Senators seeking reelection in 2012 face a political landscape vastly different from the one that helped them to victory nearly five years ago. Starting in 2006, three consecutive wave cycles swept Democrats into power, then swept them back out—and, along the way, elected the first African-American president. Contributing to the political volatility in recent years, voters were contending with the threat of an economic collapse and with the consequences of two drawn-out wars.
Clearly, faith in the American Dream has been shaken. So, too, has voters’ deference to incumbency. In 2010, that increasingly skeptical attitude—morphing into open hostility in some cases—pushed out such lawmakers as Republican Sen. Robert Bennett in Utah and Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold in Wisconsin who were once viewed as untouchable.
Every lawmaker running in 2012 has to be mindful of voter volatility, but perhaps none more so than Senate Democrats in swing states, who will have to decide how closely to align with President Obama. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Claire McCaskill of Missouri are in this group, and over the next 19 months National Journal will periodically check in to see how these two senators are faring as they pursue very different approaches to winning reelection.
Elected in the Democratic wave of 2006, both are veteran public officials who benefited from the voter backlash toward President Bush, particularly over his handling of the Iraq war and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Bush’s disapproval ratings were key to both of their victories. In Ohio, 58 percent of voters disapproved of Bush’s performance in November 2006, and they broke 85 percent to 15 percent for Brown. In Missouri, 53 percent of voters disapproved of the president; they broke 83 percent to 14 percent for McCaskill.
But Democrats don’t have Bush to kick around anymore; efforts to invoke the former president’s name in contested 2010 elections did no significant damage to Republican candidates. Obama is the only president voters are thinking of now, and Gallup’s February 23 state-by-state survey gave Obama a 47 percent approval rating in Ohio and a 41 percent positive rating in Missouri.
These numbers are obviously relevant to the president’s reelection, but also to Brown’s and McCaskill’s. Ohio is one of nine states that Democratic nominee John Kerry lost in 2004 but Obama picked up 2008 (he won there by 5 percentage points). The president could win reelection without carrying Ohio, but it would leave him little margin for error in other swing states.
Missouri is a different story. Although Obama lost there by only 4,000 votes in 2008, the state is trending Republican. “I don’t think Missouri is remotely competitive for Obama in 2012,” said Steve Hilton, a veteran of Missouri GOP politics who was an aide to then-Sen. John Ashcroft.
Therein lies a distinction between Brown and McCaskill that will likely shape their paths to reelection.
Aided by Obama’s attention to Ohio, Brown’s campaign will focus on mobilizing the Democratic base, wooing swing independent voters, and working to get 2008’s first-time Obama voters back to the polls. As one of the Senate’s most reliable liberal votes, Brown is unlikely—either by temperament or politics—to avoid confrontation. He will instead build a stark contrast with his Republican opponent. Jack Torry of The Columbus Dispatch and the Dayton Daily News neatly summed up Brown’s positioning among his electorate in a February column. Comparing the current senator to former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, Torry wrote, “Brown’s heart is to the left of most Ohio voters.”
McCaskill’s reelection campaign will try to convince enough of her former backers that she is the same woman they sent to Washington in 2006. For the Missouri Democrat, it’s less about creating a sharp contrast with her Republican opponent than about blurring partisan lines. McCaskill is in the Democratic Party, her campaign will convey, but she is not of the Democratic Party. Her task has been greatly complicated by recent revelations that she failed to pay taxes on a private plane she owned with her husband. “This is the kind of mistake that I know is one that people won’t forget,” McCaskill told a radio interviewer, “and I can only hope they will take it in context of all the work I’ve done.”
By the numbers, Brown and McCaskill are good examples of the divergent paths within the Senate Democratic Caucus. Brown is one of nine senators tied for the distinction of most liberal, according to National Journal’s 2010 vote ratings. McCaskill, although a friend of the president, frequently works with Republicans on policy initiatives. Her votes last year landed her in the center of the chamber, at 47th-most liberal. Many of the party’s other vulnerable senators—including Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Jon Tester of Montana—are clustered nearby in the vote ratings.
In the Senate, Brown and McCaskill voted similarly on many of the defining pieces of legislation in their first term: They both supported the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $800 billion economic-stimulus package, and the health care overhaul. Their Republican opponents will surely try to use those votes against them in 2012.
A closer look at their records shows that the lawmakers frequently split on economic matters, on votes related to the size and scope of the federal government, and on Congress’s authority to spend. Last year, McCaskill voted to cut federal spending and establish statutory discretionary spending limits, and she has been a lonely Democratic advocate of a ban on earmarks. She has opposed efforts to tighten leverage and liability limits for bank-holding companies and other financial institutions. Although she opposes tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans, McCaskill has been generally wary of tax increases.
On domestic issues, she has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration, voting to deploy troops to the U.S.-Mexico border and to ramp up spending for border security. She opposed a 2007 bill that would have created a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. McCaskill has also been hawkish on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, often siding with Republicans on funding and timetables. She has generally acknowledged the existence of global warming, but she assiduously avoided taking a position during the debate on the ultimately unsuccessful climate-change bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. McCaskill has since avoided reporters’ attempts to question her on climate change.
But as much as the policy stances matter—and they do—much of McCaskill’s case to voters relies on personal factors, which is why the plane controversy is so potentially damaging. She is an aggressive and skilled communicator who has worked hard to couple her folksy, down-home Missouri image with media savvy and a bold edge. She has cultivated a Twitter following in part because she personally knocks off her 140-character messages, instead of leaving that task to her aides, as most other lawmakers do. She is attentive and engaging with constituents across her state, particularly in rural areas where her path to victory may rest.
In the Senate, McCaskill relishes taking an independent course. In February, she locked arms with Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to introduce a bill to reduce total federal spending—both discretionary and mandatory—to a target of approximately 20.6 percent of gross domestic product, the historical average of federal spending. She is the only Democrat to sign onto the bill; in a floor speech, she conceded that the move was politically risky.
At a press conference announcing the legislation, McCaskill embraced her single-mindedness. “I believe that the biggest issue that faces our Congress right now is how do we get our fiscal house in order over the next decade,” she said. “And I am going to work—and I can be really obnoxious—with my colleagues, trying to get them to see the light.” Corker told National Journal that he asked McCaskill to join his legislative effort because she has shown sincerity on fiscal issues. Noting her earlier bipartisan efforts with Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., Corker said, “I have found her to be someone who really wants to deal with the spending issues, and I sought her out for that reason; I know that she’s worked with people on both sides of the aisle to pass those issues.”
McCaskill’s relationship with the president is sure to be a factor in her campaign. She was one of the first senators to endorse Obama in 2008. Although the Missouri Democrat has distanced herself from him in recent months on spending cuts and on legislative efforts to allow some people to opt-out of the health care law’s mandate, her opponents are sure to highlight her friendship with the president.
Obama’s endorsement of her at a St. Louis fundraiser in 2010 offered the kind of rhetoric opposition ads are made of. He praised “my dear, dear friend Claire McCaskill,” and said, “I love Claire McCaskill. Love, love Claire McCaskill!” Still, the president and the senator are very different types. Obama has been criticized for sometimes taking a highbrow tone with voters; McCaskill, by contrast, has had a way of putting issues in everyday terms. After Obama admitted to using “poor syntax” in the 2008 campaign in comments he made about guns and religion, McCaskill chided the candidate because “where I come from that’s the tax you have to pay on beer.”
From her perch atop a subcommittee with oversight over government contracting, McCaskill has aggressively examined the federal government’s multibillion-dollar contracting process. It’s a role that tends to earn critics inside the Beltway, but it doesn’t necessarily get noticed or deliver results back home. Her oversight work had, however, helped to build her bona fides as a good steward of the public purse.
That public image recently took some heavy blows when Politico revealed that McCaskill used taxpayer dollars to pay for flights on a private plane owned by her husband and other associates and that the couple owed back taxes on the plane. She has reimbursed the Treasury more than $400,000, but the damage from the “Air Claire” debacle clearly jeopardizes her reelection.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are already criticizing her use of the plane. It is an issue that hits home with voters, and it undercuts the persona of government reformer that McCaskill, a former state auditor, has spent her political life crafting. Republican strategists say that the flap played directly into their hands because it bolsters their charge that McCaskill has “gone Washington” since voters elected her in 2006. The controversy also serves as a reminder that the best-laid reelection strategies can be undone by forces that have nothing to do with national political trends or controversial votes in Congress.
Brown, like McCaskill, sometimes has a rhetorically combative style. But where McCaskill takes aim broadly at partisanship and failures of government, Brown is a proud partisan, an avowed Democrat with liberal leanings. The Ohioan has backed a series of measures to extend unemployment benefits during the economic downturn, casting the extensions as crucial support for millions of economically ailing Americans. McCaskill has voted to extend jobless benefits but has also joined with other fiscal conservatives in questioning how long the government can provide the benefits without effectively creating a new entitlement program.
The Ohioan, meanwhile, sharply criticizes Republicans’ economic policies—in particular, the push for dramatic cuts in discretionary spending. Doing so would cost jobs and slow economic growth, Brown argues. “The debate on the budget for the next year offers a clear contrast between the two parties. We need to make cuts; we’ve proposed ways to reduce the deficit, like eliminating $20 billion in handouts to oil companies that make record profits,” he told reporters. “Why not eliminate subsidies for Big Oil? Why not eliminate tax giveaways for companies that ship jobs overseas? With those two actions alone, we could reduce the deficit by $40 billion.”
Brown has also waded into the fights between unions and GOP lawmakers in Ohio and Wisconsin, taking a position that could figure prominently in his reelection campaign. “We as a country, we stand for a more egalitarian workforce,” he said on the Senate floor in early March. “We stand for workers’ rights. We believe workers should organize and bargain collectively if they choose. We believe in a minimum wage. We believe in workers’ compensation. We believe in worker safety. We believe in human rights. And all of that is about the labor movement.” His penchant for antagonizing Republicans can sometimes get him in trouble, however. In the same speech, Brown invoked Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin—likening their opposition to labor unions to the GOP’s efforts to restrict collective-bargaining rights. He later apologized for those references.
In Ohio, the renewed focus on labor could prove potent in 2012 elections. The Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature have moved to reduce the bargaining rights of the state’s public employee unions. On Capitol Hill, Republicans have invigorated efforts to push the Obama administration to finalize stalled trade pacts with South Korea, Panama, and Colombia. Collective bargaining and trade have the potential to mobilize voters in Brown’s economically hard-hit state. In 2006, 28 percent of voters came from union households, and they voted 68 percent to 32 percent for Brown.
However, Ohio’s free-trade skeptics have been willing to vote for Republicans, as well. In 2010, 66 percent of state voters said they believed that the North American Free Trade Agreement cost jobs, but in the Senate race, they supported Republican Rob Portman—a former U.S. trade representative, a NAFTA supporter, and a staunch free-trade advocate—by 58 percent to 37 percent over Democrat Lee Fisher. Part of Brown’s task ahead is to persuade those voters to return to his fold.
Brown played a critical, albeit eventually fruitless, role during Washington’s climate-change negotiations in 2009. To secure the votes of a bloc of Midwestern lawmakers, he tried to wring concessions from the Obama administration and Boxer on amending the legislation to add greater protections and incentives for manufacturing jobs. The momentum fizzled on the Hill, however, and voters proved hostile to the politics of climate change, last year electing a wave of GOP lawmakers who openly question the science behind it.
Mindful of that hostility, Brown is now a leading voice among Senate Democrats urging the Obama administration to slow the pace of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions. Not incidentally, those rules could have a particularly damaging effect on jobs in his coal-dependent home state.
Until last week, The Cook Political Report deemed the Senate races in Missouri and Ohio to “lean Democratic.” The analysts have now shifted McCaskill’s race to the “toss-up” category in the wake of the private-plane controversy. Even if that controversy had never erupted, both races have the makings of marquee contests.
Although Brown and McCaskill are vulnerable, the political maxim still holds: You can’t beat somebody with nobody. In 2010, Republicans had Portman in Ohio and Roy Blunt in Missouri—two heavyweights who pulled off double-digit victories over Democratic opponents in open-seat contests. It’s still early for 2012, and Republicans are actively recruiting, but neither state party has an obvious political star to take on the Democratic incumbent in this cycle.
In Ohio, a number of potential candidates are eyeing the race, with recent buzz centering on state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a 33-year-old former Marine and an Iraq war veteran. If Mandel is the nominee, he’ll have his work cut out for him. In a March 2011 Quinnipiac University poll, 45 percent of voters said that Brown deserves to be reelected; only 30 percent said he does not. (They were nearly evenly split, 45 percent to 46 percent, on whether Obama deserves a second term.) Brown has been “a very adept officeholder and one who works in a very smart way and a very aggressive way,” said Curt Steiner, a veteran of Ohio GOP campaigns and a former top lobbyist for Ohio State University. “He works hard to stay in touch in Ohio as well as [working] hard in Washington, so I don’t think anybody underestimates how tough he will be next year.”
In Missouri, a potentially crowded field is forming, with lawyer and unsuccessful 2010 GOP House candidate Ed Martin and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman already declaring bids; former state party Chairwoman Ann Wagner and GOP Rep. Todd Akin are also considered potential candidates. “Send Claire Home On the Next Jet Out of D.C,” reads the invitation to a Steelman fundraiser.
In both states, Republicans have a case to make. Brown and McCaskill are beatable. But neither senator made it to Washington by being politically naive. Although their strategies for staying in Washington may differ, each may forge a winning path. As the 2010 elections demonstrated, some incumbents survive political waves. For every Russell Feingold or Arlen Specter who lost, a Harry Reid or a Patty Murray survived. Waves matter, but so does a well-executed campaign strategy. Brown and McCaskill will be putting theirs to the test soon.
This article appears in the April 2, 2011, edition of National Journal.