Democrats’ Biggest Mistake: Depleting The Senate?

As the U.S. midterm elections approach, it’s becoming clear that, as election analyst Charlie Cook says, “The Senate is in play.” Because the Democrats have a big Senate majority and because there aren’t all that many competitive seats, the Republicans would essentially have to win all the winnable races in order to gain control of the Senate. But it’s quite possible that they could do that. One thing to remember is that while the U.S. Senate has sometimes changed hands without the House flipping, every time the House changes control, so does the Senate. A “wave” big enough to sweep out a large number of Congressmen will usually mean that the winning party also takes most of the Senate seats that can be won: that’s what happened in 2006, when the Democrats kept all the Senate seats they had already and won most of the close races (Virginia, for example).

Of course this could be the year House control changes without Senate control following along; just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean it never will happen. But the very fact that the Democrats are worried about losing the Senate is a reminder of something that several commentators have been pointing out since 2009: most of President Obama’s political troubles have had to do with the Senate (where it’s much harder to get anything passed), and at least some of those troubles were self-imposed by his decision to pull a number of people out of the Senate. Obama’s own seat is vulnerable, and Delaware, which Vice President Biden represented for decades, is a likely Republican pickup unless GOP candidate Mike Castle loses his primary. Those can’t be helped, of course. But Obama compounded the problem by appointing Colorado Senator Ken Salazar to be Secretary of the Interior; Salazar would probably have had a better chance of defending the seat than his appointed replacement (who is slightly behind). Then there are the people who weren’t Senators but could have been. Obama’s appointment of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano to the department of Homeland Security allowed Republican Jan Brewer to become governor of Arizona, which in turn led to the Arizona immigration law. But from a crassly political point of view, Napolitano could have made a go of it in the Senate race against the vulnerable John McCain; she might not have won, but she could have made the race more competitive — and forced McCain to worry about challenges from his left. Others have pointed to Tom Vilsack (Iowa) and Kathleen Sebelius (Kansas) as governors who might have run credible Senate races in their home states; if Sebelius had run in the open Senate race in Kansas, the GOP would as least have had to put some resources into defending the seat, whereas they’re going to hold it without any trouble. The net result has been a situation where nearly all the pressure is on the Democrats.

Not that the Senate problems all come from Obama’s appointments. (At least one appointment, of Hillary Clinton, has worked out fine: the replacement, Kristen Gillibrand, was seen as vulnerable at first, but the GOP hasn’t been able to find a credible challenger.) Robert Byrd and, most especially, Ted Kennedy made things worse by staying in the Senate until they died, rather than leaving beforehand. Imagine how different things would have been for the Democrats if Kennedy had retired in 2008 when his health started to worsen. And as David Weigel points out, one of the biggest factors in the Democrats’ problems was the delay in seating Al Franken, which meant that the Republicans found it fairly easy to filibuster for most of 2009 — and by the time Franken was seated and the Democrats had their theoretical filibuster-proof majority, it was too late to do much with it before their political position became weaker.

Still, I get the impression that the Democrats acted as if their Senate majority was secure and that they could afford to open up a tough race here or there. It’s what Bill James called the Law of Competitive Balance: the team that’s ahead gets frozen by success, while the team that’s behind fights with everything it’s got. I don’t want to make too much of that, since the main reason the Democrats are in trouble is well-known to all — unacceptably high unemployment. (Hardly anyone seems to think the Republicans will fix this with their insistence on tax cuts as a solution to everything, but that’s the party political system for you; the only way to show disapproval of the party in power is to elect somebody else.) They’d have been in trouble no matter what. But in 2009, they seemed to proceed from the premise that the economy was bound to get better and that they wouldn’t be in any more than the usual mid-term trouble in 2010. So much for that.

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