Since his election, President Obama has lost ground in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan thanks to the region’s struggling economy. It’s forced his campaign team to devote extra attention to keep the states in the Democratic column.
But Obama’s challenges at the presidential level haven’t affected the Democrats’ Senate prospects in these states. In what’s been otherwise fertile territory for a GOP presidential challenger to take on Obama, Republicans are struggling to find prospects to take on sitting senators.
Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., despite voting closely with the administration, scores solid approval ratings in the latest public polls and has barely stirred up any GOP opposition to challenge him in 2012. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has seen a parade of potential Republican challengers pass the race by, even though she’s been a perennial target. And Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, tagged as the most liberal senator by National Journal, still is viewed favorably among independents.
The president’s approval rating is sliding, and the Democratic-controlled Senate has been gridlocked, but voters in three key Rust Belt battlegrounds still aren’t sold on the Republican alternatives—at least, not yet.
The Keystone State offers a useful illustration of the Republican Party’s opportunities and obstacles in the region. Last year was a watershed year for the state party, which picked up five House seats and won the Senate seat. But even at the GOP’s high-water mark, Republican Pat Toomey only snagged 51 percent of the Senate vote against Democrat Joe Sestak—hardly an imposing margin.
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It’s a sign of how deep the Democratic Party affiliation runs in some parts of the state. The late Rep. John Murtha’s working-class southwestern Pennsylvania district was the only one in the country to reject Obama after voting for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts in the 2004 presidential race. Yet at the Democratic Party’s nadir, voters there still chose to replace Murtha in a special election with a Democrat, Mark Critz.
Again in 2012, voters in the state appear to be making distinctions between their view of the president and their view of his party. The struggling economy has Democratic strategists increasingly worried about Obama’s standing in the state.
Republicans see the opportunity: Last week, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seized it by making a detour so he could hold an event at a now-shuttered Allentown factory where Obama once touted his economic recovery—highlighting the sense of mission unaccomplished. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows Obama at 48 percent in a state he carried with 54 percent of the vote.
Yet the same poll gave Casey a 47 percent approval rating, with just 26 percent viewing him unfavorably. Republicans have struggled to identify a credible 2012 challenger to the state’s Democratic senator, whose father, former Gov. Robert Casey, personified the anti-abortion wing of the party.
It’s a slightly different story in Michigan, where polls have shown Stabenow in more precarious position as she seeks a third term.
An EPIC-MRA survey conducted in May showed a 43 percent plurality of Michigan voters gave her a negative job rating, with just 41 percent viewing her positively. She’s always faced tough elections, and looks like a tempting target.
But several promising Republican contenders have opted not to run, from former state party chairman Saul Anuzis to ex-Rep. Pete Hoekstra to proven statewide winners like former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. When Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Mich., sees a long-shot presidential campaign as a better bet than the Senate race, that speaks volumes about the GOP’s challenges in the post-industrial heartland.
The bench has gotten so barren that Michigan Republican Party officials have started touting a local charter-schools activist and a county water-resources commissioner as possible contenders. The names currently being mentioned make Dick DeVos and Mike Bouchard, recruits who got trounced in closely watched statewide contests over the last decade, look like all-stars in comparison.
The situation in Ohio is somewhat more promising for Republicans, but also illustrates how voters in the perennial battleground may split their ballots. At a time when the president’s reelection team is expressing concern about holding the predominantly white, blue-collar state, Brown is holding his head above water as he faces a likely challenge from state Treasurer Josh Mandel. A May Quinnipiac survey found him with a 49 percent job approval, even as he’s largely backed Obama’s agenda.
More importantly, Democrats in Ohio are taking an aggressive tack against Mandel. Both the state party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee accused him of a knack for self-promotion and questioned whether he’s ready, after less than a year as state treasurer, to become a U.S. senator. It’s a narrative that’s already bled into the Ohio newspapers’ coverage of his expected candidacy.
The early attacks on Mandel, who hasn’t even formally announced a campaign, indicate Democrats view him as a very formidable candidate. But they also demonstrate that the party infrastructure in Ohio isn’t counting on the president to pull incumbents across, and is fully gearing up its own strategy to protect them.
The states of play in these Senate races are a useful reminder that the Republican landslide was as much a rejection of uncontested Democratic control of Washington as an embrace of the GOP’s agenda. Brown, Casey, and Stabenow all voted for Obama’s controversial health care plan and stimulus, but haven’t yet seen voters turn on them because of it.
The difference this time around: If Obama lost reelection, a Republican Senate takeover could make the GOP the party with unchecked control in Washington. And many voters in these key battlegrounds may just decide to vote counter to their presidential preferences rather than give a single party control of Washington again.
This article appears in the July 6, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.