ANALYSIS — Political partisanship and post-presidential legal maneuvering have become, in 2022, as American as tackle football — and just as unpredictable.
In fact, watch both long enough and some of the top teams in the land and our elected representatives start to resemble one another.
Take the Louisiana State University Tigers. Not that long ago, on a Friday in 2020, the “Bayou Bengals” took their national championship trophy to the White House, where President Donald Trump feted them. Now? New head coach Brian Kelly finds himself in a real mess, despite offseason hype that the longtime Notre Dame skipper already was making a difference in Baton Rouge.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, was getting his own national hype just a few months ago. The last incarnation of these power rankings put him at fifth. The weeks since have brought an LSU-like spiral. Senate Democrats have flipped generic midterm ballots and now are seen as likely to keep the chamber as Republicans are to take it away.
Scott, before the August recess, acknowledged to this columnist that the NRSC needs to raise more money. It had only $23 million on hand at the end of July, compared with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee’s $54 million.
1. Alabama — Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer: The New York Democrat sitting atop these power rankings did not seem likely — nor remotely possible — just a few months back.
He got his domestic spending deal with moderate West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III — albeit a much smaller version than Schumer wanted. He handled House Democratic leaders adding all kinds of progressive goodies to a semiconductor and technology competition bill he helped write with aplomb, eventually passing a compromise bill. Schumer is spending much of September trying to seat as many of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees as he can in order to, in his words Wednesday, “bring balance back to the federal bench, which under President Trump skewed dramatically … to the hard right.”
2. Georgia — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: No one plays defense like the defending national champion Bulldogs. Sound familiar? Few in the history of the Senate have mastered its defensive tactics quite like the Kentucky Republican.
But Democrats’ recent legislative wins, coupled with the aforementioned GOP campaign struggles that even McConnell has acknowledged, keep him out of the top spot — much like lingering questions about the Dawgs’ offense.
Expect McConnell to play his usual brand of aggressive floor defense, making Schumer run every minute of possible clock on each Biden judicial pick. And when he gets the chance, much like Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett (no known relation to the author), expect McConnell to take some (verbal) shots, as he did this week: “There is nothing compassionate about tolerating or even encouraging anarchy at the border, violence in our streets and a steady erosion of public safety. It is neither fair nor compassionate, not to any Americans, least of all to the vulnerable people Democrats say they’re helping.”
More offense: A super PAC affiliated with the minority leader, the Senate Leadership Fund, is spending money Scott’s outfit doesn’t have to pour into races, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
3. Ohio State — Senate Democrats: See No. 1. Simply put, this group spent the spring and early summer putting up points like the high-octane Buckeyes.
They also continue to have a fair share of doubters, much like OSU. Winning is a cure for, well, just about everything. Even amid internal squabbling, Senate Democrats are feeling confident as Election Day becomes visible on the horizon.
They still want to pass a same-sex marriage bill, and use a stopgap spending measure to provide more COVID-19 aid, disaster relief and further assistance to Ukraine, while seating more Biden judicial picks. Like Ohio State, more wins for this bunch seems inevitable this fall.
4. Michigan — Speaker Nancy Pelosi: The California Democrat is as unafraid to ruffle feathers or go against the grain as Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh. And, like Harbaugh, there seem to always be questions about how long she intends to keep her job.
Harbaugh cannot seem to find a long-term solution at quarterback. Pelosi has shown no interest in naming or even hinting at an heir apparent.
But there’s always no shortage of dramatics, and plenty of W’s.
New Year’s bowlers
5. Clemson — House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy: Someone has to be speaker in a GOP-run House, and someone has to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. The California Republican reminds one of Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney lately.
The head Tiger is sticking with a quarterback perhaps only he still believes can return this dynasty to the College Football Championship: D.J. Uiagalelei. The minority leader is sticking with a former president who’s creating a list of headaches and political problems for Republican leaders and candidates: Trump.
Swinney could soon face a tough decision on whether to insert freshman QB Cade Klubnik as his starter. And McCarthy could soon feel enough heat, with Democrats now projected to lose fewer seats than just a few months ago, that he directs some of his candidates to put some distance between themselves and the embattled Trump.
6. Texas A&M — President Joe Biden: The president was ranked ninth in our first try at this back in June, prompting this assessment: “Does anyone in Washington need a win more than the commander in chief? His legislative agenda is going nowhere.”
His jump to sixth shows just how quickly things can change, even in this bitterly partisan era. Many of Biden’s domestic legislative wish-list items did indeed go somewhere: through the House and Senate and to his desk, where he signed them into law. His approval ratings are ticking up.
What’s more, like Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher, Biden took his office with much fanfare. And, like Fisher, the 46th president finally appears to be finding himself — and his voice. Fisher’s 2021 Aggies upset then-No. 1 Alabama last season before another impressive win at Auburn. But, like Biden as chief executive, Texas A&M has yet to become a complete package, stumbling late in 2021 against Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) and LSU.
The president spent much of his first year-and-a-half taking one step forward then two or three backward.
His predecessor’s legal woes, however, have given him a 2022 and 2024 campaign issue and a distinct message: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundation of our republic,” Biden said during a prime-time speech Sept. 1 in Philadelphia. “There’s no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans.”
7. Oklahoma — House Jan. 6 select committee: Few college football analysts know just what to make of the still-talented Sooners after head coach Lincoln Riley bolted for the University of Southern California. And few Washington insiders yet know what to expect from this panel when the House returns next week.
Its members say additional public hearings are expected, and the committee has continued interviewing witnesses who once were close to Trump. Riley or no Riley, Oklahoma still moves the needle. Expect the Jan. 6 committee to do the same at some point this month.
Your columnist in his June rankings focused only on Reps. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the panel’s chair and vice chair. Since then, other panel members have played starring roles. That duo was ranked sixth in June. The full panel was demoted only one spot after a quiet August, with polls suggesting their public sessions have turned some independents toward Democratic congressional candidates. The Sooners, too, could play spoiler in November.
Couldn’t host ‘Gameday’
8. Notre Dame — former President Donald Trump: Though he certainly does not have the legal “luck of the Irish” lately, the 45th president shares one big characteristic with the Fightin’ Irish: When was the last time either won a really big contest?
Sure, Trump’s legal team convinced a federal judge, whom he nominated, to name a “special master” to review the highly classified documents that FBI agents took for attorney-client and executive privilege. But few legal scholars see that coming independent assessment as slowing the Justice Department’s investigations into the former president for very long.
Trump’s many legal fights have left him bruised, even if he remains the leader — for now — of the GOP. All he can do, mostly, is fire off convoluted posts on his social media site, including this one Tuesday that contradicted his self-marketing as a political disrupter: “All American Patriots know that I always do everything ‘by the book’ and that this Hoax will fail miserably just like the Russia, Russia, Russia Scam, Impeachment Hoax # 1, Impeachment Hoax #2, and all other attempts, perpetrated by the same people, to weaponize Law Enforcement against the 45th President, me.”
The Notre Dame offense inspired similar brow-furrowing during an opening-week loss to Ohio State.
9. Baylor — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: If any team in the Big 12 is going to shove Oklahoma out of the way and possibly earn a College Football Playoff berth, it could be the Bears. If any 2024 GOP White House hopeful is going to shove Trump out of their path to the party’s nomination, it’s likely DeSantis.
The conservative populist has an aggressive governing style, much like the Baylor offense, which hammered Albany 69-10 in its season opener. Like the Bears, the Florida governor is a bit off the radar right now. That’s not a bad thing strategically for either the team or the politician. For both, flashy wins that garner just enough attention while their rivals are stumbling could yield huge dividends down the road.
10. Southern California (USC) - John Fetterman: The Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and Democratic nominee for Senate still has a lot to prove in his race against Trump-backed GOP nominee Mehmet Oz, the television doctor.
Does Fetterman’s unique style have staying power? Football insiders are wondering the same about Riley’s ability to recruit the talent he needs to have staying power in the land of palm trees and movie stars.
Methodology: Rankings were compiled after a review of poll numbers, fundraising, strategic legislative wins, court decisions, endorsements of and victories by political candidates, caucus chaos and overall influence.
Editor-at-Large John T. Bennett writes a weekly column for Roll Call, parts of which first appeared in the subscription-only CQ Senate newsletter.