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Study: Democrats Must Win Moderates to Hold Senate

In a study that could annoy Democrats and perturb proponents of the “base election” theory, a centrist Democratic think tank is arguing that its party’s hold on the Senate hinges on political “moderates.”

Third Way, in a report set for release today, asserts not only that ideological moderates will determine control of the Senate in November, but that Democrats need to win more of these voters in 10 states with tossup Senate contests than do the Republicans. The think tank crunched exit polling data from recent presidential and midterm elections and concluded that Democrats face a significant challenge in their bid to retain their thin, four-seat Senate majority.

“Crucially for Democrats, they must garner a majority of moderates in nine of 10 toss-ups to win, and in seven of those the bar is even higher — Democrats must clear 60 percent [of moderates] to win,” Third Way policy advisers Michelle Diggles and Lanae Erickson write in the think tank’s report.

Third Way classifies 10 Senate races as Tossup; Roll Call currently rates eight races as Tossup.

From the outset of the 2012 cycle, Democratic control of the Senate has appeared jeopardized. Of the 33 seats up for election, the Republicans must defend only 10. However, the Democrats have recruited a strong contingent of top-tier candidates and exhibited considerable fundraising prowess. Races in conservative-leaning states that looked like sure pickups for the Republicans suddenly appear competitive. Meanwhile, the GOP has seen at least one retirement, in Maine, which put an almost-sure hold in play.

All of this has buoyed Democrats and led prognosticators to soften their predictions for a Senate power shift in the next Congress. But the Third Way study suggests that the Democrats’ Senate hurdles remain particularly acute and also challenges the analyses of political activists on both sides of the aisle who contend that elections are decided by base turnout and which party can do a better job of motivating partisans — not by voters in the middle.

The report also presents a warning to Republicans. They must be successful with ideological moderates in the 10 states with tossup Senate races to have a chance at winning control of the Senate, although less so compared to the Democrats.

Where is the moderate vote key for the Republicans? Not surprisingly, in Massachusetts, where Sen. Scott Brown (R) must win 58 percent of moderates to win on Nov. 6. Brown’s opponent, Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, needs only 43 percent of moderates to win the election. In Hawaii, former Gov. Linda Lingle (R) needs 51 percent of the moderate vote. The eventual Democratic nominee in this open seat also needs 51 percent of moderates, although the Democrats clearly have the edge in this race.

But in the eight additional Senate tossup states as determined by Third Way, the think tank reports that it is the Democrats who must overperform with moderates. In Indiana, where Democrats are enthusiastic about their prospects in the wake of Sen. Dick Lugar’s ouster in the GOP primary, Rep. Joe Donnelly, the Democratic nominee, must win 69 percent of the moderate votes. Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, the GOP nominee, needs only 32 percent of moderates.

In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) needs 62 percent of moderates; the eventual Republican nominee needs 39 percent. In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester (D) needs 61 percent of moderates; Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) needs 40 percent. In Nevada, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D) needs 61 percent of moderates to oust appointed Sen. Dean Heller (R). In New Mexico, the eventual Democratic nominee needs 60 percent of moderates to hold this Democratic-held open seat; the eventual GOP nominee needs only 41 percent of moderates.

In North Dakota, where Democrats are optimistic about holding an open seat, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp must win 65 percent of ideological moderates. Freshman Rep. Rick Berg (R) needs only 36 percent of this voting bloc. In the battleground of Virginia, ex-Democratic National Committee Chairman and former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) needs 60 percent of moderates. Former Gov. and ex-Sen. George Allen (R) needs 41 percent. In Wisconsin, where a Democratic-held seat is open, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D) needs 56 percent of moderates; the eventual GOP nominee needs 44 percent.

According to the Third Way study, Democrats need and average of 59 percent of the moderate vote in the 10 Senate tossup states; Republicans need an average of 42 percent. “Looking at the 2006 exit polls, when these Senate seats were last in cycle, moderates were the plurality of voters,” Diggles and Erickson wrote in the study. “On average in these states, 47.3 percent of the electorate was moderate in 2006.”

The data suggest that the analysis, held in some quarters, that Republicans are in trouble with middle-of-the-road voters is misplaced in the context of the battle for the Senate.

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