Unique factors, of course, critically contributed to the Democratic red-state gains: Sen. Jon Tester in Montana and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota beat House incumbents with prickly personal images, and Donnelly and McCaskill each bested opponents who immolated themselves with comments about rape. But overall, the Senate results reinforce the sense that an unusually unified coalition fueled the Democrats’ gains at all levels.
In November, the older and blue-collar whites that often anchor the conservative end of the Democratic vote tilted even more than usual toward the GOP. As a result, Democrats won behind a remaining coalition of minorities, young people, and upscale white women that not only voted a mostly straight ticket but also expressed strikingly consistent policy views. In the exit poll, four-fifths of Obama voters said that Washington should raise taxes on the affluent; an equal number said that Washington should provide illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
With that consensus in their voting coalition, Senate Democratic aides believe it will be easier to unify their members on both of those central issues. Apart from Donnelly (and to a lesser extent reelected Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida), Democratic Senate contenders didn’t make firm commitments to extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich. Some red-state Democrats may still resist immigration reform that offers legalization, but given the strong Hispanic impact on the election’s results “we are at a point where Democrats are no longer on the defensive [about it] even in the reddest of states,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide.
Some of this effect is already visible. During the debate over extending the Bush tax cuts in 2010, Republicans were unified and Democrats were divided. Today, Democrats are in virtual lockstep over ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and Republicans are divided. Some issues (such as energy) will inevitably divide Democrats because they are more of a coalition party than the GOP. Still, as this year’s results show, the Democratic electoral coalition is growing more unified not only in its beliefs but also its voting behavior—and that could encourage more cohesion among the party’s legislators on Capitol Hill as well.
This column appeared in print as "Coming Together."
This article appeared in the Saturday, December 1, 2012 edition of National Journal.