One of the biggest story lines of the year is that the Republican Party has moved so far to the right that they’re alienating crucial swing voters. But look at this year’s Senate landscape, and it’s the Democrats who are running candidates with liberal convictions, while Republicans are sporting milquetoast moderates.
The potential Republican Senate nominees include former Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, who has been complimentary toward President Obama and embraced the “Republican-In-Name Only” label; former Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, one of the most moderate members of the House during her tenure; and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who supported elements of Obama’s health care law. And one of the two Republican senators facing a tough general-election campaign is Scott Brown, who is flaunting his bipartisan credentials as he tries to win in true-blue Massachusetts.
This isn’t a roster of fire-breathing conservatives. In fact, even the more-conservative Senate recruits, like Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota and former Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, have come under fire from tea party activists over their congressional voting records. Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, an ardent fiscal conservative, has one of the most liberal records on immigration of any Republican member, and Rep. Connie Mack of Florida once compared Arizona’s punitive immigration law to Nazi Germany.
In Montana, Rep. Denny Rehberg was one of just four House Republicans who voted against Paul Ryan’s entitlement-busting budget, breaking with his party’s leadership.
By contrast, most of the leading Democratic nominees have been proudly advertising their liberalism. In Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren has become a national spokeswoman for voters looking for an outspoken advocate of progressive policies. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., has consistently been ranked one of the most liberal members of the House by National Journal, and is supportive of the labor-fueled recall of Gov. Scott Walker in her home state. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine of Virginia was Obama’s chief backer, and has closely tied himself to the president’s polarizing first-term policies.
The biggest question looming for Senate Republicans in 2012 is whether the traditional criteria of what makes a strong Senate candidate still hold. Not long ago, the time-tested formula was finding someone with political experience, proven fundraising ability, and a voting record that wasn’t too far out of the mainstream. By that standard, Republicans boast an impressive recruiting class filled with many former members and former governors whose moderation was considered a leading virtue.
But by the new standards, authenticity is more highly valued than political experience. As I’ve noted in past columns, a significant number of potential nominees are running more on their past record than future vision. Thompson hasn’t won a statewide election since 1998. Wilson was one of the most battle-tested members of Congress, but her last successful campaign was in 2006. In Virginia, former Sen. George Allen hasn’t won an election since 2000. On paper, these candidates sport deep resumes, but the political climate has changed markedly over the past decade.
Democrats are making the opposite bet. They’ve been rallying behind conviction candidates whose ideology is to the left of the constituencies in their states but who have made little attempt to paper over their politics. Elizabeth Warren is the best example of this phenomenon. She has been giving a virtual workshop on the perils of rising income inequality, a message that the president has belatedly adopted. Her class-tinged rhetoric, even as it risks alienating moderates, has drawn a national following and a huge fundraising base. The race is already deadlocked, with some polls showing her ahead of Brown.
In Wisconsin, Baldwin is the left’s version of Michele Bachmann. She’s been a leading antiwar voice in the House, supported government-run health care, and has been on the front lines of the culture war. Indeed, she was one of the most outspoken defenders of Obama’s initial decision to mandate religious charities provide contraceptives in their insurance policies, even though the state she’s looking to represent has one of the highest concentrations of Catholic voters in the country.
Even in the battleground state of Virginia, it’s striking how closely former Gov. Kaine is tying himself to the president, not running away from his support for Obama as former DNC chair. At a youth summit last weekend, Kaine said that “nothing was as sweet … nothing was as meaningful for the country and the world” as helping elect Obama in 2008. Obama’s approval rating in the Old Dominion is stuck at 46 percent, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll.
But Kaine hasn’t suffered politically from his associations, even as he’s been hit on the airwaves with more than $1 million in negative ads from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and American Crossroads.
“At a time when people are disgusted with politicians, having someone who embraces their record and stands by their principles is at a real premium with voters,” said Kaine adviser Mo Elleithee.
For Republicans, the biggest question in 2012 is whether voters value moderation more than authenticity. The party has placed a big bet on recruiting candidates who pass the traditional electability tests. But if Democrats manage to hang onto the Senate, they can credit their nominees for standing up for their beliefs.
This article appears in the Feb. 29, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.