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11.16.10

Why the Dems Could Lose the Senate Next

The Democrats’ most unorthodox senators are up for reelection in two years—and all of them could go down to defeat. Samuel P. Jacobs on what would be lost, and the possible death of the big-tent party.

Political obituary writers, sharpen your pencils. The next election cycle could put to death a breed of Democrat, the sort most comfortable on the seat of a tractor, the kind that is willing to attack sacred cows like affirmative action, or balk on the Democratic dogma of being pro-choice. Three of the more colorful examples—Montana’s Jon Tester, Virginia’s Jim Webb, and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey Jr.—are among the 21 Democratic senators up for reelection in 2102. And their fortunes may well determine whether the party, which already lost a lot of moderates and conservatives this fall, folds its big tent once and for all.

Much of the hand-wringing about 2012 thus far has to do with geography. In 2008, Barack Obama captured conservative states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana, giving Democrats hope that their party’s map had permanently expanded. In 2010, those states voted for Republicans in droves. Further causing Democrats heartburn: The Rust Belt, long a party stronghold, sent a caravan of Republicans to statehouses, the House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate.

But what’s at stake is more than just the map. The party risks losing the very idea of a different kind of Democrat. If voters continue to punch ballots for the Republican Party in 2012 as they did in 2010—and that’s a big if with President Obama on the ticket next time around—the Democrats are in danger of losing some of their most iconoclastic members.

“If we are monolithic and liberal, then we won’t be the majority party,” says former Rep. Dan Glickman, who served as Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary, and knows from experience what it’s like to serve as a Democrat from the red state of Kansas. And if Webb, Tester, and Casey are ousted, then the Democrats may be guilty of the same sort of ideological purification they tend to mock when Republicans are the ones doing it.

Tester, the farmer who rode his tractor straight out of Montana to Washington, beat three-term Republican incumbent Conrad Burns in 2006 by a mere 3,000 votes. Weighing in at 300 pounds and possessed of only seven fingers thanks to a childhood encounter with a meat grinder, Tester campaigned on the notion that Montanans should send him to the Senate because he doesn’t belong there. “I don’t look like the other senators, but isn’t it time the Senate looks a little bit more like Montana?” Tester said in one ad. His prairie-raised populism excited liberals from outside the state, who relished sending a man in overalls to Washington to stick it to big business.

Montana voters aren’t unfriendly to Democrats; see, for example, Gov. Brian Schweitzer. But while the state legislature was evenly split 50-50 the year Tester was elected, this fall, local Republicans seized a 68-32 advantage. Already a number of candidates appear poised to challenge Tester, from the state’s lone House member, Denny Rehnberg, to Bozeman businessman Steve Daines, who declared his candidacy Saturday. State GOP officials say former Governor Marc Racicot could return to the state from Washington to run—despite having become a lobbyist in the meantime (after all, Dan Coats of Indiana proved this fall that being a member of that much-maligned profession is no barrier to office). According to Montana Republican Party Executive Director Bowen Greenwood, voters polled on Election Day favored a generic Republican candidate over Tester by a margin of 42 to 35.

In Virginia, Sen. Jim Webb has yet to commit to running for a second term. He told Real Clear Politics last week that he’s "still sorting that out… I'm not saying I'm not." It wouldn’t surprise anyone if Webb, who came to Congress with an Emmy and a number of well-received novels to his name, did step down. For one thing, he hasn’t done too well in the clubby world of the U.S. Senate. Upon arrival, he earned the clucking of George Will, who called Webb a “pompous poseur” and a “boor” after the diffident senator-to-be lashed out at President Bush who had asked after Webb’s son, a soldier deployed in Iraq.

Since then, Webb has proven no less intemperate with members of his own party. This summer, he penned an explosive editorial in The Wall Street Journal, decrying affirmative action and civil-rights legislation that he said unfairly harmed whites. Webb was Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the Navy and, at present, is one of the last Reagan Democrats of prominence in the party. Webb—or any Virginia Democrat—would be running into quite a headwind in 2012. Virginians just unseated three Democratic House members, and former Sen. George Allen, whose “Macaca” misstep cost him the race against Webb by fewer than 10,000 votes in 2006, would be a formidable opponent in 2012, according to Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling.

Bob Casey, another member of the class of 2006, is another example of the Dems’ endangered species. Casey, whose father was governor of Pennsylvania, is the country’s most prominent pro-life Democrat. Casey Senior famously challenged Bill Clinton’s health-care plan in 1994 because it would finance abortions. Like Webb, Casey is part of a dying breed of Democrat—those who support progressive economic policies but remain socially conservative.

Right now, Casey’s approval ratings are awful; only 36 percent of voters view him favorably. Republicans just picked up five House seats in Pennsylvania, along with the governor’s office and a new Senate seat. Still, all is not yet lost for the Dems; the state’s weak GOP bench means Casey actually has a better chance than his iconoclastic colleagues of winning a second term two years from now.

The best-case scenario, Democratic strategists say, is that if the electorate is still in a mood to punish Obama, who will head the ballot in 2012, voters might be more forgiving of incumbents who have put some distance between themselves and the president.

“It’s more likely that [Webb, Casey, and Tester] are able to pull the party in their direction than the other way around,” says Joe Trippi, who guided the presidential campaign for Howard Dean, no one’s conservative, in 2004.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.