Endangered Democrats may break with party on Fiscal Cliff talks

The number of possibly endangered Democrats this cycle continues to grow.  If one looks at the presidential map and Senate seats up for reelection in 2014 one will see that Democrats will be defending 7 seats in states Romney won.  Republicans will be defending a mere one seat in states Obama won (and that Senator looks like a shoe-in for reelection).

Republicans have already come out of the gate with a roaring start this cycle.  In South Dakota, former GOP Governor Mike Rounds is exploring a bid against Tim Johnson (D).  In West Virginia, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito announced she is running against Jay Rockefeller (D).  In other states such as Montana, Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana the GOP has a talented pool of candidates to draw from in each race.

Besides the implications this has for the results of the 2014 election it could also impact the fiscal cliff talks.  A number of variables are at play in these talks; Medicare and Social Security Reform, cutting spending, raising tax rates or limiting deductions for high earners (250K and above), comprehensive tax reform and raising the debt ceiling.  Endangered Democrats may be more inclined to tow the conservative line in the debate.

Minus Rockfeller and Johnson, who have not faced tough races in years and are liberal for their states, Senators such as Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landreiu (AR), Mark Begich (AL), Max Baucus (MT) and Kay Hagan (NC) may be willing to side with the GOP on certain spending cuts.  Siding with the President and liberal majority in the caucus on tax hikes and fewer to no spending cuts until at least next year may endear them to the left but it will not do them any favors in their reelection bids in red states.  However, these Democrats may be less willing to entertain changing Social Security and Medicare as their states as a whole tend to be older than other states.

Republicans have yet to really try to woo these Senators to their side.  To be fair GOP options on how to do this are limited.  Ultimately it comes down to how badly many of these Democratic Senators want to be reelected.  Some Senators may feel they are secure in their seats regardless of the GOP lean of their states.  In Louisiana for example the Landreiu name has been involved in state politics for 40 years.  Kay Hagan in North Carolina has yet to see a viable challenger emerge.  Mark Begich has been friendly to his state’s oil and natural gas interests and moderate to fiscally conservative since 2006.  Mark Pryor has been fairly popular in his state but he had a first-row seat to watch his former fellow state caucusmate, Blanche Lincoln, be defeated easily in 2010.  Lastly, Max Baucus has built a successful independent brand in Montana and may feel safe from a GOP challenge.

Democrats as a whole, like Republicans, hardly seem united on the fiscal cliff talks.  Senator Chuck Schumer (NY) has called for higher taxes on only those who earn a million or more.  Senator Dick Durbin (IL) has said that Social Security and Medicare reforms need to be on the table but only after the Lame Duck session.  Meanwhile numerous House and Senate Republicans have backed off their previous anti-tax pledges.  The most notable of these defections are John McCain (AZ), Paul Ryan (WI) and Peter King (NY).

Endangered Democrats may hold the key for the GOP getting their way, or most of their way, in the fiscal talks.  These Democrats could also guide the conversation in the direction that they want.  Either way, as the President bloviates and does nothing but PR stunts, it will be up to Congress to again find a way to deal with the impending fiscal cliff.  Hopefully they do, with a good balance of spending cuts and revenue increases.  Still, the jury is out on whether they will find a compromise or not.  These endangered Democratic Senators could be the key to finding that compromise.

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GOP’s Senate hopes just got higher

Barely three weeks have passed since the 2012 election and already the GOP is off to a roaring start in the race for the Senate in 2014.  On Monday, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (WV-2) announced she was finally running for Senate.  The GOP has been trying to recruit her to run since 2010 but both times she declined.  Since 2000 West Virginia has turned unexpectedly to the right, though Democrats still dominate the state legislature and state executive offices.

In Capito’s way stands long-time Senator Jay Rockefeller (D), 75, and a political institution in the state on par with former Senator Robert Byrd.  Rockefeller was first elected to the Senate in 1984, defeating businessman John Raese by a narrow margin.  Since then Rockefeller has cruised to reelection every time.  Rumor has it that Rockefeller is considering retiring this cycle and Moore’s announcement might be the incentive he needs to take the plunge.  On the other hand, Rockefeller has deep pockets and despite his liberal record is well liked in the state.

If Rockefeller does decide to retire Democrats in the state may have a shallow bench to recruit from.  The most likely recruit would be Governor Earl Tomblin.  Unlike former Governor and current Senator Joe Manchin however Tomblin does not have two full terms as Governor to stand on.  He also only won his first full term this year.  After that Democrats have a number of less well-known rcruits to choose from.  None have the name ID or fundraising ability that Rockefeller, Moore or Tomblin have.

Capito has represented her district since 1998 and easily won reelection since.  Until 2010 she was the lone Republican in West Virginia’s federal delegation.  The tenure of Barack Obama has not been kind to West Virginia Democrats.  Many have had to fight to create their own brand separate from the President’s and some have fallen regardless of these efforts.  In 2010, Allan Mollohan (D) lost to Republican David McKinley.  Prior to this a Mollohan had represented the district since 1969.  Democrat Nick Rahall has had to fight hard since 2008 to hold his seat.

Despite Moore’s early candidacy she may not have a lock on the nomination however.  She is pro-choice and voted for the Patriot Act and TARP as well as expanding SCHIP.  Like fellow Republican David McKinley she has been cool to the idea of fixing Social Security and Medicare (West Virginia’s electorate is very old).  Tea Party groups across the state still expect her to win the nod due to her family connections (her father was former Governor Archer Moore) and fundraising ability and do not see a viable challenger coming up over the horizon.  Still, national conservative groups could be her undoing.

The Club for Growth sent out its first warning shot yesterday, saying they cannot support a moderate Republican.  Freedomworks, a conservative establishment organization was ominously silent.  Jim Demint’s PAC, the Senate Conservatives Fund, has already announced they could not support her candidacy.  Despite this DC Republicans remain optimistic about her chances and think the odds of her scaring away any potential primary challenger is high.  Said one GOP strategist, “Her brand is well-known and her getting in the race this early indicates how confident she really is.”

Republicans currently hold 45 Senate seats while Democrats hold 53 seats.  Two Independents, one from Maine and another from Vermont caucus with the Party.  Republicans have a number of good targets come 2014 in the Senate to either take control of the chamber or nibble away at the Democrats edge.  West Virginia has just popped up to the top of the list with Moore’s announcement.

Asessing the political landscape post 2012

With the dust barely settled from the 2012 election already analysts and politicians are seeking to assess the post-2012 political landscape.  Most of this analysis seems to settle on the fact the GOP is sure to lose at least 7 and possibly 8 House seats, 2 Senate seats and, of course,  the Presidency.  Many analysts think the GOP also had a disappointing night at the state level.  But did they?  And is the GOP really in bad shape heading into 2013 and beyond?

Consider that in January the GOP will control 45 Senate seats, 234 (or 235) House seats, and 30 of the nation’s 50 governors mansions.  They also will control a solid majority of the nation’s legislative chambers and have complete control of 26 state’s legislative chambers.  Democrats will have the ultimate prize, the WH, 53 Senate seats (with 2 Independents caucusing with them), 200 (or 201) House seats and 20 governors.  Not surprising, short of Montana, the Democrats will not have another Governor representing a state Romney won.

If one looks back at history it is easy to see that the GOP is near its high point in terms of governors.  One would have to go back all the way to the 1920’s to find a time when the GOP controlled more.  In the House, 2010 represented a high-water mark for the party and naturally due to redistricting and a presidential election year where the party lost, losing seats was inevitable.  But losing only eight seats has to be considered a feat.

In the last decade the GOP reached its high-water mark in the Senate at 55 seats in 2004.  In 2008 they were limited to 40 seats and have bounced back to 45 seats.  Losing two seats this year has to be painful for the party but the Democrats that will represent those seats are not doctrinaire liberals.  Democrats hailing from red or blue states such as Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri and Indiana may be hard to corral on budget talks for the party.

The GOP looks likely to retain a similar margin the House after 2014 (assuming no wave election develops).  Redistricting in GOP controlled states helped the party limit its losses whereas Democrats made the biggest gains in states such as IL and CA where they won numerous swing to Democratic leaning districts.  Democrats will have their fair share of targets come 2014 but so will the GOP.  These targets could include weak Democratic winners in Florida such as Garcia (FL-26) and Tim Murphy (FL-18).  In North Carolina, assuming Mike McIntyre survives a recount for 2012 he would be a top GOP target again.  In Georgia, Congressman Barrow (GA-12) would again be a top GOP target if they can find a strong nominee.  Finally in Utah, Jim Matheson (UT-4) looks vulnerable, at least on paper.  But even with conservative rock star Mia Love challenging him in 2012 he won showing he has deep roots with the Utah voters.  A number of other districts the GOP could target, such as swing districts in CA they lost this cycle as well as NH’s two Congressional districts.

For Democrats to expand their minority in the House and expand their majority in the Senate their math is far more complicated.  Again, barring a wave election the GOP should hold the House fairly easily come 2014.  Democrats can nibble at the GOP majority but are unlikely to weaken it substantially.  The Senate math is also complicated.  The GOP had a slate of bad candidates run this cycle and cost the party seats.  In 2014 the NRSC and RNC has already indicated they may get involved in party primaries to help nominees that can win general elections.  A number of vulnerable Democratic Senators will be up in 2014 while the GOP looks likely to have only one (ME).

Democrats best shot in terms of gains come 2013 and 2014 is at taking control of state executive offices.  In 2013 GOP Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is term-limited and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) is up for reelection.  If Democrats find a moderate nominee in VA and successfully court moderate Newark mayor Corey Booker to run in NJ they may win two governorships before 2014 even begins.  In 2014 the GOP will be defending a plethora of state executive, constitutional offices and legislative chambers.  If the GOP is to lose seats or offices in particular states the most likely places would be in Maine (Paul Lepage-Governor), Florida (Rick Scott-Governor) and Ohio (John Kasich-Governor).

Of course none of this is to say that this is guaranteed to happen.  Rather, it points out the GOP is still in a strong position come 2013, 2014 and yes, 2016.  Arguments about demographics, issues and candidates aside the GOP is still a potent political force in this country.  One election, 2012, does not change that.  And if the country is realigning to be center-left than Democrats need to do well in 2013 and 2014.  Afterall, 2009 and 2010 happened as well.  For as political scientist John Sides remind us “A realignment does not take midterms off.”

GOP Govenors offer the GOP a bright future

It is official.  Republicans have effectively thrown Mitt Romney under the bus.  In a way this was inevitable.  Republicans really only seemed to embrace Romney because they thought he could win.  Now that the election is over and he lost no loyalty is required from the GOP faithful to Romney.  Romney always had limited  connections to the party and in a way he bought his way to the nomination.  Some thought his tenure as a leader of a blue state would prove an asset.  It proved to be a liability.  But Republicans should not despair.  Sure, they have many issues they are out of step with the public on just as the Democrats do.  But unlike Democrats the GOP has a trump card to play in 2016.

Currently 30 of the 50 governorships in this country are occupied by Republicans.  Four of the five female Governors in this country are Republican.  Republicans boast the only two Hispanic Governors in the country.  This kind of diversity was poorly displayed at the RNC but in the run up to 2014 expect it to be played on heavily.

The Democrats bench heading into 2016 appears to be extremely shallow.  Though they certainly have their own share of rising stars.  Democratic mayors of Atlanta, San Antonio and LA promise Democrats bright candidates beyond 2016.  But the only two names being discussed to replace Obama in 2016 are Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.  Odds are they would likely connect to younger Americans as well as Romney did.  The opposite is true of the GOP.

Republicans boast a plethora of GOP Governors who could run and be successful in 2016.  Outgoing Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who was heavily courted to run in 2012, is at the top of the list for his successful reform of his state’s education, pension and union rules.  Governor Scott Walker in WI (facing reelection in 2014) successfully reformed his state’s Collective Bargaining agreements.  Governor Bob McDonnell of VA has successfully presided over the governance of a purple state for four years.  Than there are governors such as Bobby Jindal (LA), Susana Martinez (NM), Brian Sandoval (NV) and Rick Perry (TX) who have impressive records.

The GOP list of presidential hopefuls is not just limited to Governors.  Republican Senators Marco Rubio (FL), John Thune (SD) and Rob Portman (OH) all offer the GOP a bright cast of future candidates.  All have downplayed the social issues the GOP wins on in red areas of the country but usually loses on in the purple regions that determine the presidency.  Current WI Congressman Paul Ryan is also a possible future presidential candidate.  His star rose even as he was the Vice-Presidential candidate for the losing Romney campaign.

Much has been made of the disconnect the modern GOP has with younger and middle-aged voters on social issues.  GOP Governors and Senators have been far more practical in their approaches to governing than the national party has been on the same issues.  Democrats will certainly try to bring social issues into the election in 2014 and 2016.  But GOP Governors offer the GOP a bright future.  Many have a proven track record of building solid, diverse constituencies, records of policy achievements and a willingness to compromise and govern that many Americans crave.

Fairly or not, GOP Governors may have a better shot than Senators to win the White House in 2016.  They are disconnected from DC and more closely connected to individual state voters.  They have not been part of the process of gridlock that has plagued Congress.  We have already seen an obscure state senator use unhappiness with DC to win the White House.  A Governor with even bigger name ID and solid achievements should conceivably be able to do the same.

Perhaps the only man who may prevent a GOP Governor from winning the White House is Marco Rubio.  The GOP is desperately trying to diversify and having a Cuban-American at the top of the ticket would help greatly.  Still, even if Rubio wins the party nod expect him to pick a Governor as his VP.  For the GOP, their future lies with their large bench of GOP candidates.  And that future looks bright.

Is Populism the way forward for the GOP?

One has to at least give grudging acceptance to the way populism has become resurgent in American politics.  In 2006 Democrats used populism to rail again DC corruption and big business.  In 08 Barack Obama used it to deadly effect once the financial crisis collapsed the Stock Market.  In 2009 and 2010 the Tea Party’s brand of populism, a mix of social conservatism, anti-big business and anti-big government, swept the nation.  In 2012, it may have handed the President his second term.

Historically both the GOP and Democratic Parties have used populism to win elections at all levels of government.  In the 1990’s finding populist GOP candidates in the South finally handed them Congressional seats in the formerly Democratic region.  In the Midwest and West Democrats broke the GOP stronghold on rural and suburban cities in the regions with a unique brand of populism.  This brand of populism mixed pro-union views with a socially liberal/fiscally moderate message.

The President did not really need to use Midwestern Democratic populism in 2008.  His campaign was based more on generalities and the unspoken “I am not a Republican.”  Considering the economy tanked under a Republican President it is no shock he won the White House.  But in 2012 the President had a liberal record to defend and a teetering economy.  His campaign went all in early on defining his opponent, Mitt Romney, in Ohio.  While the ads drove up the President’s negatives they likely kept Romney’s base unhappy with their nominee, depressing turnout.

What is so particularly interesting about 2012 is how the President used populism to secure a second term and what it offers the GOP in lessons.  The key to the President’s populism in what was dubbed his “Midwestern firewall” was his bailout of the auto companies.  The Midwest, particularly Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and to a lesser extent Iowa, all rely on the auto industry.  When the President bailed out GM and Chrysler it made Americans across the country angry but it made many Midwesterners, especially the unions, feel like the President was looking out for them.

Another often overlooked factor in the President’s victory in the Midwest was the Stimulus Package.  While it easily hurt Democrats in the 2010 elections as an issue it allowed core constituencies of the President, think teachers, auto-workers, social workers, to stay employed.  While many states just delayed laying off these workers for two years it also had an impact in the private sector.  The number of tax cuts and credits in the package were numerous which helped businesses.  These two factors created a kind of image of the President as “A guy looking after the middle class.”  Considering Romney’s personal wealth, unfairly or not, he could never really challenge the President on this front.

The GOP can use what the President did to craft an economic message of fiscal and social conservatism that appeals to both the Tea Party and suburban swing voters.  This message should be tailored specifically to policy ideas that focus on growth for the middle class and reform.  In Indiana, outgoing Governor Mitch Daniels, somebody one would not think of as populist, walks away from the office with a stunning achievement list.  He successfully reformed the state’s pension plan, reformed education and biggest of all turned Indiana into a right to work state with private-union support.  This kind of populism was also in effect in Ohio and Wisconsin.  In Ohio it was smacked down by the unions but in Wisconsin it stuck through recalls of state senators and the GOP Governor.

History also offers the GOP lessons.  In the late 1960’s Richard Nixon crafted his Southern Strategy.  It entailed winning Southern states by appealing to white, conservative Democrats through economic libertarianism and social conservatism.  Since that time the Deep South has been a lock for the GOP (minus a few states in 92 and 96).  The GOP began making deep inroads in the South at the Congressional and legislative level starting in 94 railing against government overreach on gun control, abortion, and corruption.  In Arkansas 2008 GOP Presidential primary nominee Mike Huckabee won two statewide races on this kind of populism.

Western populism has been used by both parties effectively.  Anti-government sentiment runs deep in the region yet it is rapidly urbanizing.  Again, GOP populism focusing on growth and individual liberty could unite voters in the West and perhaps bring the growing Hispanic population in the region into the GOP fold.

Populism has been shown throughout history to have proven a boon for both political parties.  Come 2014 and 2016, populism could point the way forward for the GOP.

The GOP’s route to the majority in 2014

Senate Republicans have to be depressed after a dismal 2012 election showing.  The party lost winnable seat after winnable seat in red or purple territory.  The only bright spots for the GOP were wins in NV and NB but even those wins could not overcome the sting of losing every other swing state and two overall seats.

Many of these losses were avoidable.  In both Indiana and Missouri, the GOP had less than stellar candidates but were facing weak challengers themselves.  In MO, Todd Akin had the upper hand until he made his infamous comments about rape.  Months later in Indiana, GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock awkwardly phrased why he supports life even in the case of rape.  Mourdock’s gaffe is particularly indefensible because the GOP flew in a debate coach to prep him on the question of rape.

GOP Senate candidates across the nation in 2012, originally heralded as top recruits fell flat in the end.  Former WI Governor Tommy Thompson, former VA Governor and Senator George Allen, Montana Representative Denny Rehburg, Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel and Florida Congressman Connie Mack all lost their races by at least three points.  Montana and Virginia were particularly painful for the GOP as they felt they had good shots in each state on election day.

But disappointment on November 6, 2012 could turn into joy on November 4th, 2014 if the GOP plays its card right.  On the surface the Senate math for 2014 does not favor the GOP as much as 2012 did.  This cycle (started November 7, 2012) the GOP is defending 13 seats and the Democrats 20.  Last cycle Democrats were defending 23 seats to the GOP’s 11.  But whereas the GOP had several vulnerable seats to defend at the start of the cycle (NV and MA) and later on (ME and IN) the GOP does not appear to have ANY vulnerable seats at the start of this election.

The 13 seats the GOP will be defending will almost all solely be in safe GOP territory (minus ME).  The GOP should easily be able to hold onto seats in AL, ID KY, KS, MS, NB, OK TN and WY.  Seats in SC, GA and TX might be a bit trickier but assuming neither Jon Cornyn (TX), Saxby Chambliss (GA) or Lindsey Grahman (SC) retires the GOP should carry all three.  The trickiest state for the GOP may again be Maine.  Republicans were shellshocked last year when Olympia Snowe announced her retirement from the seat and the GOP could not hold it.  In 2014, if Susan Collins decides to retire the GOP likely would lose their second to last Northeastern Senate seat (other seat being in New Hampshire).

Democrats on the other hand will be defending a number of vulnerable seats from 08.  These seats include but are not limited to AR, WV, LA, MN, AK, NC, and NH.  In AK and NC Democratic freshmen will be fighting to hold onto their seats in traditionally GOP territory.  In each state the GOP has a deep bench to recruit from.  In New Hampshire and Minnesota Democratic freshman will also be defending their seats in blue leaning states.  In Arkansas, Louisiana, and West Virginia long-time Democrats will attempting to hold their seats in increasingly partisan territory.

A number of other seats could come onto the radar in the election.  In Michigan, if Carl Levin retires the GOP could have a real shot at the seat.  Also, in North Dakota and Montana if the Democratic Senator retires the GOP could credibly challenge for those seats.  In each competitive and potentially competitive state the GOP will face a different dynamic.  In AR and LA the GOP will have the benefit of a conservative electorate but the challenge of overcoming well entrenched conservative Democratic incumbents.  In AL and NC the GOP will be running up against freshmen incumbents but a more moderate state electorate.  In states such as NH and MN the GOP will have to win over blue leaning suburbs and run up the margins in rural areas of each state.  Lastly, in potentially competitive states the GOP could face open seats or a weak incumbent.  An open North Dakota Senate seat would look extremely attractive to the GOP.

Beyond the individual races significant hurdles remain to the GOP winning the Senate in 2014.  Many races may not be as competitive as they appear on paper.  Second, the GOP had a lackluster recruitment showing in 2012 despite high praise early on.  Candidate recruitment for the GOP must be a priority even if that means wading into primaries.  Ohip Senator Tom Portman’s refusal to head the National Republican Senatorial Committee has left only subpar candidates to fill the position.  If the GOP had gotten involved in primaries in MO and IN the Senate could be 47-53 instead of 45-55 today.  Lastly, the GOP must find a message that candidates across the country and in individual states can articulate to soft partisans and swing voters.  Offering red meat may make Republicans in AL vote to reelect their incumbent but it will not win races for challengers in NC or NH.

Dissection of the election Part IV: Mechanics mattered more this election than fundamentals

If somebody had said to a Republican strategist before election day that in Ohio Romney would receive fewer votes than John McCain they likely would have been met with a blank stare.  Also, if one had said Obama would increase turnout in metro Cincinnati and Cleveland beyond 2008 levels they likely would have been laughed out of the room.  Yet it happened and it shows that the mechanics of this election overcame the fundamentals.

The basic fundamentals of this election, high unemployment, declining wages, massive debt, should have heralded an easy Romney victory.  In fact, the lower turnout that manifested itself this election should have done the same.  Instead, thanks to a four-year, billion dollar reelection effort by the President and his team the fundamentals of this election did not matter.

Obama’s team since 2009 systematically targeted and classified certain groups in a number of ways.  By the time 2012 had rolled around Democrats had identified their key soft partisans in key swing states.  These soft partisans, many who had defected in 2010 when Obama was not on the ballot, still wanted the President to succeed and trusted him.  In swing states such as CO and NV, single suburban women and Hispanics had helped keep Democratic Senators in office in 2010.  The mechanics of this election were turning out these voters in massive numbers and the Obama campaign succeeded.

Mitt Romney’s campaign certainly tried to match the President’s campaign on the mechanics front while stressing the fundamentals of the election.  Project ORCA, the Romney campaign’s ambitious election day information system, was an attempt to match the President’s ground game and election day ops.  But the Project crashed and it remains uncertain if it affected the race or was just an early election day precursor to a Obama victory.

Mitt Romney’s campaign like a laser tried to focus the election on the economy.  Afterall, it contained the key fundamentals in the election.  But fundamentals only got the Romney campaign so far.  Even as Romney was making inroads with new white voters on the debt and spending he was losing potential constituencies such as Hispanics and younger voters by not talking to them about the issues they cared about.  Instead, the Obama campaign was able to target these voters with messages specific to their demographic and region.

Obama’s campaign was criticized early on in the election for the way they burned through their cash reserves.  But on November 6th it paid off.  It is an open question whether if the fundamentals of the election had matched the mechanics Obama would have won.  For example, in Southern Ohio exit polls showed Romney winning many counties by 20 points or more.  But when all the votes were counted his margins were smaller than McCain’s in 08 because of lighter turnout.  This devastated Romney’s chances in the state while droves of voters in Cleveland and Cincinnati were turnout out for the president.  In this election mechanics mattered more than the fundamentals.

This concludes my four part series on the Presidential election.  Democrats and Republicans alike are trying to learn what this election means.  On the surface the face of the country is changing and that makes Democrats giddy.  But on the other hand Republicans recognize this and already are starting to craft new policies and ideas from the plethora of resources they possess.  This election the GOP focused on one issue, blind to the fact that many other issues voters cared about influenced their votes.  In closing, a changing nation poses challenges not just to Republicans, but to Democrats.  Even more importamtly however, it poses a challenge to those who govern.