About Those Frightened Senate Democrats

A standard bit of conservative agitprop (or self-reassurance) last night was that while Barack Obama may be on a crazy liberal bender, his party’s Senate majority is dependent on vulnerable “centrists” running in red states, who will reign him in before socialism triumphs, etc. etc.

A more objective view based on the same premise was offered by Politico‘s Sherman and Raju, who in describing John Boehner’s decision to let the Senate go first on major legislative issues, said this:

This “Senate first” strategy allows a divided House to sit back and watch Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) struggle to wrangle votes in a chamber filled with vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in 2014.

You will note that conservatives are no longer citing House Blue Dogs as a major stumbling block to Democratic unity in the House, since (a) there aren’t that many of them left, and (b) they show zero signs of threatening defections to a Republican Caucus that’s fought to marginalize them for years. But how about the Senate? Are frightened Democrats the GOP’s ace-in-the-hole?

The first observation that needs to be made is that this is an argument over a relatively unimportant point. So long as Republicans control the House and a 60-vote margin is required to enact almost anything in the Senate, nothing much is going to happen absent big-picture compromises between the GOP and the White House, and even in that increasingly rare contingency, the stumbling-block remains the Hastert Rule and Boehner’s uneven control of his Caucus.

But in any event, the likelihood of wholesale Senate Democratic defections from the party line is lower than most analysts seem to assume.

There are a total of seven Democratic-held Senate seats up in 2014 in states carried by Mitt Romney last year, compared to just one Republican-held Senate seat up in a state carried by Barack Obama. That sounds pretty bad. But one of those “vulnerable” Dems is Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring, so he can vote however he wishes. Another is Max Baucus, who has been elected and re-elected to his seat six times, only failing to clear 55% once. I doubt he’s shaking in his boots. Two others are very smart politicians, Mark Pryor (who didn’t even draw a Republican opponent in 2008) and Mary Landrieu, who have pretty much mastered the balancing act of voting with their party when they are needed and defecting at will when they aren’t.

A brand new Public Policy Polling survey of North Carolina shows Kay Hagan leading every possible Republican opponent by margins ranging from 5 to 15 points. Another PPP survey last week showed Alaska’s Mark Begich with strong approval ratings and a lead over every named Republican other than Gov. Sean Parnell (with whom he is tied). That leaves South Dakota’s Tim Johnson, who may retire, and who in any event has been impressively loyal to Obama on issues large and small.

It is true that on one set of issues–energy/climate change–the number of vulnerable Senate Democrats (plus Democrats who aren’t up but represent fossil-fuel producing states) is quite significant. But just last night the president indicated any action he will take on this front will be by the regulatory route, and there’s nothing like the kind of vote in either House that would be necessary to override a veto of some contrary action by Congress, even if it did pass both Houses.

All in all, the “disarray in the Democratic Party” meme beloved of both conservative and MSM observers continues to be overrated and overwritten.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.