The prospect of a presidential campaign between President Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry would mark one of the most polarizing contests in recent years, with each candidate appealing more to their party’s bases than to the independent voters who usually decide such elections.
The Senate landscape is shaping up much the same way. In state after state, Democrats are getting behind outspoken progressives, even in battlegrounds where an unapologetically liberal message is a risky strategy. Meanwhile, tea party groups and conservative activists are still demonstrating their clout within the GOP, organizing primary opposition to two veteran senators, Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Indiana’s Richard Lugar—and a former four-term governor.
The best example of the 2012 polarization is coming (again) from Wisconsin. A conservative Republican governor undertook controversial reforms that prompted a backlash. Labor and progressive groups, in turn, mobilized to oust a sitting state Supreme Court justice and flip the state Senate. Both efforts failed, but an encore is shaping up in the U.S. Senate race.
Republicans are preparing for an acrimonious intraparty food fight between popular former Gov. Tommy Thompson and former Rep. Mark Neumann, a conservative with ties to the anti-tax Club for Growth. Thompson, who has been running since spring, received a rude wake-up call from fiscally conservative groups agitating against his campaign. Before Thompson even announced his candidacy, the Club for Growth spent $50,000 comparing him to Obama for supporting elements of the president’s health care plan. Running TV ads against an unannounced candidate is virtually unheard of.
Democrats, meanwhile, are rallying behind Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who is one of the most liberal members of the House, according to National Journal’s vote ratings, and hails from Madison, the Badger State’s progressive bastion. The traditional Left—labor, feminist groups such as EMILY’s List, and gay-rights advocates—are lining up for her. She was supportive of labor’s heated protests over Gov. Scott Walker’s budget plan.
Wisconsin has a history of supporting liberal statewide candidates, most recently former Sen. Russ Feingold, but the latest elections should give Democrats some pause before rallying behind Baldwin. In this year’s state Supreme Court and recall elections, the party’s most improved showings were among voters in the more rural, blue-collar western parts. A Madison congresswoman whose legislative history includes support for single-payer health insurance and gun control and opposition to the defense budget might not appeal to them.
In the battleground state of Nevada, both parties’ likely nominees are catering to their bases, even without any primary challengers in sight. Appointed Republican Sen. Dean Heller has embraced House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s entitlement-reform proposals and has backed tougher controls on illegal immigration in a state where Latinos are pivotal swing voters.
Democrats cleared the field for Rep. Shelley Berkley, even though the Silver State boasts a deep lineup of statewide officials, including Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto and Secretary of State Ross Miller, who wouldn’t carry Berkley’s Washington baggage. She represents a solidly Democratic Las Vegas district and has voted with the party leadership during Obama’s presidency.
In Massachusetts—a decidedly more liberal state—Democrats are betting that backing a candidate who made her name calling for more regulation of Wall Street and financial institutions is a winning strategy against GOP Sen. Scott Brown. Elizabeth Warren, who helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is positioning herself as a populist fighting for the middle class against predatory Wall Street interests.
Her long career as a Harvard University law professor and in government is her biggest hurdle. Massachusetts is close to a single-party state, but Democrats split along cultural lines—the white-collar professionals in the Boston suburbs and Cambridge versus the blue-collar working class, many of whom broke for Brown in 2010.
There are two types of populism in American politics: wealth-based and class-based. Democrats prefer invoking the former. For example, Obama portrays his deficit-reduction plan as making the wealthy pay their fair share, and Warren spins her skepticism of big banks and financial institutions as looking out for the little guy. But that anti-Wall Street populism hasn’t been as effective as the GOP’s favored brand of populism—elites versus average Joes.
That’s how Brown won his upset special election against Democrat Martha Coakley, by featuring his pickup truck and pointing out her ignorance of the Boston Red Sox and playing off her distaste for hand-to-hand campaign combat. And it would be a mistake to dismiss the role Obama’s health care plan played in the race, a sign that even in the Bay State, voters have questions about the president’s big-ticket programs. Warren’s initial decision not to weigh in on Obama’s latest jobs plan is a telltale sign of that.
Because Massachusetts is such a Democratic state, any nominee should be able to give Brown a run for his money. But a candidate with a liberal paper trail offers Brown plenty of opposition-research fodder.
In 2010, the Republican establishment was at odds with the party’s tea party faction in many key Senate races and that tension has not lifted. Less discussed is that outspokenly liberal candidates are facing surprisingly little resistance on their way to Senate nominations and are clinching them with the support of the Democratic Party establishment.
This article appears in the Sep. 21, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.