We can stop obsessing so much about how Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are going to vote. Long the crucial swing votes in the U.S. Senate, they will still be crucial to the GOP’s majority, but for the next two years, when the Senate considers legislation that Democrats unanimously oppose, the real deciders are likely to be Cory Gardner and Mitt Romney. (And maybe Martha McSally.)
With Cindy Hyde-Smith’s win in Mississippi this week, the next Senate is set: Republicans will have 53 seats in the 2019-2020 session, up from their 51 in 2018. The Democrats, of course, control the House now, so big conservative bills like repealing the Affordable Care Act aren’t likely to become law. But the Senate still approves Cabinet appointees and judges. Those votes should be easier for Republicans to win next year. With two extra votes to spare, nominees can be approved even if both Collins and Murkowski oppose them. And three of the other Republicans who have voted against President Trump’s position the most often, as measured by our Trump score, won’t be in the chamber in 2019: the late John McCain and retiring Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
So who will emerge as the key swing votes in the Senate? Among sitting members,1 our Trump score suggests that Kentucky’s Rand Paul is actually the most anti-Trump Republican in the chamber, opposing Trump initiatives about 25 percent of the time. Then, aside from Collins and Murkowski, Utah’s Mike Lee and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse have broken with Trump the next most often among returning GOP senators. (Note that while our metric is called the “Trump score,” the president’s position on issues that come up for votes in the Senate nearly always aligns with the position supported by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Senate GOP leadership.)
But when I looked at the times Lee, Paul and Sasse voted against the Trump position, it was often on spending bills that overwhelmingly passed the Senate. In those cases, their opposition was basically meaningless. It allows them to claim that they are the among the most fiscally conservative Republicans in Washington, but it doesn’t actually stall legislation and potentially annoy McConnell or Trump.
Romney, I think, might be willing to vote against Trump’s positions on big issues. He has considerably backtracked from a 2016 speech in which he attacked Trump more harshly than even many Democrats did back then, but the Utah senator-elect is still putting distance between himself and the president. Moreover, Romney won’t have much of an electoral incentive to toe the line. He’s 71 years old, and after two unsuccessful presidential runs, I doubt he is going to seek the Oval Office again, so he doesn’t have to worry too much about pissing off the national GOP base. And Trump isn’t well-liked in Utah, particularly considering it’s such a red state. The president had a -2 net approval rating there in October, according to Morning Consult. Romney, on the other hand, won his Senate election by a hefty margin, and nearly two-thirds of voters in the state said they’d like to see him stand up to Trump, according to a recent poll, so he likely has a lot of room to oppose the president without endangering his seat.
Colorado’s Gardner has a more obvious reason to potentially vote against controversial Trump appointees and judges: political survival. It’s hard to see Trump winning Colorado in 2020 — he lost there by 5 percentage points in 2016. When Gardner is up for re-election in 2020, he will likely need some Democrats or independents to back him even as they vote against Trump. And at least right now, it would be hard for Gardner to separate himself from the president: He backs the Trump position 91 percent of the time. And, among the 100 current senators, he is tops in voting with Trump more often than the political ideology of his state would predict.2
Gardner votes with Trump more often than expected
Sitting senators by the difference between their actual and predicted Trump scores
|Patrick J. Toomey||PA||91||54||+37|
|Susan M. Collins||ME||79||48||+31|
|Roger F. Wicker||MS||96||83||+14|
|Orrin G. Hatch||UT||96||83||+14|
|Richard C. Shelby||AL||95||90||+5|
|Benjamin L. Cardin||MD||27||21||+5|
|Mazie K. Hirono||HI||23||19||+4|
|Patrick J. Leahy||VT||25||21||+4|
|Shelley Moore Capito||WV||96||93||+3|
|James M. Inhofe||OK||95||92||+3|
|Thomas R. Carper||DE||35||34||+2|
|Charles E. Schumer||NY||25||24||+2|
|Chris Van Hollen||MD||23||22||+1|
|Mark R. Warner||VA||43||43||0|
|James E. Risch||ID||91||91||0|
|Christopher A. Coons||DE||33||34||-1|
|Angus S. King Jr. (Ind.)||ME||46||48||-2|
|Michael B. Enzi||WY||91||93||-2|
|Richard J. Durbin||IL||23||27||-4|
|Kamala D. Harris||CA||15||20||-5|
|Edward J. Markey||MA||13||21||-8|
|Bernard Sanders (Ind.)||VT||11||21||-10|
|Kirsten E. Gillibrand||NY||9||24||-15|
|Michael F. Bennet||CO||29||44||-15|
|Catherine Cortez Masto||NV||33||49||-16|
|Cory A. Booker||NJ||13||31||-18|
|Margaret Wood Hassan||NH||33||53||-20|
|Gary C. Peters||MI||32||54||-22|
|Robert P. Casey Jr.||PA||30||55||-25|
|Joe Manchin III||WV||61||93||-32|
Being a Republican in a blue state who almost always backs Trump and GOP initiatives is politically dangerous. Nevada’s Dean Heller, who was the last Congress’s second-most pro-Trump senator compared to his state’s politics, can attest to that — he just lost his re-election race.
McSally, who ran for a Senate seat in Arizona this fall but narrowly lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, is not even in the Senate right now. But Sen. Jon Kyl, who was appointed to fill John McCain’s old seat, doesn’t have to stay in the role through 2020, when a special election will be held for the seat. Some Republicans are floating the idea of Kyl resigning so that Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey can tap McSally to fill the seat. If McSally were appointed, she would have a chance to gain some experience and build up her profile, which might make it easier for her to win the special election.
At the same time, Arizona is moving left, as McSally’s recent loss illustrates. If McSally were in the Senate in 2019 and 2020, she would likely need to distance herself from the president in some ways too.
So Collins-Gardner-Murkowski-Romney (and maybe McSally) is the coalition I’m watching in 2019.
To be clear, I don’t think this group will actually stop much of what Trump tries to do. Romney might be the next Jeff Flake, annoying conservatives by occasionally slamming Trump’s rhetoric but disappointing liberals by not actually opposing the president’s agenda much. Romney, like Flake, is fairly conservative on policy issues — I assume he would have voted yes on Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, for example, just as Flake did. And remember, much of the Trump agenda in the Senate is really the McConnell agenda — basically traditional Republican orthodoxy.
So where could this group play a more pivotal role? When and if Trump tries to go beyond picking traditionally conservative figures — Kavanaugh is mainstream enough that a president Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio might have selected him, too — and starts nominating true Trump loyalists or more controversial figures.
For example, some conservatives are pushing for Trump to nominate outgoing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to run the Department of Homeland Security. The president seems ready to remove current DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and Kobach and Trump are aligned on pushing U.S. policy toward greater limits on immigration. But I’m not sure Gardner or Romney will want to vote for Kobach.
Also, beyond votes, I think these senators are likely to be the Republicans in Washington who are most willing to criticize Trump publicly. And, as I have written before, there is some evidence that such criticism from within his own party matters to the president. Key Republicans in the Senate, for example, strongly urged Trump to reverse his policy that resulted in children being separated from their families at the border, which he eventually did.
“I expect that the unusually stark Senate Republican criticism of the president will continue on issues like Russia and foreign policy,” said Matt Glassman, a congressional expert at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. “And I believe that has a serious effect of constraining Trump.”
Glassman thought Romney in particular could play a major role the next two years.
“He’s going to be very conservative, but also very loud at times,” Glassman said. “He likes and wants the stage.”