In this week’s 12-person Democratic debate, the presidential candidates kicked around plenty of big ideas, such as taxes on the super-rich, an assault-weapons ban and a Green New Deal, and they argued about whether Medicare For All or Medicare for All Who Want It would be the best scheme for health care. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren gobbled up the biggest share of scarce camera time, at least in part because she has so much to talk about – 50 ambitious plans for just about every challenge facing the nation.

One of the aspirants on that stage may win it all on the strength of such bold proposals, but, if she or he moves into the White House on Jan. 20, 2021, none of those big plans would go anywhere if Sen. Mitch McConnell is still majority leader in the U.S. Senate.

In 2009, Barack Obama had barely finished saying “so help me God” at his inauguration when McConnell pledged to make him a one-term president. McConnell did not succeed at that goal. Still, once Republicans regained control of the Senate in the 2010 midterms, Obama’s legislative agenda ended up in McConnell’s shredder. The same would happen with any of the current crop of Democratic contenders, from progressives like Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders to moderates like Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

In 2020, 34 Senate seats will be in play – 12 now held by Democrats and 24 by Republicans. Simple math would suggest that the D’s have a 50% better chance of grabbing some new seats than the R’s do, but American political math is far more complex. For starters, senators do not represent people, they represent chunks of land; some big, some small, some with lots of people and some with few. The Republicans tend to do much better in the emptier spaces, like Wyoming and South Dakota while the Democrats dominate in crowded places where their voters are all bunched together, like New Jersey and California. That means the GOP enjoys a structural advantage in senate elections because this country has a lot of wide open spaces.

McConnell now leads a 53-seat majority in the 100-member Senate. Democrats will need to take away four of those seats in order to bump McConnell into the minority (or three if they also have a Democratic vice-president who could break 50-50 tie votes). They have pretty good shots in Colorado, Maine and Arizona, and an outside chance in Iowa and North Carolina, but they also face an uphill battle in Alabama.

If Democrats run the table in 2020, they can eliminate a McConnell roadblock. Anything short of that, though, would leave the Kentucky senator in a position to nullify all the grand dreams of any new Democratic president.

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