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Four Mysteries That Will Shape the Fate of Centrist Democratic Senators in 2012

3 years ago
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And then there were five.

Two centrist Democratic senators from conservative or moderate states, Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Jim Webb of Virginia, have announced they will retire rather than run for reelection next year. That leaves Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, Jon Tester of Montana, and Ben Nelson of Nebraska (who just hired a campaign manager and looks ready to run). Are they doomed, along with their party's fragile 53-47 hold on the Senate?

Sometimes you really can gauge future elections by what happened in the last go-round. The big Republican victories in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races of 2009 certainly ended up foreshadowing the 2010 GOP sweep in Congress and the states. So the pounding Democrats took last fall was not encouraging for the quintet's prospects or those of the eventual nominees in North Dakota and Virginia. On top of that, Democrats will be defending some very tough territory in 2012.

Yet the shape of so many of these Senate races depends on a host of questions that can't be answered yet.

First and foremost, what will the economy look like as President Barack Obama and other candidates campaign in 2012? Poll after poll shows that by a huge margin, this is the issue the public cares about most. Economists are upbeat about growth this year, yet unemployment is expected to remain well over 8 percent. Projections show accelerated job creation in 2011, but at nowhere near the pace needed to replace some 8.75 million jobs lost in the recession.

It's possible the pace will speed up in 2012 and this very lagging indicator will start catching up to the rest of the recovery. That would ease some pressure on beleaguered Democrats and their president. But it's equally possible the economy will remain problematic for them.

A second, related question is whether Obama, Democrats and Republicans will reach agreement on a long-term plan to stop the frightening swelling of the national debt. Polls show that federal budget deficits and the soaring cumulative debt are alarming to the public, and Gallup just reported that Obama's rating on handling the deficit is at a new low. It's a gamble whatever he does, because it's not possible to predict what would disturb voters more: inaction, or fixing the problem with tax hikes, spending cuts and benefit trims.

Both of those questions contribute to a third, which is how will the public view Obama during the campaign? If his job approval rating is 50 percent or higher nationally, that bodes well for him. It may also help Democrats running in states like Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia, where Obama won in 2008 and is likely to compete hard again.

Former Virginia governor Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, made that explicit regarding his own state. Commenting Wednesday on Webb's decision to retire, he said the eventual Senate nominee will benefit from "the investments that President Obama and the Democratic Party will make in Virginia in 2012." (That nominee conceivably could be him).

The president, however, will be a complication for McCaskill, Manchin and other Democrats whose states are not partial to Obama. The situation is so delicate in Missouri that McCaskill was suspected of privately hoping the DNC would not choose St. Louis for the 2012 convention despite public support for the home team. She tried to quash the controversy the other day with a tweet. "Of course I wanted DNC for St Louis. It would have brought $,organization, and face it, not getting it sure isn't gonna stop political attacks," she wrote.

Some of the litmus tests that may come up for endangered centrist Democrats include immigration, spending cuts and the Affordable Care Act. McCaskill, Tester, Manchin and Ben Nelson are taking a look at alternatives to an unpopular section of the new health law that requires almost everyone buy insurance. McCaskill has teamed up with Republican Pat Toomey to champion an end to earmarks.

On immigration, McCaskill is not playing it particularly safe. In December she made what she called "an emotional, difficult vote" in favor of the DREAM Act, which would allow children brought to the United States illegally to earn citizenship through college or military service. That may or may not go over better than Manchin's approach, which was to skip that vote and another one the same day on repealing the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" ban on openly gay troops. Manchin, who was at a family gathering, later apologized and said it wouldn't happen again. He would have voted no in both cases.

The fourth looming question is whether voters will turn against Republicans in 2012. It's not an outlandish notion -- only 25 percent in one poll last month said GOP members of Congress would bring the right kind of change. At that point the party had controlled the House for about two weeks. Still to come: the protracted GOP push for deep spending cuts that would have noticeable impact on voters and their communities if they ever came to pass.

The political pendulum has made dramatic swings in the last five years, with national issues such as war and economics driving the movement back and forth. The major national factor in 2012 may well be how people feel about Obama. The endangered Democratic centrists will have to place a bet either for him or against him, and then cross their fingers.

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