Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What if Harry Reid Loses?

Two years ago, it looked as if Democrats were on the verge of realignment a la Ronald Reagan in 1980. They won traditional Republican states like North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana. Now, the roles could not be more reversed. Not only are Democrats in danger of losing Congress, their majority leader in the Senate stands a decent chance of losing as well.

Upon further examination, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Reid is struggling. He has had several close races before. In 1998 for example, he beat current Senator John Ensign (R-Nevada) by just 428 votes out of more than 400,000 cast. That was in 1998 when the Republicans suffered a backlash for trying to impeach President Clinton. Furthermore, Nevada is a competitive state that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2008.

The situation is much less favorable now. The economy is in awful shape, and Nevada happens to have the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Reid is often linked with the Obama administration; he helped push through the stimulus bill and healthcare legislation. Obama’s approval ratings have been on a steady decline since he took office, so it makes sense that a man closely linked to him would also lose popularity.

Still, I think a Reid loss has some interesting implications. It could dissuade the parties from picking someone from a swing state to be majority or minority leader in the near future. Wary of losing leadership and institutional memory, they might instead go with a Senator from a safe seat.

This would have a few effects. First, our political process might become more polarized. Senators from swing states must perform well with independents and build some bridges to the other side. A Senator from liberal Vermont or conservative Alabama must simply turn out his base. Where the Senator from the swing state must try and please moderates in office, the Senator from the safe seat must please only staunch Democrats or staunch Republicans. This means that these leaders will have a great incentive to push strongly ideological agendas that have a tougher time garnering bipartisan support. In a Senate that already requires 60 votes to get anything done of significance, will anything ever get done?

Second, this could actually end up diluting the power that swing states have. A Senate majority leader can really look out for his state’s interests by bringing home more pork-barrel spending. But now the people with the most power to bring home the bacon will be from states on either side of the partisan divide. Thus the states that receive the most federal largesse will be those states that are the least amenable to compromise.

I’m anxious to see what happens this November with Reid.

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