Centrists in the US Senate?

The future of the US Senate is both murky and clear at the same time. Clear in the sense that the Democrats are going to lose seats. Murky in that it’s not so obvious how many and who will have control. Of course, the Democrats have the advantage that even at a 50/50 split, the Vice President Joe Biden gets to decide the final vote and will 100% of the time come down with the Democrats.

What is interesting is a scenario that is making things more unclear. Currently, two independents caucus with the Democrats. Bernie Sanders represents the state of Vermont and, while appearing on any ballot as an independent is a self-confessed democratic socialist. He is as left as they come in the US, so naturally he caucuses with the Democrats. The other independent is Joe Liebermann, represents Connecticut and has been a notorious douche bag for the Democrats of late. He became a former Democrat when he lost his primary election in 2006 and still ran on the ticket as an independent and won. After doing this, he started taking positions on issues that, from outside, seemed purely for the sake of annoying the party and going on a cash-grab for himself. He is one reason why the health care debacle went on and on last year.

Their position, for a long time, has been akin to what the position of the independents in  the Australian House of Representatives has been for as long as I can remember. Their votes were good, but not essential. The numbers on either side of the aisle meant that they didn’t need to placate a pair of independents. But a scenario looms on the horizon whereby they might actually be more than important: they might be essential.

The Democrats have 59 seats at the moment, including the independents. Let’s take them out of the equation for the time being. They have 57 seats outright. The Democrats are odd-on favourites to lose three seats right now (North Dakota, Indiana, and Arkansas). The GOP is heavily favoured to pick up three more with the current status of states (Colorado, Delaware, and Pennsylvania), and are soft favourites to pick up another (Nevada). The Democrats have serious challenges on their hands in four more states (California, Washington, Illinois, and Wisconsin). Let’s assume that the Democrats jag out wins in those last four states (which isn’t beyond belief as they are all traditional Democratic states).

The Republicans are on-track to win their seven seats then. This brings the balance of the house to 50 Democrats, 48 Republicans and 2 independents. Obviously those two independents go with the Democrats for the most part, so it’s still a 52/48 split. Nothing the Democrats can’t overcome, right?

Well, look at who has caused the most problems for the Democrats in the past session. Ben Nelson (Nebraska), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana), Max Baucus (Montana) are the three biggest problems for varying reasons. The biggest one is that they come from Republican states (federally) and know that going too far to the left will not sit well with the state unless they ‘bring home the bacon’.

Now think ahead. The GOP is a 50-50 shot of taking control of the House at the moment. Which means all the bills that get produced, voted, and sent to the Senate will be GOP bills. That is, they will be right-wing bills. Nelson, Landrieu, and Baucus are going to be put into the position where they will vote no on what will likely be popular bills in their states (and they will have to explain why they voted no – never an easy task), or they will vote yes on what might appease a plurality in their state (but will anger their Democratic base and get them challenged in their next primary and they will probably lose). They are in a bad position, as their votes will be crucial.

See, the benefit of having such high numbers (59 seats) is that the party could afford to let these guys vote no if they wanted to so that they didn’t encounter troubles in their state down the line. If they desperately needed their vote, then they would throw in the pork. It was a reasonable deal that was set up. But now they are looking at the prospect of having to force thier hand.

Because if two of them drop out of the ‘yea’ column, we have to look to the two independents to make up the numbers. Sanders is a reasonable guy, and is easy to placate. Liebermann, on the other hand, is an ass and will demand the world and still probably vote no. But I have no doubts that we will find the Democrats in the Senate having to look to the independents to make up numbers on more than one occasion.

I will finally get to the point that I started this post intending to get at. The GOP isn’t immune from loses. They have aren’t favoured to lose – but might lose all the same – the seat they hold in Missouri, Ohio, New Hampshire, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Florida. Florida is the most interesting one to watch. Here’s why:

  • Incumbent Mel Martinez (a Republican) announces his retirement in 2009
  • Florida Governor Charlie Crist (wildly popular in the state) appoints an interim senator who, behind the scenes, promises to not seek reelection and thus enables Crist to walk straight into the senate seat in 2010. Everyone around the world assumes that he will have that seat for life, due to popularity as well as non-opposition
  • Representative Mark Rubio announces intentions to challenge Crist in the Republican primary if Crist runs (Crist is unannounced at this point in time). Everyone ignores Rubio as he is too far right for the swing state of Florida, is completely unknown, and everyone loves Crist
  • Crist appears in a photograph with Obama where they are hugging and smiling and talking up the benefits of the stimulus package for the state of Florida
  • Republicans bolt from Crist and start to support Rubio
  • Democrats can’t catch a trick and can’t find a great candidate to run
  • Crist’s popularity plummets in his state without the support of the GOP voters and a divided Democratic base
  • Republican primary comes and goes, Rubio wins
  • Crist drops out from the Republican party, says he will run as an independent
  • Democrats have their primary, nominate someone who is ho-hum – Kendrick Meek
  • Crist makes interesting comments about not being bound by the GOP mantra anymore
  • Independents flock to Crist with the idea that there could be a true independent in the House
  • Moderate Republicans remember why they liked Crist and the base splits between Crist and Rubio
  • Democrats realise that they stand a better chance of backing Crist and getting things their way than if they back Meek and watch him lose to Rubio (which would happen); they split between Crist and Meek
  • Crist and Rubio trade leads in the polls, though for a while Crist had broken away

If you read through that, you’ll pretty much know what’s happening in Florida. It is the only seat in the country that looks to go independent. I would put money on that Crist wins, personally. I think the GOP will do something ridiculous between now an November that shifts enough of their moderates away from Rubio, and the Democrats will abandon Meek, and Crist will get through. Most interesting, Crist has refused to say who he will caucus with. obviously that’s an election strategy, but I think it’s true to the point that he really doesn’t know who he will go with. He has been bagged by the GOP for turning on them, and the Democrats haven’t made any obvious plays for him (probably so that they don’t scare away the GOP voters supporting him, so that he does get elected).

But, in terms of the Senate, it means that another independent will be there. He is more of the Liebermann independent than the Sanders type. But it really means that there’s the start of a bloc in the Senate for independents. 3 votes which, on issues that aren’t covered by the party platforms, they could huddle together to get something good out of bills. Certainly Crist and Liebermann are close in views that they are with their parties. They could, in essence, start a two-person centrist block.

But think wider for a moment. The GOP has made it very clear that they don’t want moderates or centrists in the party. The two female GOP senators from Maine – Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – are actually level-headed moderates that only ever get a look in with the party when their votes count. I would never expect them to drop out the party. But I’m sure some backstage people are looking at the prospect of this centrist bloc. And two prime candidates would be these women.

I brought up Delaware as a possible pick-up for the GOP. They only stand a chance if their moderate candidate Michael Castle wins their primary (not a certainty anymore). He’s more Democratic that any Republican running for election this year. He would be a perfect fit for a centrist group of voters.

Now think back to those Democrats that are causing headaches. It’s because bills that come up are so partisan that they don’t look good to both sides of the aisle. Mary Ladrieu, I imagine, would jump at the chance to get in on that group to boost her ‘line-crossing’ credentials and stand a better chance are reelection. Mark Pryor, Democratic Senator from Arkansas, is watching as his party colleague, Blanche Lincoln, is being voted out of her Senate seat in the shared state of Arkansas for being perceived as too partisan. He would love an opportunity to also develop inroads into the GOP base that runs his state. Even Kay Hagan, Democrat from North Carolina, would look to shore up both her bases in North Carolina (a purple state now) to get the nod again.

Going from those 52/48 numbers, it suddenly looks a lot different when you think about this centrist bloc. Crist, Liebermann, Snowe, Collins, Castle, Landrieu, Pryor, Hagan: An eight-person block that would take the balance of the Senate to (excluding them) 48 Democrats (including Sanders) and 44 Republicans. No one could get anything done without the support of at least a handful of these people.

It’s a fairytale happening, a centrist bloc existing in the US Senate where partisan politics is currently ruling politics.

But so too was a hung parliament here to be decided by independents …



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