A new Republican renaissance

If Democrats had any doubt that the Party is in dire straits, they were set straight by the Massachusetts Special Senate Election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat that saw a conservative Republican unknown defeat the highly popular state Attorney General by a 100,000 vote margin. What made the defeat even worse was that the entire campaign was fought on the issue of healthcare, which Kennedy called “the cause of my life”, a battle which the Democrats lost in a state in which Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of three to one.
The troubles in the Democratic party are confirmed by the generic ballot, a poll that simply asks whom voters would be more likely to support in their congressional district, the Democratic or Republican candidate. Republicans currently lead by an average of about four percentage points across the board. This is actually much worse than it sounds. Democrats have traditionally dominated in this category, due to the fact that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans, who balance this at the polling station with higher turnout from their supporters. The only years in which the Republicans have led in the generic ballot were 1994, when the party took control of congress for the first time since 1952, and 2002, in the wake of the September 11th attacks.
The “intensity gap” has completely reversed since the presidential election, when Democrats were fired up on a brew of “hope” and “change” while Republicans were never truly convinced that John McCain was one of their own. Now, liberal Democrats are disillusioned with Obama’s more practical and less ideological approach and his seeming inability to get anything done despite nearly unprecedented congressional majorities. Republicans on the other hand see Obama’s very limited reforms as the first step towards a form of state-socialism that will bankrupt the country and destroy the American way.
Republicans are practically salivating at the prospect of winning the “trifecta” in the Senate elections. For maximum symbolic value the party wants to steal seats in Nevada, Illinois and Delaware from the Democrats, a feat that would be as mentally scarring to the Democrats as Massachusetts.
The worrying thing for the party is that the chances of the Republicans managing this are better than evens. The reason why this would be so devastating for the Democrats, aside from just simply losing three crucial Senate seats, is what the seats represent. The sitting senator for Nevada is Harry Reid, the Senate Democratic Leader and one of the most powerful men in Washington. He is consistently trailing in opinion polls to unknown Republicans.
Illinois and Delaware are both heavily Democratic states, but more importantly these seats are the ones once held Barack Obama and Joe Biden and the mere fact that these seats even need to be defended is a bad sign. While there is still hope for Illinois, the White House appears to have given up on Delaware, where the likely Republican candidate is the state’s only congressman, a position he has held for eighteen years, before which he was governor. To top it all off he is a direct descendent of Benjamin Franklin.
However these are not the only seats looking vulnerable to a Republican takeover. North Dakota – whose sitting Democratic senator is retiring after eighteen years in office – is considered nearly a write-off at this stage.
Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, a centrist Democrat, is having serious difficulty highlighting to her constituents the (considerable) differences between her and the Obama White House, while Senator Michael Bennett of Colorado is trying to avoid his election bid being characterised as a battle between a generic Democrat and a generic Republican in a typical swing-state.
The cases of Lincoln and Bennett manifest a clear issue for the Democratic Party that the Massachusetts election made painfully obvious. If being associated with Obama in one of the most liberal states in the nation is a bad thing electorally, then it must be pure poison in Arkansas and Colorado.
However even if one considers all of this, the obvious conclusion is that it doesn’t really matter. The Democrat’s Senate majority is eighteen seats and their House majority is seventy-eight. Both of these majorities are extraordinarily large by historical standards. The problem is that of internal party loyalty.
The Democrats have a quite considerable conservative Southern wing historically and part of the party’s policy to retake the House and Senate in 2006 was to nominate conservatives and centrists who could win in swing districts over ideologically pure liberals (who could be, and almost always were, nominated in safe areas). This means that the party has considerable internal differences.
By contrast, the Republicans have had two horrific elections in a row that tended to disproportionally claim members of the party’s liberal north-eastern wing as casualties, making the party much more united and homogenous, even if it is much smaller.
This is actually likely to get worse before it gets better as it is the conservative Democrats who will be disproportionally hit by the likely bad election – moving the Democrats to the left and making compromise between the two increasingly polarised parties less and less likely.
Since, according to Senate rules, sixty votes are needed to shut down a filibuster and actually get to a vote this makes America potentially unable to do anything at all – which is the worst of all possible worlds.