Politics: Campaign 2012

Voters Have Reason to Engage in 2012 Election

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June 6, 2011, 6:21 p.m.

Dur­ing a web­cast in­ter­view 10/7, teen mom/ab­stin­ence ad­voc­ate Bris­tol Pal­in “said she’d like to see” ex-AK Gov. Sarah Pal­in (R) run for the WH, say­ing her moth­er is “awe­some for this coun­try.” Bris­tol: “I know she’s qual­i­fied to do the job.”

More Bris­tol, on “im­plic­a­tions” Pal­in “might be dumb”: “She’s the smartest wo­man I know.”

Bris­tol also said her moth­er’s por­tray­al on “Sat­urday Night Live” had “bugged” her. Bris­tol: “But then again it was com­ing from Tina Fey, who’s im­per­son­a­tion of my mom was def­in­itely not dead-on. They look like each oth­er, but my mom doesn’t talk the way that Tina Fey talks.”

More Bris­tol, on son Tripp: “I want him to be happy and healthy and hope­fully he’ll play hockey” (Mer­cer, Fargo For­um, 10/7).

In the next month, we’re poised to see the latest death blow to cent­rism in both parties, with Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Richard Lugar of In­di­ana in the primary fight of his polit­ic­al life and a lead­ing Blue Dog Demo­crat, Rep. Tim Hold­en, fa­cing an un­her­al­ded but ser­i­ous and well-fun­ded chal­lenger in next week’s Pennsylvania primary.

The re­tire­ment of mod­er­ate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was only a blip on the radar screen mon­it­or­ing the shrink­ing of parties’ cent­rist fac­tions, which al­lowed com­prom­ise and deal-mak­ing to flour­ish in the past. The rise of the tea party move­ment may have spot­lighted the GOP’s drift right­ward, but the cent­rist de­cline is a bi­par­tis­an phe­nomen­on.

It’s plaus­ible that after the 2012 elec­tion, thanks to par­tis­an re­dis­trict­ing and the ideo­lo­gic­al re­ori­ent­ing of the parties, there will be only three white South­ern Demo­crats left in the House — Jim Cooper of Ten­ness­ee, Gene Green of Texas, and Dav­id Price of North Car­o­lina. Of the 34 Demo­crats who voted against Pres­id­ent Obama’s health care law, 24 either lost their seats in 2010 or plan to re­tire after this Con­gress, and an­oth­er six are fa­cing dif­fi­cult reelec­tion cam­paigns. There’s little chance the mod­er­ate Blue Dog Caucus can plaus­ibly sur­vive after the elec­tion giv­en that at­tri­tion. Mean­while, the base is thriv­ing: Three of the mar­quee Demo­crats run­ning for Sen­ate this year — Sen. Sher­rod Brown of Ohio, Rep. Tammy Bald­win of Wis­con­sin, and Eliza­beth War­ren in Mas­sachu­setts — are all run­ning to the pop­u­list left.

Mean­while, Re­pub­lic­ans ap­pear con­tent to al­low primary voters to render their ver­dicts on in­flu­en­tial vet­er­an mem­bers they view as in­suf­fi­ciently con­ser­vat­ive — Lugar; Sen. Or­rin Hatch, R-Utah; and House En­ergy and Com­merce Chair­man Fred Up­ton, R-Mich. — even though they’ve nev­er had trouble on their right flank in the past. But in the cur­rent cli­mate, nuc­le­ar dip­lomacy is out, mil­it­ary hawk­ish­ness is in; past sup­port of cap-and-trade is polit­ic­ally tox­ic; Solyn­dra is the buzzword of the mo­ment; and ever hav­ing teamed up with the late Sen. Ed­ward Kennedy, D-Mass., on le­gis­la­tion is an oc­cu­pa­tion­al haz­ard. The GOP battles are as much gen­er­a­tion­al as ideo­lo­gic­al: House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor’s dar­ing en­dorse­ment and dona­tion to fresh­man Rep. Adam Kin­zinger over long­time con­ser­vat­ive Don Man­zullo last month, in a mem­ber-versus-mem­ber primary, is in­dic­at­ive of the GOP primary elect­or­ate’s think­ing.

The up­com­ing primar­ies in In­di­ana and Pennsylvania il­lus­trate how the changes in the coun­try’s elect­or­ate have put two re­spec­ted con­gres­sion­al mem­bers at ser­i­ous risk.

Lugar, whose vot­ing re­cord is tra­di­tion­ally con­ser­vat­ive, is from a by­gone era. His early praise of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s vot­ing re­cord on nuc­le­ar non­pro­lif­er­a­tion at the be­gin­ning of the 2008 pres­id­en­tial race fore­shad­owed his cur­rent polit­ic­al pre­dic­a­ment. His pet is­sue is viewed by many as a rel­ic of the Cold War, and any praise of Obama is tox­ic in a GOP primary. Mean­while, he’s been serving in Wash­ing­ton so long that he no longer has a per­man­ent ad­dress in his home state. These are glar­ing red flags that were be­ing waved long be­fore he moun­ted his reelec­tion cam­paign.

The one miss­ing in­gredi­ent was al­ways the pres­ence of a for­mid­able primary chal­lenger. In­di­ana Treas­urer Richard Mour­dock had a de­cent re­sume but a dry cam­paign style, and he ini­tially struggled to raise money and win en­dorse­ments. But as in  any race against a vul­ner­able in­cum­bent, voters will render their de­cision primar­ily on their sat­is­fac­tion with that in­cum­bent. In a sign of where this race is headed, con­ser­vat­ive groups have ral­lied be­hind Mour­dock, who out­raised the long­time sen­at­or last quarter and is in strik­ing dis­tance in the latest in­de­pend­ent poll.

Hold­en’s pre­dic­a­ment in Pennsylvania is a test­a­ment to the par­tis­an work­ings be­hind the ger­ry­man­der­ing pro­cess, which has re­duced the num­ber of com­pet­it­ive dis­tricts where cent­rism would be an as­set. The Blue Dog Demo­crat had reg­u­larly dis­patched Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ents des­pite run­ning in a dis­trict that reg­u­larly backed GOP pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates. His op­pos­i­tion to abor­tion rights, gun con­trol, and his party’s green-en­ergy ini­ti­at­ives were polit­ic­al win­ners in his con­ser­vat­ive-minded former dis­trict. But re­drawn in­to a solidly Demo­crat­ic one, Hold­en is now fa­cing a ser­i­ous chal­lenge on his left from tri­al at­tor­ney Matt Cartwright — and find­ing that his old stances are now ma­jor vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. The cam­paign has got­ten nasty: Cartwright sent out mail­ers ac­cus­ing Hold­en of be­ing an aco­lyte of former Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney and a pawn of Big Oil.

Hold­en is the more-pol­ished can­did­ate. But his new dis­trict isn’t just dif­fer­ent ideo­lo­gic­ally; about 80 per­cent of his con­stitu­ents are brand new. So he doesn’t hold the in­cum­bency ad­vant­age that most mem­bers start out with. Both cam­paigns are claim­ing they have the edge, and it’s likely to go down to the wire.

As my col­league Ron Brown­stein wrote in last week’s Na­tion­al Journ­al cov­er story, con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns are be­com­ing akin to par­lia­ment­ary elec­tions, with few­er voters pick­ing pres­id­en­tial and Con­gres­sion­al can­did­ates from dif­fer­ent parties. In­deed, both parties have be­come ho­mo­gen­eous to the point where they’re al­most en­tirely sor­ted out along ideo­lo­gic­al lines.  The term “mod­er­ate” is an ana­chron­ism these days.

This trend has sig­ni­fic­ant im­plic­a­tions for the fu­ture tra­ject­ory of both parties. Demo­crats have more to lose polit­ic­ally if their party con­tin­ues its left­ward drift, be­cause con­ser­vat­ives out­num­ber lib­er­als by a 2-to-1 mar­gin, ac­cord­ing to sur­veys of the Amer­ic­an elect­or­ate, most re­cently a Gal­lup poll re­leased in Janu­ary. In the mod­ern era, Demo­crats have de­pended on a co­ali­tion of lib­er­als and mod­er­ates to win elec­tions, and the 2010 midterm losses nearly decim­ated the lat­ter fac­tion. But Re­pub­lic­ans have lately shown little tol­er­ance for ideo­lo­gic­al apostasy on is­sues like im­mig­ra­tion, which would al­low them to ex­pand their ap­peal bey­ond the con­ser­vat­ive base.

For all of the polit­ic­al changes over the past two dec­ades, the ideo­lo­gic­al com­pos­i­tion of the coun­try has re­mained re­mark­ably con­stant, even as the num­ber of mem­bers rep­res­ent­ing the middle has shrunk. That means whichever party is best able to find room for the fu­ture Lugars and Hold­ens will be the one with a head start at hold­ing the Con­gress in the years to come.

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