The fight for control Anti-incumbent sentiment, tea party disrupt political landscape
By Melissa Powell
Various tea party rallies like this one are igniting and dividing conservative voters. This is one of many reasons this year's election could change the balance of power in Congress. (AP Image)
Around the nation today, voters in every state will decide the country’s political landscape for the next two years in the midterm House and Senate elections.
Polls and pundits suggest that the Republicans will take the House, and not the Senate. But surprises have littered the campaign all year, and another one could be in store this final day of a tumultuous campaign season.
An angry electorate is calling the shots. The candidates, some of them clownish, some sheepish, seem to be mostly going along for the ride.
In many pivotal Senate races, in fact, the candidates who have emerged in the rough and tumble of voter anger turn out to be quite weak.
At least that’s the conclusion of political junkies on the campus of Washington and Lee University. Students involved in the 2012 Mock Convention, along with political science professors, are looking with amusement and surprise at races that no one could have predicted a year ago.
Both Democrats and Republicans nominated many Senate candidates that simply “aren’t strong enough,” according to politics professor William Connelly.
The key factor that created such a bizarre slate of candidates was the rise of tea party candidates, said Greg Holyk, a politics professor with expertise in polling.
“As we saw in the primaries, [the tea party] threw a wrench into the Republican Party primaries and actually won some of the primaries,” Holyk said. “In some ways they could be helping the Democrats and in some ways they could be helping the Republicans.”
The Delaware race is considered a good example of how a tea party candidate, paradoxically, could help a Democratic candidate win. Christine O’Donnell, the tea party candidate who won a surprising primary victory against a well-known Republican congressman, is what Connelly calls “the classic example of a weak candidate.”
There’s a certain irony in Delaware. The Democratic candidate, Chris Coons, was meant to be a sacrificial lamb for the Democratic Party. O’Donnell somehow managed to beat former two-term governor Michael Castle, one of the most popular elected officials in Delaware, for the nomination, and now, Delaware is faced with two weak candidates. O’Donnell has been labeled the weaker of the two and, though she originally had strong support, is trailing behind Coons by 10 points, according to a Monmouth University survey. However, the same poll had her down 19 points two weeks ago so her chances may have increased slightly.
Another curious pairing of candidates is in Nevada, where Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, is facing tea party candidate Sharron Angle.
Head political advisor for W&L’s Mock Convention — a nationally recognized, student-run quadrennial event that predicts the presidential nominee of the out-of-office party — thinks the Nevada race speaks to voter anger. Junior Zach Wilkes said that if someone as powerful as Reid gets knocked out, the election of Angle will show voters’ anti-incumbent frustration. Currently, Angle has the support of 47 percent of likely voters, while Reid has 46 percent, according to Public Policy Polling.
“Americans are fatigued right now,” Holyk said. “They were hoping for a lot more from the Democrats than they got. And the Democrats have no one else to blame because they had control of the presidency, the Senate and the House, and there still hasn’t been an appreciable improvement in people’s day-to-day lives.”
Holyk thinks the economy will be the major factor in whether the Democrats will “fall out of grace.”
Because of anger with the economy, the lack of improvement under the Democrats and what many Republicans consider a policy “overreach” by Barack Obama, some tea party candidates have gained more support than was initially expected. According to Wilkes and Mock Convention national political adviser Sam Campbell, many leading tea party candidates are ahead not because they are great candidates, but rather because of the intensity of anti-incumbent party anger.
Newcomer and tea party favorite Rand Paul in Kentucky, for example, has the support of 55 percent of likely voters, while the Democrat, state Attorney General Jack Conway, is trailing with 40 percent, according to Public Policy Polling. Republican Ken Buck, in Colorado, was initially perceived as weak because of his gaffes along the campaign trail, but has proved to be more credible. He is now serious competition for Democrat Michael Bennet. Public Policy Polling gives Buck 49 percent of likely voters, while Bennet has 48 percent.
Alaskan tea party candidate Joe Miller “would most certainly be winning” if not for write-in Republican candidate and incumbent Lisa Murkowski, according to Connelly. Miller beat Murkowski in the primaries, but the incumbent is not giving up — running a write-in campaign. The polls keep flip-flopping, but as of Sunday, Miller is ahead with 37 percent, and Murkowski and Democrat Scott McAdams are tied with 30 percent, according to Public Policy Polling. Polls just last week had Murkowski in the lead. The tea party could end up hurting the Republicans if the conservative vote splits enough to let McAdams win. Alaska was a state that conservatives assumed they could count on.
Many races are still neck and neck, and the winner will be determined by voter turnout Tuesday.
“If there’s a huge enthusiasm gap and more Republicans show up, you’re going to see races that are leaning Democrat fall to the Republicans,” Wilkes said. “But if we’ve overestimated the Republican wave and not as many show up, you can see states staying Democratic.”
The Senate race in Illinois is of particular interest because it is for Obama’s old seat. But there, too, neither candidate has proven to be particularly strong.
“Illinois is the battle of flawed candidates,” Campbell said.
Flawed or not, Republican candidate Mark Kirk is leading by 4 percentage points against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, according to Public Policy Polling, and if Illinois turns over to the Republicans, Holyk believes it will be a sure sign of trouble for the Democrats.
Similarly, in California, Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer is up 4 percentage points against Carly Fiorina, according to Public Policy Polling, but Fiorina could pull off a victory tonight depending on which party turns out to vote. Holyk thinks Fiorina is important to the Republican Party because she’s in the new crop of strong, business-oriented Republican women.
If Dino Rossi wins in Washington against Democrat Patty Murray, Wilkes predicts that Republicans will do well overall because Washington is traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Currently, Murray is up by only 2 percentage points, according to Public Policy Polling.
“President Obama is arguably in some sense on the ballot,” Connelly said. “Midterm elections tend to focus on the incumbent president, and they tend to go against the president.”
A perfect example is the race in West Virginia of Republican John Raese and Democrat Joe Manchin. Manchin, the current governor, has a 70 percent approval rating in his current job, but because he is the Democratic candidate for Senate, he is facing difficulties in the race.
“Raese is not that strong of a candidate, but Obama’s approval ratings in the state are really low so it’s dragging down Manchin’s approval ratings,” Wilkes said. “Obama’s ratings are low because of unemployment numbers, and he doesn’t support coal.”
Raese is playing a double game, launching attack ads on Manchin while openly supporting him as governor so that voters will want to keep Manchin in his current position and send Raese to the Senate.
However, recent polls have Manchin leading by a wider margin than before. A Public Policy Polling survey released Sunday night showed Manchin leading Raese by 51 percent to 46 percent.
In Pennsylvania, a traditionally blue state, conservative Pat Toomey is ahead by 4 percentage points against Democrat Joe Sestak, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll. The lead in his race switches often, however, and has proved to be unpredictable.
“The tea party is a double-edged sword,” Campbell said. “The tea party has on multiple occasions beat established candidates back in the primary. But if the Republicans had fielded higher quality candidates to match the candidates Democrats are putting up, their gains could have been better. On the other hand, the Republicans are benefitting from the enthusiasm the tea party brings.”
Holyk predicts that candidates who are ahead by five to seven percentage points in the polls right now will generally win, but he says there are many cases where races are so close that there might be some big upsets.
Most seem to agree that no matter what happens tonight, passing legislation might be difficult this next term. With a Democratic president and most likely a Republican House, Wilkes does not foresee “much great hope in change to get accomplished.”