We Might Not Know Who Controls The Senate For A While -- And It Could Create Total Chaos In Washington

Washington dc capitol dusk shadowREUTERS/Jonathan ErnstStaff members walk past the US Capitol dome ahead of President Barack Obama’s first address to a joint session of congress, in Washington, February 24, 2009.

Next week, voters will head to the polls, but the biggest question of this year’s midterm election — whether Republicans take control of the US Senate — could be in limbo for another two months.

Party strategists have long prepared for the possibility two of the most contentious Senate races — in Louisiana and Georgia — could both go into a runoff.

With both races tight, the two runoff appear more and more likely, and if they end up being the decisive for Senate control, the unprecedented scenario could throw Washington for a loop during the planned lame-duck session of Congress. It could force party leaders to change strategy and shelve legislative priorities in favour of another few weeks of midterm politics.

Both Louisiana and Georgia will hold runoffs if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote in next Tuesday’s election.

Right now, in Louisiana, where Rob Maness is siphoning votes from fellow Republican and establishment candidate Bill Cassidy, a runoff between Cassidy and incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu seems all but certain.

And in Georgia, both Republican candidate David Perdue and Democrat Michelle Nunn are polling under 50%. Georgia’s runoff also wouldn’t be held until Jan. 6 — three days after the planned start of the next session of Congress.

Even if the Republicans take the Senate, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid would hold his position for the first few days of the year. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would be due to take over on January 5, which means leadership would be in limbo for at least a full day in addition to the lame duck period at the end of this year.

A Democratic strategist who spoke to Business Insider floated several plausible scenarios that would leave the Senate hanging until Jan. 6:

  • Republicans win expected races in South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia. That would give both parties 45 Senate seats.
  • Democrats hold on in New Hampshire and North Carolina, and pull off surprises in two of three states where they currently trail in the polls: Alaska, Iowa, and Colorado. This would give them 49 seats.
  • Republicans stay on top in Kentucky and Kansas, where two of their most senior members — Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Pat Roberts — are facing close races. And they win one of Alaska, Iowa, or Colorado. This would give them 48 seats to the Democrats’ 49 and would make Louisiana and Georgia vital.
U.S. President Barack Obama talks with U.S. Senator Mary LandrieuREUTERS/Larry DowningU.S. President Barack Obama talks with U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (L), Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (2nd R), and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (R) after arriving at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans September 3, 2012.

Louisiana is considered more likely to determine control of the Senate, since polls and current conditions on the ground favour Republicans to win at least two ofAlaska, Iowa, and Colorado. Under that scenario, if the GOP also won Louisiana’s runoff on Dec. 6, they would capture control of the Senate.

However, if the Democrats do surprise on election night, it would mean Republicans would have to win both runoffs in Louisiana and Georgia to take the Senate. But Cassidy is favoured to win a runoff in Louisiana, as Landrieu hasn’t led in a head-to-head poll between the two candidates since July.

“There’s definitely a good chance the Republicans will be stuck at 50 seats on Election Day and need one of those two runoffs to clinch control,” Tom Jensen, the director of Public Policy Polling, told Business Insider.

“I think their chances of doing so will be pretty strong though. Almost everyone in Louisiana voting for one of the candidates other than Landrieu and Cassidy says Cassidy would be their second choice, so he would at least start out as the favourite in a runoff even if Landrieu finishes first next Tuesday.”

If Louisiana’s runoff does not decide Senate control, however, it would be a sprint to the eventual finish in Georgia in January. Both parties would deploy operatives to one or both of the states, and there would be a fresh push for new donations.

Analysts consider it likely parties and outside groups will pour tens of millions of dollars into both runoffs combined. But the situation would also add a wrinkle in the donor factor — campaign finance law counts runoffs as an extension of the initial race and not a new one, meaning that fundraisers who have already maxed out to candidates or party committees could not donate again.

For Democrats, the key to winning a runoff in Georgia would be maintaining momentum Nunn has gathered over the past few weeks. In Georgia’s two previous Senate runoffs, turnout fell more than 40% from Election Day to January — though those runoffs came in presidential years, meaning there could be less of a drop this time.

Ironically, it would be a much better situation for Nunn if Senate control was already decided on Election Day — even if it meant Republicans gained control of the chamber.

“Given David Perdue’s troubles, it’s possible that having two more months could help Michelle Nunn’s campaign find further weaknesses to exploit,” said Geoffrey Skelley, an associate editor at Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball.”

“At the same time, if Georgia’s race is set to decide things, it will be harder and harder for Nunn to maintain separation from her and national Democrats, especially if the lame duck Senate is taking major action.”

Harry ReidAPHarry Reid could be confronted with tough choices during the lame duck if Senate control rests in the balance.

If Senate control hangs in the balance ahead of the runoff elections, it could have a “halting effect” on the start of the lame duck session, said Chris Krueger, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities. It could also shift the priorities of Democrats, who have talked up an ambitious lame-duck agenda.

Reid has said he plans to try to confirm as many of Obama’s executive and judicial nominees as possible while Democrats still have a majority. The White House also hasn’t ruled out trying to get a new Attorney General to replace Eric Holder confirmed during the lame-duck session. But if Senate control is still to be determined, Reid might be wary of making Landrieu take tough polarising votes Republicans could use against her in a runoff.

“I think it’s highly likely Democrats rethink their operating strategy if Senate control rests on the runoffs,” a senior Republican Senate aide told Business Insider. “The prospect of losing Senate control based on pushing their liberal agenda through in [the lame-duck session] is something I’d say they’re taking very seriously.”

The scenario could also further delay one of Obama’s biggest priorities of the next few months — taking executive action to reform the nation’s immigration system.

The thinking, according to multiple Republican congressional aides, is the president would not want to take any action that could be fodder for Republicans in both Louisiana and Georgia. Opposition to the immigration reform favoured by Obama and other Democrats has been a key driver of conservatives to the voting booth.

“The things they’d be voting on are the exact things they probably wouldn’t want to be voting on,” the Republican aide said. “And the things they might want to happen probably wouldn’t.”

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