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Mitch McConnell held his entire Republican caucus together to effectively kill the Democrats’ highest legislative priority of the year, a transformative 888-page bill intended to make it easier to vote, rein in the wealthy’s impact on elections and outlaw the gerrymandering process that constructs partisan congressional districts.
But Democrats stuck together too, and after the defeat they universally vowed they’d just begun the fight.
While prospects for an overhaul of elections died legislatively with Tuesday’s 50-50 completely party line vote, Democrats and their progressive allies now intend to launch a multi-faceted national political campaign that targets Republican senators, keeps the pressure on moderate Democrats and further villainizes the Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky.
“In the fight for voting rights, this vote was the starting gun. Not the finish line,” declared Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer after the vote on the motion to proceed to a debate on the sweeping legislation failed to net the 60 votes necessary to advance.
The campaign to swing public opinion will begin Wednesday in Washington, with a “Moral March on [Sen. Joe] Manchin and McConnell” by The Poor People’s Campaign, a group led by Bishop William J. Barber II. While the moderate Manchin voted with Democrats to move forward with a compromise bill, he is firmly against scrapping the filibuster, which requires most Senate legislation to acquire 60 votes for passage.
The march will include a stop at the Hart Senate Office Building, where organizers said they’ll request meetings with McConnell and Manchin.
McConnell, who has invested considerable personal time marshaling support against what he calls an attempt to tilt every election in Democrats’ favor, has declared the debate dead. “We will put an end to it in the Senate,” McConnell told reporters before the vote.
And for the moment, it’s unclear how such an enormous package of election reforms could net the support of 10 Republican senators, even with dramatic concessions on the Democratic side.
The altered bill that failed to net even a single Republican vote would make Election Day a national holiday, provide at least 15 days for early voting in each state but also strengthen voter identification requirements, a provision supported by 80% of voters nationwide, according to a Monmouth University poll released this week.
It would also take power from states and localities to administer their own elections, provide federal taxpayer funding to qualifying candidates and change the composition of the Federal Election Commission to break the evenly divided partisan deadlock. A complete federal power grab that was always designed to fail, Republicans say.
McConnell and his caucus remained opposed to the Manchin compromise, leaving Democrats with few options other than to blast the GOP and better communicate why they feel these wholesale changes are so urgent.
“The stakes are too high to wait until the next election,” said Sean Eldridge, the founder and president of the liberal group Stand Up America. “It’s going to be a long, hot summer for any member of the Senate who doesn’t do everything in their power to protect our freedom to vote. They will be hearing from us in the days ahead in their inboxes, on the phones, and at rallies across the country.”
His group is partnering with other progressive organizations to plan events during the upcoming July 4th holiday recess to demand immediate action on ending the filibuster and passing voting rights legislation.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Rules Committee that has jurisdiction over federal elections, announced a series of hearings on the bill around the country, including one in Georgia, which recently passed legislation altering its state voting laws.
“This is not the end of the line for this bill. This is only the beginning,” she said on the Senate floor. “We are taking it on the road.”
And the largest Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA, said it would allocate $20 million during the 2022 midterm election cycle to defend voting rights in the courts and deploy digital advertising to educate voters about changing state laws.
The concerted effort means that Democrats are determined to keep the debate in the public consciousness, forcing McConnell to fortify his defenses through the summer.
But even some occasional McConnell critics tipped their hat to his ability to keep Republicans unified under pressure.
“For all the venting we sometimes do about Mitch McConnell being part of the establishment - it’s days like these when you realize…He’s a legend,” said Justin Hart, a conservative California consultant.
Democrats could decide to pursue the John Lewis Voting Rights Act which restores parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that would supersede many restrictions being implemented in Republican-led states. But McConnell has also called that step unnecessary, with most Republicans likely to follow his lead.
Democrats don’t buy that if McConnell is reinstalled as Majority Leader in 2023, he won’t change his tune on the importance of the filibuster in order to pursue conservative policies or install more conservative judges.
It’s why they can’t even stomach the thought that their fight is over.
“The most effective tool in the GOP’s toolbelt from killing S. 1 -- which to be clear, is not what’s happening this week,” noted Ezra Levin, the co-executive director of Indivisible, another progressive group on the front lines of the voting fight, “is all the voter suppressing and gerrymandering they’ll do between now and 2022. Messaging is the least of my worries.”