Obama’s last chance

His presidential legacy—and the fate of the Keystone pipeline—now hang on six midterm election seats

U.S. President Obama leaves a lectern at the White House in Washington after delivering a statement regarding air strikes on Islamic State positions in SyriaNov. 4 was promising to be a political disaster for Democrats. But in a campaign season beset by twists and surprises, the midterm congressional elections appear to be tightening into a nail-biter that will help define the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency—with potentially large implications for Ottawa.

Congressional elections in the middle of a presidential term historically favour the opposing party. And 2014 became particularly tough when several long-serving incumbent Democratic senators announced retirements in conservative-leaning states like Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota, making the path to a Republican majority much clearer. At stake is control of the U.S. Senate—and with it, control of the legislative agenda for the rest of Obama’s presidency. A third of the 100 seats in the chamber are up for grabs, and Republicans need only a net gain of six seats to gain a majority.

The Republican majority in the House of Representatives has long looked secure. Gaining the Senate would give Republican leaders control of both chambers—enabling them to control the legislative agenda and block confirmation of presidential appointees, from cabinet secretaries to federal judges. Without the Democratic Senate as a firewall, Obama would be left with only the bully pulpit and the veto pen to push back.

Republicans have sketched out what they would do with their majority: “Rip the gavel out of Harry Reid’s hands,” is how conservative group Tea Party Express put it. Reid is the Democratic leader in the Senate who currently controls what legislation gets a vote on the Senate floor.

If Republicans win, the new majority leader would be 72-year-old Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell this summer faced a Tea Party primary challenger who accused him of not being sufficiently conservative; McConnell defeated him with a campaign that at one point saw him awkwardly waving around a rifle on a ballroom stage. McConnell now faces a challenge from moderate Democrat Alison Lundgren Grimes, who declares in her television ads, “I am not Barack Obama,” proceeds to shoot her own rifle, and adds, “Mitch, that’s not how you hold a gun.” Grimes is 35 years old—meaning she was in kindergarten when McConnell was first elected to the Senate. “Thirty years is enough,” another of her ads states.

Grimes started the race in the lead as voters sought a fresh face, but McConnell has since pulled several points ahead as he portrayed his rival as just another Democrat who will do Obama’s bidding.

Obama has hardly been making things easy for his party. The President’s job approval ratings languish barely above 40 per cent in various recent polls. In the wake of a zig-zagging policy response to the crisis in Iraq, Obama’s ratings on terrorism and national security are even lower than George W. Bush’s at the same point in his presidency, when disgust with the Iraq War quagmire resulted in a Democratic-wave in the 2006 midterms that transferred control of both chambers to Bush’s opponents. And Obama’s public relations have been a shambles. He convened a press conference to condemn the beheading of an American journalist, and then headed immediately to play golf—a move he later conceded was a mistake. When he finally announced a military campaign in Iraq, his administration vacillated for days over whether or not it was a “war.” After long overruling his own officials who wanted to arm rebels in Syria, Obama changed his position. He said he would “destroy” the terrorist group Islamic State. But he promised no combat troops would be sent—unless you count the more than 1,000 military “advisers” he ordered into Iraq.

The terrible images of Islamic State beheadings have, meanwhile, fuelled a surge of fear. Three-quarters of Americans now say terrorism is a top concern—compared to only 60 per cent ahead of the 2012 election, according to a poll this month by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press. But only 56 per cent say the government is doing a good job of keeping the country safe—down from 73 per cent in the fall.

A focus on foreign policy crises—including Russia’s slow-motion consumption of eastern Ukraine and the spreading Ebola outbreak in western Africa—has also interrupted the President’s attempt to deliver his message about the economy, which voters say is their No. 1 concern. The economy is growing, but the slow pace of jobs growth amid lingering levels of high unemployment has kept any exuberance at bay. “The job gains really haven’t registered widely with the public. They rate the economy as fair or poor,” said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center. Republicans have an edge as the party best able to deal with the economy, 47 to 39, the Pew poll suggests.

Republicans also have an enthusiasm edge over Democrats, which is particularly important in midterm elections, since voter turnout is much lower than in years when a president is on the ballot.

Despite all the headwinds, the path to a Senate majority is not proving as simple as expected for Republicans. Political forecaster Charlie Cook notes that Republicans are raising less money than Democrats in some key races and less than they did in the 2012 elections. “Many Republican and conservative donors appear to be somewhat demoralized after 2012. They feel they were misled about the party’s chances in both the presidential and senatorial races that year, and/or their money was not well spent. In short, they are giving less, if at all, and it has put Republican candidates in a bind in a number of places,” he wrote in The Cook Political Report last week.

Polls suggest the Republicans are clearly favoured to pick up four seats: in Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia. The question is where they will get two more to make the six they need for a majority. The opportunity lies among four other Democratic-held seats that are now too close to call: Colorado, Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina. There is a snag: polls suggest Republicans, too, must defend three states where the races are now close: Georgia, Iowa and Kansas. Any Republican losses would have to be offset by yet another gain.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Republicans and Democrats alike are shocked to see Kansas on the list of seats up for grabs; it has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1938. But voters are disillusioned with the policies of a Republican governor who slashed taxes on the rich, resulting in huge budget shortfalls. They are turning to an independent candidate for Senate, Greg Orman, a financial investor, over an unpopular incumbent Republican senator, Pat Roberts. Adding to the drama, the Democratic candidate has dropped out of the race to help consolidate support for the independent, who refuses to say whether he would vote with Democrats or Republicans if elected.

How the balance tips will have major implications for policies important to Canada. If McConnell becomes majority leader, he has said he will make energy a priority. That includes legislating approval for the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline from northern Alberta to U.S. refineries—a project that has been the focus of a unusually drawn-out presidential permit process and an irritant in the Canada-U.S. relationship.

“If we have a new majority next year, and a new majority leader, the Keystone pipeline will be voted on the floor of the Senate, something the current majority has been avoiding for literally years,” McConnell said on Sept. 18, according to The Hill newspaper. McConnell pointedly made the remarks on the sixth anniversary of TransCanada’s application for a presidential permit.

The pipeline has passionate supporters among some moderate Democrats, including the Democratic senatorial candidate in Georgia, Michelle Nunn, who is locked in a tight race in a conservative state and uses the pipeline issue in a campaign ad. “Too many Democrats play politics by dragging their feet on the Keystone pipeline,” she said in the ad. And supporters believe they have the required 60 votes in the Senate to overcome any filibuster by environmentalist-minded Democrats.

Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry, a Republican who authored the pipeline legislation in the House, said a Republican majority in the Senate would be a game-changer for the cross-border project. “The majority leader changing is a big deal to the Keystone pipeline,” Terry said in an interview. “The stakes are high because if the Senate turns Republican then you will have a majority leader who will bring the bill to the floor, and it will probably have 60 votes.”

Of course, President Obama could veto such legislation, which would require a two-thirds majority in both chambers to overcome. Still, a fully Republican Congress could attach it to other legislative measures Obama wants or the country needs, making it harder for him to do so. McConnell has already said his strategy for overcoming potential presidential vetoes would be to attach the policy changes to bills that appropriate funding for government departments. “We’re going to pass spending bills, and they’re going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy,” McConnell told Politico in August.

Another piece of McConnell’s agenda that affects Canada is his stated plan to roll back regulations of the Environmental Protection Agency—including the centrepiece of Obama’s climate-change policy: a rule that requires deep emissions cuts from coal-fired power plants and which has put pressure on Ottawa by steering the U.S. onto a clearer path than Canada toward meeting its overall climate targets. Republicans have branded the regulations a “war on coal” and McConnell, a coal-state senator, is particularly opposed to them. “I predict a full-scale assault on environmental regulation,” a former top Reid aide, Jim Manley, told Bloomberg in August.

Other Republican goals include promoting more natural gas extraction and offshore drilling, as well as changing U.S. law to allow the export of crude oil.

The EPA would be only one target in McConnell’s planned assault on government regulations: he has said that financial regulations and parts of Obama’s health care reform would also be in his sights. The President would have to choose between funding government departments or rolling back some of his legacy.

There is one other possible result come Nov. 4: a 50-50 tie in the Senate. The U.S. Constitution makes provisions for a tie-breaker: the vice-president, Joe Biden, who would be transformed in Obama’s final two years from an official of little significance to one of the most powerful men in the country. It might prove a fitting end to an already remarkable race.

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