic Governor Roy Cooper (who currently holds a healthy lead in the polls). 

South Carolina and Maine could hand Republicans the loss of two high-profile senators: Lindsay Graham and Susan Collins, respectively. Graham is running his closest race in years, although he still holds a narrow lead over Jamie Harrison, who has raised significantly more campaign funds. Polls close in South Carolina at 7pm EST, and the state plans to announce a full tally (including early and mail-in votes) on Tuesday night. A loss for Graham will make an overall Democratic Senate victory almost a sure thing. 

Susan Collins seems primed to lose. After spending more than two decades in the Senate posing as a “moderate Republican,” her chickens may be coming home to roost. Her performative “bipartisanship” of voting against Amy Coney Barrett has alienated the Republican base, while her earlier vote for accused sexual assaulter Brett Kavanaugh cost her much-needed support with moderate Democrats. Sara Gideon, her Democratic challenger, has raised $68 million to $26 million for Collins. Maine’s ranked-choice voting could factor in, too. The candidate running third in the polls has encouraged Gideon as a second choice. Applying rank-choice voting if no candidate tops 50 percent on election could add days before we know the outcome. 

What a Democratic Senate Will Mean

It is almost impossible to imagine Trump pulling out a surprise presidential win and the Democrats also taking the Senate. So, if there is a Democratic Senate, it will likely be part of the first unified Democratic Party government since 2010. However, unlike the early Obama years, control of the Senate will be much more tenuous. In 2009, Democrats fluctuated between 58 and 60 Senate seats (due to deaths and other unexpected vacancies). In 2021, they would have 52 seats, most realistically. Indeed, it is possible that the Senate could split exactly 50/50, so a Vice President Kamala Harris would play tie-breaker to give Democrats control. 

Such narrow control will fuel the internal conflicts that are sure to break out inside the Demcoratic Party as soon as the election is over. As this year’s primaries showed, the Democratic Party base is split between a sector that is moving left (and new Democrats brought into the party by the Sanders phenomenon) and a more conservative sector. These sectors have been brought together under the loosest possible agreement to get Trump out of office. Indeed, Biden and the Democrats’ electoral coalition is very tenuous as it includes everyone from nominally socialist organizers to sectors of big capital.

The progressive wing has been the best possible soldiers throughout the campaign — compromising on every policy demand while campaigning tirelessly for a man who openly says he will veto one of its main programs, Medicare for All. The de-facto leader of this wing, Bernie Sanders, has been campaigning for Biden from Day 1. His base has fallen in line behind Biden, but once the campaign is over will probably come collecting. That will put pressure on the politicians who represent that sector. Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and others will be expected to fight more aggressively for their base’s demands or risk losing its support. That could kick off a nasty power struggle within the party.

The tight control over the Senate will impact this power struggle in one of two ways: it will either give the senators who represent the progressive wing more power because their comparatively smaller numbers will mean more or it will give the establishment wing more power because they will be able to use the threat of the Republicans to whip the progressives into line. What will define this struggle is how much pressure there is from the base to push through a progressive agenda. 

In addition, with a thin majority, Biden will likely continue to move rightward as president in an attempt to win over moderate Republicans. We already see this in Biden’s consideration of Republicans for his cabinet. It will be similar to the Obama strategy in the early years of his presidency: shift to the right, claim it’s to win Republican votes, and use the fear of Republicans to keep the progressives in line. It was not a particularly effective legislative strategy for Obama, as the mythical moderate Republicans never emerged. But that strategy gives a Democratic administration a shield from Left criticism “We wanted to pass those reforms, but those pesky Republicans wouldn’t let it happen” — despite that Republicans will be a minority in both houses of Congress.

Capital has by-and-large thrown its lot in with Biden. They expect him to be able to create the best possible conditions for its interests. Biden will have to do this while also keeping the masses under control — many of whom will have high expectations for reforms they expect a new Democratic administration to provide. Biden and the Democrats could very well try to resolve this by giving some early concessions to the working class. But any concessions will be relatively minor, not nearly enough to address the deepening crisis, and almost certainly prelude to austerity either at the state and federal levels. Obama attempted to implement austerity while also giving minor concessions in the same way.

The only way to win even our most basic demands will be through class struggle, trusting our own forces and mobilizations and not the servants of capital who claim to be our friends. The Left needs to remain extremely alert and active. A large sector will probably view a Democratic administration as a win and will demobilize. We saw this happen with the Black Lives Matter movement. The Democrats and their allies in the NGOs and union bureaucracies were able to channel a massive movement from the streets and into the electoral campaigns of a bourgeois party. The Democrats succeeded in getting many of those involved in the largest uprising against police brutality in history to support two right-wing cop lovers.  

This is the consistent danger of the Democratic Party: it takes dynamic social movements and divert them into the voting booths, where it kills them. The Democratic Party has long been called the graveyard of social movements, but perhaps the executioner of social movements is more apt. To prevent this, the Left must remain alert and active. 

If the Democrats control the entire government, it will be important to point out all of their betrayals, continually and and tirelessly. As history has shown, bourgeois politicians who come to power in a center-left coalition after a right-wing regime are often more effective at implementing the right-wing agenda, because they are seen as allies of the very groups they are attacking. Bill Clinton, for example, had a much easier time destroying welfare than Ronald Regan. The Democrats are hoping they can take power and implement a right-wing agenda without us fighting back, or even noticing. 

What a Republican Senate Will Mean

A Republican-controlled Senate, which could happen under a Biden or Trump presidency, presents two distinct possibilities. In one, Biden takes power with split control of Congress and a Supreme Court stacked against him, which would weaken his administration and mean he’ll have tremendous difficulty getting anything passed. As they’ve shown before, the Republicans are perfectly willing to refuse to play ball with a Democratic president. 

That situation, however, does present some opportunities for Biden. It will be much easier to keep his coalition together if he can cast the Republican Senate as the villain. Every one of Biden’s numerous legislative betrayals of the working class will be explained away as a necessary evil, just to get something passed. It’s the same we heard fromBernie Sanders and AOC earlier this year when they voted for the terrible corporate bailout: it was bad but better than nothing. That will become the Democratic Party slogan for every one of Biden’s proposals to a Republican-controlled senate, and will be used to paint the Democrats as more left than they are and excuse away all the terrible proposals to which they will sign on.

Should the election results reveal a relatively large and late surge in support for Trump and the Republicans in unexpected places, Trump could win a second term and Republicans could retain Senate control. That would give Trump a mandate he didn’t have after 2016. It seems likely this would bolster the Republican approach of austerity for the poor, bailouts for the rich, and increasingly lifting Covid-related restrictions. There will almost certainly be mass mobilizations against Trump that will only increase as conditions worsen, putting a lot of pressure on the government to make concessions to the working class. Increased public resistance to Trump — it is hard to imagine there being less if he is reelected — could make it harder for him to implement austerity. 

No less than if the Democrats control the Senate, it will be the job of the working class and the Left to mobilize, organize, and fight for our demands if the Republicans manage to retain control of the Senate. The added wrinkle is not to let Democrats divert the movement as they’ve done over the past four years, cynically infiltrating, capturing, and then seeking to destroy every movement against Trump and his right-wing advances. At every turn, the Democrats have stabbed us in the back and then told us to make sure we vote. The Democrats are not our allies against the right wing; they are the right wing’s other face. They have no place in any progressive movement. 

Either Way, We Lose

When our only choice is between two parties of capital and imperialism, we lose. A Democratic-controlled Senate might mean more short-term concessions. To keep the “coalition” from turning on them, the Democrats will have to offer up at least a few crumbs. But the extent of these concessions will be limited not only by the current crisis but also because the Democrats have, by and large, shifted rightward to appeal to Republican voters and big capital. If they retake the government, it will be in large part thanks to the millions of dollars funnelled into their campaigns by Super-PACs and corporate donors, who are buying the expectation that Biden will resolve one of the greatest capitalists crises in modern history in their favor.

We lose with a Republican-controlled Senate, too. It will mean more of the same. There will undoubtedly be more tax cuts for the uber-wealthy, more rollbacks of protective regulations, greater limitations on immigration, and cuts to social programs. 

The Senate is a deeply undemocratic institution. It was created to increase the power of states in which slavery was legal, and still overrepresents states that are predominately white. The Senate’s very existence as an institution flies in the face of the most basic concept of “one person, one vote”: the vote of every person in Wyoming is worth about 67 times that of a voter in California, because both states get two enators. 

Both parties will continue to exploit us for our labor and sow violence across the world. Where they slightly disagree is on the best way to do so. 

Organization is needed now more than ever on the Left. The need for the working class and its organizations to break with the Democratic Party is a matter of urgency. Allying with our enemies is a political and strategic failure. The Democrat Party has proven time and time again that it does not have the best interests of the working class and the most oppressed at heart. This will be proven once again in the coming period. If the Democrats retake the Senate they will hand down more misery to the working class and immense wealth to the bourgeoisie. And they will tell us we should thank them for it because, were it not for them, we would have the “greater evil” of the Republicans — who would do the exact same thing. 

As the global crisis deepens, politicians of both parties will ramp up their assault on the working class and try to make us pay for the crisis. The only path forward is to build militant organizations of the working class that can fight back. We also need a party of our own that can organize struggles in the streets and struggles in workplaces and combine them with independent working-class candidates as part of one coherent strategy for winning socialism. 

As the saying goes, our choice is socialism or barbarism. Democrats and Republicans promise one side of that equation. We must fight for the other.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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