Exiting the sinking ship-part 1 

No sooner do I write a column about “vanishing Democratic moderates,” pegged on the retirement announcements of Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Rep. Jane Harman, than another one announces he’s not running again, Sen. Jim Webb. And I could have added that Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., announced his retirement even earlier. We’re beginning to see a pattern here, as we did in the 2010 election cycle: Democrats leaving what they have reason to believe is a sinking ship.


Each of these politicians has individual reasons for deciding to call it quits. Conrad, the longtime chairman or ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, has devoted much of his 24 years in the Senate to cutting the budget deficit—and it’s higher than ever. That’s politically damaging as well as personally disappointing. Lieberman, reelected as an Independent in 2006 when the Republican candidate was an unknown, faced a more perilous situation as self-financer Linda McMahon, the 2010 Republican nominee, seemed poised to run again. Harman, barred from the Intelligence Committee chairmanship in 2006, is a very rich (and philanthropic) person who found a comfortable niche replacing Lee Hamilton, another Democrat with a reputation as a moderate, as head of the Woodrow Wilson Center. The fact that she won only 59% in the 2010 Democratic primary against a left-wing opponent meant that she could face another tough primary and possible defeat.


As for Jim Webb, he has gone from one career to another since his involuntary retirement from the military—novelist, Secretary of the Navy, nonfiction writer, U.S. senator. He entered the 2006 race late, in February, and was a surprise winner over Republican incumbent George Allen, who is running again; he did much to shape a new veterans program, and it seems that he decided it’s time to move on to something else. After all, the Framers did not contemplate that the Senate would be a lifetime career. 


House Democrats lost their majority in 2010; Senate Democrats seem likely to lose theirs in 2012, with 23 Democrats up for reelection and only 10 Republicans, as I noted in my January 29 Examiner column. There I used the metric of the 2010 popular vote for the House as a guide to present political attitudes in each state. Before 1994, the House popular vote diverged significantly from the presidential vote, the metric we usually use to gauge the leanings of states and districts. But they converged in 1996, with Democrats from that year through 2004 doing better than they had done before 1994 at the presidential level and worse at the House level. The 2006 House popular vote pretty accurately forecast the 2008 presidential and House popular vote (54%-43% Democratic). The 2010 House popular vote (52%-45% Republican) marked the biggest shift—9 full points—in the parties’ House popular vote percentages since 1948 and 1946.


In that January 29 column, I noted that, of the 23 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2012, 12 represent states where Republicans won the 2010 House popular vote (Florida, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin) and three more represent states where Republicans got 46% to 48% in the 2010 House popular vote (Minnesota, New Mexico, Washington). In Nebraska (68%-28%) Sen. Ben Nelson has been trailing in polls—not quite so badly as Arkansas’s Sen. Blanche Lincoln was trailing in polls two years ago, but then she won only 37% of the vote last November. So Nebraska seems likely to elect a Republican next year. So does North Dakota now that Kent Conrad is retiring. The Republican carried the state’s single House district by 55%-45% in 2010, and that surely underestimates the state’s Republican leanings, since the Democrat was 18-year incumbent Earl Pomeroy. Connecticut (59%-40% Democratic) is another matter; 20-year Attorney General Richard Blumenthal held the state’s other Senate seat for Democrats last year, and the odds there favor a Democrat replacing Lieberman. 


What about Virginia? It elected Democratic governors in 2001 and 2005 and Barack Obama became the first Democratic nominee to carry the state (by his national average of 53%-46% in 2008). But it elected Republican Bob McDonnell as governor by a 59%-41% margin in 2009, and its House popular vote in 2010 was 55%-42% Republican. Former Gov. and current Democratic National Chairman Tim Kaine is the best-known possible nominee for the Democrats, but it’s not clear whether he will run.  


So it looks like the Democrats’ 53-47 Senate majority is in great peril. They seem likely—though not certain—to lose the Nebraska, North Dakota and Virginia seats now. Recent polling shows Democratic senators in several other states running well below 50%, a traditional danger sign for incumbents, and in some cases trailing possible Republican challengers. In contrast, while Republicans seem likely to hold their 10 seats since they won the 2010 House popular vote in eight of them and the incumbents in the other two, Maine and Massachusetts, are highly popular. Yes, Olympia Snowe could conceivably lose her Republican primary to a conservative who could be beaten in November, and Scott Brown while highly popular is running in one of the nation’s most Democratic states. But odds currently favor both of them.


If Democrats lose their majority, Democratic senators will lose their committee and subcommittee chairmanships. The more likely that possibility seems—and it’s more likely with Jim Webb retiring—the more likely some more of the Democrats up for reelection will decide it’s time to leave the sinking ship.



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Michael Barone

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