What Democrats Hope to Win by Losing

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other Senate Democrats on Capitol Hill last week. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

With the midterms looming, it was time for Democrats to make one last desperate effort to pass voting-rights legislation they consider vital to not just their political prospects in 2022, but the future of American democracy. So last Tuesday, Joe Biden went to Georgia to give a major speech on the subject, and the Senate was set to hold a rare weekend meeting, potentially lining up a debate and vote on a bill on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The symbolism would not be lost: Democrats planned on prompting a confrontation over the filibuster being used, as before, to thwart progress on voting rights. Then on Thursday, as Biden prepared to make a rare visit to the Capitol to lobby personally for the bill, Kyrsten Sinema took the Senate floor.

Speaking in a Senate chamber with nearly a dozen members present, mostly Republicans, the senator from Arizona, who often vexes her party, criticized GOP state laws that make it more difficult to vote — but proclaimed the real problem was political division itself and that changes to the filibuster would “worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country.” Instead, she described the filibuster as “a critical tool that we need to safeguard our democracy from threats in the years to come” and urged more “listening” in the future. With those words, Biden’s Capitol Hill lobbying was doomed before he even left the West Wing.

Yet Democrats still plan to at least try to force a vote on the issue this week and allow for a debate on the topic on the Senate floor. “I think what changes over the next few days is the debate,” said Jon Tester of Montana last week. “I think there’s an opportunity here to have a debate in front of the American people on these two bills. And I think that is the way Congress is supposed to work.” A debate is just about all Democrats are guaranteed to get at this point. Passing the bill would require the entire caucus to not only support the legislation, with no votes to spare, but to also unanimously support overhauling the rules of the Senate to avoid a guaranteed Republican filibuster.

This push for voting-rights legislation was born a year ago in the aftermath of Democrats pulling out a shock win in two Senate runoffs in Georgia, giving them control of the Senate — followed the next day by the January 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters. Throughout 2021, Democrats had grappled with how to channel the momentum and their angst over what they perceived as an authoritarian turn by their political rivals into legislation. As with the effort to push Biden’s economic package, Democrats were forced to try to persuade Sinema and Joe Manchin of West Virginia to sign on.

In particular, Democrats outsourced their voting legislation to Manchin, who was skeptical of their original voting-rights bill, the For the People Act, which had been conceived more as a messaging vehicle for House Democrats than a potential law. Manchin, who had once served as West Virginia’s top elections official, came up with his own proposal, the Freedom to Vote Act, and tried to persuade Republicans to break a potential filibuster and support it. None did. Even an attempt to rally GOP votes for a different bill to restore part of the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 spurred the support of one lone Republican, maverick Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Without any Republican support, the only option for Democrats to pass Manchin’s bill would be for their entire caucus to agree to modify the 60-vote supermajority threshold to end a filibuster, at least on this topic. Manchin won’t, even for his own bill, but other Democrats have moved toward changing the Senate’s rules. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia was a late convert on the issue, describing the shift as being due to his “personal growing astonishment” over Republican-led state legislatures passing restrictive voting laws. Warner also described his surprise at the lasting political relevance of Donald Trump and how the former president’s continued advocacy for conspiracy theories around the 2020 election had influenced Republican elected officials. “If you’d asked me [this time last year] would I think Donald Trump would still be held in such high regard and have a vise-like grip over most Republican legislators, I would have said no,” he said, “but he does. And that’s playing out in people implementing his wishes. I think it can get even worse.”

Tester became one of the key senators in the effort to persuade Manchin, at least, to support reforming Senate procedure. “I think what’s transpired in the last year, which is critically important to take into account, that hadn’t transpired a year ago …. is you’ve got 19 states around this nation that have built fences so people have a hard time voting, and that hadn’t occurred a year ago,” he said. Last week, he described his negotiations with Manchin positively. “The conversations have been going well. I think the challenge has been getting to a final agreement that hasn’t been accomplished yet,” he said, describing the process as “both negotiation and persuasion.”

Sinema is another matter. “It looks like the path forward is very difficult, particularly based on Senator’s Sinema statement today,” Senator Angus King of Maine told Intelligencer after her speech on Thursday. “She believes the risk of changing the filibuster is greater than the risk of what’s going on in the states. I hope profoundly that she is right. I fear she is wrong.”

Democrats from Georgia, which has been ground zero in the fight over voting rights, tried to maintain a positive attitude as odds of the Senate passing any major legislation dwindled. “I wouldn’t say I’m frustrated as much as I feel the urgency to keep fighting,” Senator Raphael Warnock told Intelligencer, while his colleague Jon Ossoff said he remained focused “on the task at hand,” which was to combat laws that he characterized as “written with precision to drive up lines in majority Black precincts” in his home state. They feel the need to fulfill the promises made to minority voters in the 2021 runoff that elected them. Already, some Black leaders in the Peach State were so discouraged by the lack of progress on voting rights that they boycotted Biden’s speech. One Democrat with long experience on voting-rights issues said that while it was unclear if the failure to pass legislation would dampen Democratic enthusiasm heading into the election, it would certainly require “​​quite a bit of resources to re-educate voters in states that have been affected” by voting laws.

Yet it may have been a pipe dream from the start. As Tester noted, “it has become a red-line issue for Republicans,” and particularly for Mitch McConnell. He was befuddled as to “why, over the last, we’ll call it 15 years, making it easier to vote and making it more user-friendly to vote is a bad thing. I think it’s pretty fundamental to our democracy. And I think the more people that vote, the better off you are.” In his home state of Montana, he noted, a pandemic change to election laws to allow for universal absentee ballots significantly boosted Republican turnout. But as Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut ruefully noted, “the only thing that would have changed” the result would have been Democrats winning another Senate seat or two in 2020. “I don’t think changing Republican minds was possible,” he said. “They are all lockstep.”

What Democrats Hope to Win by Losing