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.
This article appears in the April 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.