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Senate Democrats and the national mosaic

Outting the Sestak-Toomey Senate race in a national context

My Sunday print column, updated and expanded:

T. J. Rooney's top priority last Wednesday was to get with the program. He dutifully did so. It's amazing sometimes how swiftly these politicians can rewrite their own convictions to fit the exigencies of the moment.

Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Democratic chairman was warning us that if Joe Sestak defeated Arlen Specter and thus became the party's Senate nominee in the autumn election, the results for Democrats would be "cataclysmic." But barely 12 hours after Sestak defeated Specter in Tuesday's primary, Rooney was Pollyana personified. All of a sudden, Sestak was a "great" candidate, the victor on "a phenomenal night for Pennsylvania Democrats," a nominee who was "well positioned" to take on Republican Pat Toomey.

Indeed, the various pillars of the Democratic establishment, from Ed Rendell downward, have been scrambling to deep-six their previous doubts about Sestak, if only because they recognize the stakes for the party this November. Pennsylvania is merely one piece of the national mosaic. The Democrats are trying to minimize the losses they are likely to suffer in Senate races this year - in their worst-case scenario (which, fortunately for them, appears improbable), they lose 10 races and cede control of the chamber to the GOP - which means it's imperative that they at least hang onto the seats they already have.

For that reason alone, Democrats can ill afford to see the Pennsylvania seat go into the red column, which is why they're already trying to define Pat Toomey as a Wall Street stooge and right-wing reactionary; in the words of national Democratic strategists, Toomey is "an extremist" who "would make Rick Santorum look moderate." The fight for the middle ground will surely be fierce, and by autumn we'll probably OD on the E-word. Of course, the Republicans are wielding the word as well. Sestak's victory was roughly 10 minutes old when national GOP strategists sent out an email assailing his "extremist liberal voting record" and linking him to the GOP's hobgoblin du jour, Nancy Pelosi.

Sestak, at least, is a resilient character who will run a competitive race. The Democrats actually have bigger woes elsewhere. For instance, their nominee in the Illinois Senate race...good grief, have you heard about this guy? For the seat once held by Barack Obama, they're stuck with a second-tier candidate, Alexi Giannoulias, who made his bones as a top executive of a shady Chicago bank that made bad subprime loans and was recently padlocked by the feds. With material like that, your dog could write the copy for the Republican TV ads.

Giannoulias might have a shot if he was running against a fringe character like Rand Paul. But unfortunately for the Democrats, there's only one Rand Paul. The tea-party darling is down in Kentucky, hiding from Meet The Press (he's the first American politician ever to cancel an appearance), and trying to figure out how he can parlay his laissez faire theories into a November win. Indeed, the Democrats might even pick up the Kentucky seat if swing voters conclude that the GOP nominee is too nutty for prime time. His latest principled assertion is that government has no right to hold BP accountable for the oil spill ("accidents happen"). As for his principled assertion that private businesses should be free to discriminate against black people, that gem took a hit yesterday from GOP national chairman Michael Steele, who said on the Sunday shows that "Rand Paul's philosophy got in the way of reality." Fortunately for Paul, nobody in Kentucky cares what Michael Steele says.

Notwithstanding the Democrats' hopes of winning that currently red Kentucky seat, many of the party's blue seats are under serious threat elsewhere. Evan Bayh's retirement in Indiana signals a likely Republican pickup in that red state. Byron Dorgan's retirement in North Dakota should flip that seat to the GOP. Joe Biden's old seat in Delaware might go to Republican congressman Mike Castle. Democratic candidates are currently imperiled in Colorado and New Hampshire. Blanche Lincoln's seat in Arkansas is in jeopardy; the centrist Democratic incumbent could lose a June primary runoff to her liberal challenger, Bill Halter, and I'd more easily envision a Beatles reunion than imagine that Arkansas voters would elect somebody financed by organized labor and

Out in Nevada, the polls suggest that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid might well lose to just about any Republican with a pulse - with the possible exception of candidate Sue Lowden, the ex-GOP state chairwoman who is still trying to live down (or explain away) her recent health reform brainstorm, about how patients could barter for care by bringing chickens to their doctors. "ChickenCare" notwithstanding, Reid has the same problems as other imperiled colleagues: the economy is bad, people are ticked off, and incumbents generally take the hit.

One Democratic incumbent who took the hint was Chris Dodd of Connecticut. He sidelined himself in favor of state attorney general Dick Blumenthal, a former U.S. attorney with a Boy Scout image. But now he's a headache, too. The New York Times outed him last Monday for occasionally stating publicly that he'd served as a Marine in Vietnam, when, in reality, he had been a stateside reservist. Democrats spent most of the week trying to knock down the story - even as more Blumenthal whoppers floated to the surface. Yesterday, on the Sunday shows, national party chairman Tim Kaine was compelled to acknowledge that Blumenthal's statements "were wrong, period," and by late evening, the candidate himself emailed a mea culpa: "I have made mistakes, and I am sorry."

Yet Blumenthal may well survive, if only because his top Republican opponent, wrestling mogul Linda McMahon, used to be a character on a cable wrestling show where people slugged each other. As someone who lived in Connecticut for 11 years, I seriously question whether voters in the self-described Land of Steady Habits would ever elect someone so outre.

The Pennsylvania race figures to be more philosophical, a classic matchup of ideological opposites; Sestak has voted with the current Democratic leadership virtually 100 percent of the time, while Toomey, during his six years in Congress, earned a 97 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. Sestak voted for Obama's economic stimulus bill, while Toomey says he would've opposed it. Sestak, playing on current populist sentiments, will talk about Toomey's previous stints as a Wall Street derivatives trader and leader of the Wall Street-financed Club for Growth, while Toomey, playing on current anti-Washington animus, will paint Sestak as an avatar of big government. Both guys are promising to keep it civil, even while painting each other as extremists. Scads of hyperbolic TV ads are in our future; by late October, anybody without TiVo may well pine for a way to zap them goodbye.

The real audience for these ads will be the independents; the swing voters in the middle will decide who is the bigger bogeyman, Washington or Wall Street. He who seizes the middle ground, and frames it to his advantage, wins.

Autumn predictions are impossible, but the current (and perhaps temporary) edge goes to Toomey. He has worked hard to bury a socially conservative record - including a 100 percent rating in 2003 from the Christian Coalition of America - that might be too far rightward for Pennsylvania; indeed, his "values" record could turn off the moderate voters in populous Montgomery and Delaware counties, the suburban region where Sestak is based. The thing is, however, swing voters this year are focused on the economy, not on values issues. And when the economy is perceived as sour (notwithstanding four straight months of job growth), swing voters tend to lash out at the incumbent party; indeed, a new bipartisan national poll reports that 62 percent of Americans want divided government, with different parties controlling Congress and the White House - 14 percent higher than on the eve of the '08 election.

And with Republicans likely to score major Senate gains - maybe not the 10 seats needed for a takeover, but easily a net pickup of five to eight seats - Americans may well get what they want, an increasingly divided government. Which probably means more gridlock. Which is something that Americans say they abhor. Which perhaps brings to mind the old saw about how we should be careful what we wish for.