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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