Progress in the ‘World’s Greatest Deliberative Body’?

The prospects for Democrats in the Senate are looking better, but progressives’ gains will be modest in November.

Theo Anderson

Congresswoman Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs at the Progressive Caucus Press Conference introducing "The People's Budget," on April 13, 2011. (Photo courtesy Congresswoman Mazie Hirono's office via Flickr)

There’s at least a fair chance of a new Demo­c­rat com­ing to pow­er in 11 of the 33 Sen­ate races this fall. 

There are three races that hold out the possibility of bringing strong and proven new progressive voices to the Senate next year.

Repub­li­cans are defend­ing 10 seats this year, as opposed to the 21 Demo­c­ra­t­ic seats that are in con­tention. The seats of two inde­pen­dents who cau­cus with the Democ­rats, Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieber­man, are also in con­tention. Lieber­man is retir­ing. Sanders is run­ning again and is expect­ed to win easily.

For the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, the emerg­ing field of new can­di­dates con­tains most­ly good news. Sev­er­al strong prospects are mount­ing cam­paigns, espe­cial­ly in states that lean Repub­li­can, giv­ing Democ­rats a bet­ter-than-expect­ed chance of main­tain­ing con­trol of the Sen­ate. They now have a 51-seat major­i­ty and a gov­ern­ing major­i­ty, with Lieber­man and Sanders, of 53

The odds of Democ­rats retain­ing a nar­row major­i­ty are fair­ly strong. They’ll prob­a­bly lose at least three or four close races, but they have a good chance of pick­ing up one or two seats now held by Repub­li­cans. If the Sen­ate is split even­ly between Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans, con­trol will rest with the par­ty that wins the pres­i­den­tial election. 

Three pro­gres­sives to watch

The pic­ture is less rosy for pro­gres­sives, but there are three races that hold out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of bring­ing strong and proven new pro­gres­sive voic­es to the Sen­ate next year. 

The one that has received the most atten­tion is Eliz­a­beth Warren’s bid for Scott Brown’s seat in Mass­a­chu­setts. The right-wing rhetoric of the GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­date prob­a­bly will not play well in lib­er­al Mass­a­chu­setts over the long run, and War­ren will have the pres­i­den­tial-elec­tion-year advan­tage of heavy vot­er turnout. These fac­tors, and the fact that she is adept at chan­nel­ing the ener­gy of the Occu­py move­ment, prob­a­bly make her a slight favorite in the race, though she trails Brown by sev­er­al points in recent polling.

The sec­ond promis­ing pro­gres­sive is Tam­my Bald­win. She’s run­ning for the Wis­con­sin Sen­ate seat cur­rent­ly held by Herb Kohl, who is retir­ing. As a Rep­re­sen­ta­tive serv­ing Wisconsin’s Sec­ond Dis­trict since 1999, Bald­win has among the most pro­gres­sive vot­ing records in Con­gress. Accord­ing to the for­mu­la devised by the web­site Pro­gres­sive Punch, Baldwin’s life­time vot­ing record is the ninth most pro­gres­sive in the House. On votes that are deemed cru­cial” to pro­gres­sives, she ranks sixth. 

Bald­win has been a vocal crit­ic of cor­po­rate cor­rup­tion and has worked for a more pro­gres­sive tax code. In Feb­ru­ary, she and a Sen­ate col­league, Shel­don White­house (D‑R.I.), intro­duced a bill designed to ensure that peo­ple mak­ing over $1 mil­lion annu­al­ly pay at least a 30-per­cent effec­tive tax rate. She’s also been a strong pro­gres­sive voice in for­eign affairs: she opposed going to war with Iraq in 2003 and has called for ear­ly with­draw­al of Amer­i­can troops from Afghanistan. The Coun­cil for a Liv­able World, a non­par­ti­san orga­ni­za­tion devot­ed to advanc­ing pro­gres­sive nation­al secu­ri­ty poli­cies, gave her a 100 per­cent on its vot­ing score­card. Baldwin’s oppo­si­tion hasn’t been deter­mined yet, but recent polling puts her slight­ly ahead of all the most like­ly GOP candidates. 

A third poten­tial new cham­pi­on of pro­gres­sivism is Mazie Hirono, who has rep­re­sent­ed Hawaii’s Sec­ond Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict since 2006. Pro­gres­sive Punch ranks her life­time vot­ing record as the sixth most pro­gres­sive in the House, and she is par­tic­u­lar­ly strong on labor, health­care and envi­ron­men­tal issues. Dur­ing the debate over health­care reform, she sup­port­ed the cre­ation of a sin­gle-pay­er sys­tem. A major focus of her cur­rent Sen­ate cam­paign has been the devel­op­ment of clean and renew­able ener­gy sources to help Hawaii become ener­gy inde­pen­dent. In response to a sur­vey by the Pro­gres­sive Democ­rats of Hawaii, Hirono wrote that she would con­tin­ue to fight to increase research and devel­op­ment of alter­na­tive ener­gy in Hawaii. By encour­ag­ing the devel­op­ment of bio­fu­els and the use of Hawaii’s plen­ti­ful wind, solar, and ocean ener­gy, Hawaii can lead the way in devel­op­ing inno­v­a­tive solu­tions – as well as cre­at­ing jobs in a new, clean-ener­gy economy.” 

Hirono’s oppo­nent in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry race, for­mer U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Ed Case, is wide­ly viewed as a Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment cen­trist with a poor record of sup­port­ing pro­gres­sive caus­es. Cur­rent polls show Hirono lead­ing both Case and the like­ly GOP can­di­date by dou­ble-dig­it mar­gins. The win­ner of the race will replace Demo­c­rat Daniel Aka­ka (retir­ing).

Red states, blue states, swing states

Of the eight remain­ing races where a new Demo­c­rat might come to pow­er in the Sen­ate, three are in red states, three are swing states, and two are in blue states. None of the races fea­tures a strong pro­gres­sive voice. 

In the red states – Ari­zona, Nebras­ka and North Dako­ta – Democ­rats feel good about the can­di­dates they’ve recruit­ed to run in envi­ron­ments where it will be dif­fi­cult for a Demo­c­rat to win. In North Dako­ta, for­mer attor­ney gen­er­al Hei­di Heitkamp will run to replace the retir­ing Demo­c­rat Kent Con­rad. In Ari­zona, Richard Car­mona – the U.S. Sur­geon Gen­er­al under George W. Bush – has switched his par­ty affil­i­a­tion from inde­pen­dent and will like­ly be the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­date in the race to replace Repub­li­can Jon Kyl (retir­ing). In Nebras­ka, where Demo­c­rat Ben Nel­son is retir­ing, per­haps the only oth­er Demo­c­rat who has a chance of win­ning that seat has announced that he will run: for­mer Sen­a­tor Bob Kerrey. 

In two of the swing states – New Mex­i­co and Vir­ginia – the prob­a­ble Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates are famil­iar polit­i­cal fig­ures. Tim Kaine, a for­mer gov­er­nor of Vir­ginia, is far ahead of sev­er­al oth­er con­tenders in recent polls. He’ll like­ly be the nom­i­nee to replace retir­ing Demo­c­rat Jim Webb. In New Mex­i­co, U.S. Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Mar­tin Hein­rich will like­ly be the nom­i­nee to replace Demo­c­rat Jeff Binga­man (retir­ing). In the oth­er swing state, Neva­da, the pri­ma­ry con­test between Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Shel­ley Berkley and busi­ness­man Bar­ry Ellsworth has the poten­tial to be a close and inter­est­ing race. Berkley is a cen­trist; Ellsworth is a green-ener­gy entre­pre­neur who has made fight­ing cor­po­rate cor­rup­tion and reg­u­lat­ing Wall Street cen­tral to his cam­paign, though he doesn’t yet have a vot­ing record to back up his rhetoric. 

The two blue states – Maine and Con­necti­cut – offer the most sus­pense and dis­ap­point­ment of this Sen­ate elec­tion cycle. With two Repub­li­can sen­a­tors, Maine has been a blue state only at the pres­i­den­tial lev­el. That could change, giv­en Sen­a­tor Olympia Snowe’s retire­ment this year, but the race is com­pli­cat­ed by the recent deci­sion of Maine’s for­mer gov­er­nor, Angus King, to run for Snowe’s seat. King, who remains extra­or­di­nar­i­ly pop­u­lar in Maine, is reg­is­tered as an inde­pen­dent and has declined to say which par­ty he would cau­cus with, if elect­ed. The dilem­ma for Democ­rats (and Repub­li­cans) is that run­ning a strong can­di­date of their own threat­ens to split the vote between King and that can­di­date, hand­ing vic­to­ry to the oth­er party. 

In Con­necti­cut, where Lieber­man is retir­ing, there is a com­pet­i­tive pri­ma­ry race between Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris Mur­phy and Connecticut’s for­mer sec­re­tary of state, Susan Bysiewicz. (Rep. William Tong, D‑Stamford, is also run­ning, but is polling far behind them.) Nei­ther Mur­phy nor Bysiewicz has a notably pro­gres­sive record: Pro­gres­sive Punch awards Mur­phy just two out of five stars for his vot­ing record. In a state that is as reli­ably blue as Con­necti­cut, pro­gres­sives might have hoped for more than the same old same old from Lieberman’s replace­ment. That appar­ent­ly won’t happen.

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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