The Single Most Important Vote is the One on Who Controls the Chamber

Four years ago, in the last midterm elections, Susan Collins, the Republican senator from Maine, received the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign and the League of Conservation Voters. It did not matter that her challenger, former ACLU of Maine director Shenna Bellows, had actually been a leader in the fight for marriage equality in the state (something Collins did not support until the night before her endorsement). Nor did it matter that Bellows, unlike Collins, opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, a hot-button target of environmental groups at the time.

What mattered is that the Human Rights Campaign and the League of Conservation Voters wanted to have a Republican friend.

Just last month, their Republican friend voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh, who will be a staunch opponent of LGBTQ rights and environmental protection on the Supreme Court. Neil Gorsuch, whom she voted to confirm last year, will be as well.

Will the HRC and LCV endorse her again in 2020? We don’t know yet. But the Kavanaugh and Gorsuch votes are not even her most disqualifying votes. The single most disqualifying vote is the one she takes at the start of each session to install a Republican Majority Leader.

Many liberal-leaning advocacy groups and even unions like to have friends on both sides of the aisle. For the advocacy groups, it reduces their perceived partisanship — good for tax status and good for soliciting money from Republican donors whose pet issue happens to be yours. And for both advocacy groups and unions, having friends on both sides of the aisle is a way of trying to make sure you have a seat at the table, however that table is set.

But how good of friends are they? When it comes to LGBTQ rights, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban hiring discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation, will not come up for a vote under a Republican Congress. When it comes to the environment, bold climate action will not come up for a vote under a Republican Congress. Indeed, a Republican Congress will shred whatever regulations exist to enrich the polluting industries that will always be their better friends. The party that controls the chamber is the party that sets the agenda.

The same dynamic is playing out right now in the suburbs of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District. PA-01, which includes all of Bucks County and a sliver of Montgomery County, is one of the most hotly contested races in the country. And unions like the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO and the Pennsylvania State Educators Association and gun control groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Americans for Responsible Solutions have rallied behind the incumbent Republican, Brian Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick has pitched himself as a moderate, even though FiveThirtyEight shows him voting with Trump 83.9% of the time. Fitzpatrick has a mere 47% on the AFL-CIO’s scorecard, as he’s voted repeatedly to roll back financial, public health, and workplace safety regulations and to advance Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. And one of his first votes was even to weaken the background checks system.

But that 47%, which would be embarrassing for a Democrat, is one of the highest for a Republican. Although Fitzpatrick is a staunch opponent of an assault weapons ban, he was one of only a handful of Republicans to oppose a concealed carry reciprocity bill (although he, notably, still supports the concept). And like Susan Collins, he even voted against the Republican health care bill (but like Collins, has voted to weaken it on various occasions).

However, if the AFL-CIO and PSEA want to see a bold pro-labor agenda in the next Congress, and Everytown and ARS want to see bold gun safety legislation — really, any gun safety legislation — in the next Congress, Fitzpatrick is simply not their guy. He may be better than his colleagues (a low threshold indeed), but, again, the single most important vote he will take next session will be on who controls the chamber.

Fitzpatrick had no problem with re-electing Paul Ryan as Speaker in January of 2017. And that vote alone meant that no progress would be made on gun safety legislation, on labor protections, and on a host of other issues (like LGBTQ rights, environmental protection — the list goes on). If legislation isn’t smothered by Republican committee chairmen, it would be by Republican House Leadership. He can symbolically vote against his party when bad bills come to the floor, but the actually good legislation that we need will never get that far. And it won’t because of who controls the chamber.

With so many seats right now rated as “toss-ups,” any single one could be the seat that makes the majority in the House for the next session. If we were to end up with a situation where 217 Democrats and 217 Republicans are elected, and PA-01 is so close that it goes to a recount, I wonder how the AFL-CIO, PSEA, Everytown, and ARS will feel. They’re signaling to voters that they would want to see Republicans maintain control of Congress by the skin of their teeth. Anyone who cares about their issues should not.

The Republican Party, which has grown more extreme in recent years, needs more moderates. I would argue that Brian Fitzpatrick is not one of them. But even if he were, the responsibility to elect moderate Republicans lies with Republicans in their primaries, not liberals in the general.


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Jonathan Cohn

Editor. Bibliophile. Gadfly. Environmentalist. Super-volunteer for progressive campaigns. Boston by way of Baltimore, London, NYC, DC, and Philly.