For most of the year, it seemed almost certain that
But the outlook has turned murkier in recent weeks. While a GOP majority is still the most likely outcome, it's no longer as sure a bet. Endangered Democratic incumbents in North Carolina and Alaska are waging surprisingly strong campaigns, and a Republican incumbent in Kansas is in unexpected trouble. "We don't have a lock on this thing at all," one GOP strategist told me recently.
It even seems possible that Senate elections could end in a draw, with a 50-50 split, in which case Vice President
And that's not even the most exotic possibility.
One scenario is a Senate in which neither major party wins 50 seats. The next Senate will include two, maybe three independents. Incumbents
We could see senators switching sides. Republicans are talking hopefully about persuading Sen.
And the Senate's makeup could be in doubt for months after the election. In Louisiana, if no candidate wins 50%, the state holds a runoff on Dec. 6 — and that's likely to happen, since the "jungle ballot" includes three Republicans running against incumbent Democrat
But the most intriguing scenario for next year's Senate, paradoxically, is the least exotic one: What happens if Republicans win a slim majority of 51 or 52 seats?
The party would then be like the dog who caught the car and has to figure out what to do with it. When the two houses of Congress have been held by different parties, gridlock has made governance almost impossible. But if the GOP controls both the Senate and the House, its members will be under pressure to govern. At least in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to move major legislation, they'll even have an incentive to compromise to rescue their wholly owned legislative branch from the dank cellar of public esteem.
"To elect a president in 2016, we're going to have to show in 2015 and '16 that the American people can trust Republicans with the government," Sen.
But that won't be easy.
For one thing, the Senate GOP is deeply divided. On one side are pragmatic conservatives such as Alexander and Ohio's
Portman even sounds enthusiastic about the prospect, pointing to earlier eras when Presidents Reagan and Clinton negotiated successfully with opposition majorities.
"I know I may sound naive," he said, but "when we have divided government, that's when we've done tax reform; that's when we've done entitlement reform."
Opposing them from within the party, however, is the take-no-prisoners caucus of Sen.
The man in the middle is Sen.
When he talks to conservative donors and voters, McConnell sounds as ferocious as any
Obama "needs to be challenged, and the best way to do that is through the funding process," McConnell told Politico last month. "We're going to pass spending bills, and they're going to have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy."
But when he realized that sounded as if he were threatening a
Can the GOP's pragmatists resist their party's swing to the right, strike alliances with centrist Democrats and actually pass important legislation next year?
The odds appear stacked against them. But it's worth a try — and at least would offer a new, more interesting form of gridlock.