Photo Finish: Close Presidential and Congressional Races Could Affirm the Status Quo

Posted November 5, 2012 at 6:33pm

Voters will make their voices heard today, but there won’t be much harmony.

At the end of a long and bitter campaign season, a dissonant electorate is likely to deliver a split decision that does little beyond endorse divided ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

For Americans wanting a more functional government that can get the big things done, today’s elections appear likely to deliver just the opposite — a capital as partisan, dysfunctional and deadlocked as many voters imagine it to be.

With a political wave or landslide implausible, a deeply divided country will give neither President Barack Obama nor Republican Mitt Romney a clear mandate for the next four years. The Senate will likely be controlled by the narrowest of margins and will be missing many of the moderates who used to walk its halls. And while the House will remain comfortably in Republican hands, the majority will be split between the party’s pragmatic and purist branches and the chamber will be nearly devoid of conservative Democrats.

Much of the dissonance comes from the voters themselves, who are split among different choruses and led by different conductors. Voters are more partisan, trust the mainstream media less and rely on their own social networks for news more, narrowing the scope of the political discussion.

Those who find comfort in MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” go to the polls today with a much different vision of the world than voters who watch FOX News’ “Hannity.” The Huffington Post and the Drudge Report deliver different versions of reality.

A deluge of negative advertising in federal campaigns at every level has surely chipped away at national comity as well. The 2012 cycle has seen relentless attacks on incumbents and candidates from Florida to Maine to California and everywhere in between. If voters suspected politics was base and ignoble, the hundreds of ads on their televisions provided confirmation that no candidate was above the fray.

Yet bipartisanship still makes for a good stump speech.

“I won’t represent just one party. I’ll represent one nation,” Romney said Saturday, delivering one of his closing arguments in New Hampshire.

“I’ll work with anybody of any party to move this country forward,” Obama echoed in Virginia a few hours later.

Despite the discord of the campaign, the elected representatives who survive — as well as the lame ducks who are retiring or have been voted out of office — will have heavy lifting to do practically as soon as the mud bath is over.

The 112th Congress, which has only narrowly managed to keep the government open in the past two years, faces its biggest challenge yet during its post-
election session, as it confronts tax increases and automatic spending cuts scheduled to take effect at year’s end.

While lawmakers and staffers have been war-gaming post-election strategy for weeks behind the scenes in hopes of setting the stage for a deal, all sides were heading into Election Day talking tough to the press.

A showdown may very well be delayed into the newly elected Congress, which can expect another fight over increasing the federal borrowing limit a few weeks after Members are sworn in.

While both sides could hope for victory in the presidential race and the battle for control of the Senate, the picture was much clearer in the House. That chamber is certain to stay under Republican control. Democrats were unable to generate the partisan wave that would probably have been necessary for the net gain of 25 seats needed to flip the chamber.

Although Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) has insisted since May 2011 that the House is “in play,” Republicans crafted significant structural and strategic advantages that kept that from ever really being the case.

In particular, the GOP benefited from the redistricting process that allowed Republican-controlled state legislatures to shore up many GOP-held districts. And the large number of vulnerable House Democrats — many of whom will lose today after being hammered by the GOP — meant that the real number of seats Democrats needed to win the Speaker’s gavel was significantly higher than 25.

The Senate landscape looks more favorable to Democrats, who have a better-than-even chance of maintaining their majority. The GOP, which looked poised to take over the Senate earlier in the cycle, has had a number of bad breaks over the past year. From the surprise retirement of Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), whose replacement is likely to caucus with Democrats, to the “legitimate rape” comment made by Missouri Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin, Republicans have watched once-safe GOP seats slip toward the Democratic column. And Democrats have pushed hard to make Senate races in red states, including North Dakota, appear competitive.

Even if they don’t win all of the races where they have been more competitive than expected, Democrats have managed to significantly scramble where Republicans spent their resources and have set up a very different map than anyone expected.

Even if control of neither chamber is reversed today, the complexion of Congress will change. Compromisers in both parties are headed for the exits, either by choice or electoral force.

Moderates such as Snowe and Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) are all retiring. Sen. Scott Brown (R), one of the Senators most willing to buck his party, is an underdog in Democratic Massachusetts.

Conservative Democrats, decimated in the 2010 midterm elections, will see their ranks further thinned today. Blue Dog Reps. Mike Ross (Ark.), Dan Boren (Okla.) and Heath Shuler (N.C.) are all retiring. Others, including Reps. Ben Chandler (Ky.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Leonard Boswell (Iowa) and Larry Kissell (N.C.), face tough re-election efforts today and all could be sent home by voters.

Yet even with many compromisers leaving, there are glimmers of optimism among some on Capitol Hill who hope the elections will prompt factions to come to the negotiating table for a grand bargain of some sort, if only out of sheer necessity rather than some broad bipartisan awakening. Various bipartisan “gangs,” particularly in the Senate, have tried for two years to hammer out a deal and plan to make another push after Election Day.

Each side has hostages in the upcoming fiscal fight — with the Republican clout coming from the need for a debt ceiling increase and the looming cuts in domestic spending, and Democrats’ from a massive tax hike and defense cuts.

If Obama is re-elected, Republicans won’t be able to block a tax hike unless they cut a deal. And if they don’t come to the table, everyone will take a hit.

If Romney wins, Democrats are not planning to allow him a honeymoon. They remember how the GOP lined up solidly against Obama from Day One. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) last week vowed to block Romney’s agenda.

And if the 2012 elections do produce more of the partisan standoff that marked the past four years of Obama’s administration, there’s always next cycle.

Former Tennessee Rep. Lincoln Davis, a moderate Democrat, said he does not expect many of the hard-line lawmakers to pay a political price this year at the ballot box. “But in 2014,” Davis said, “ideologues on both sides of the aisle, who are to the extremes — I think America may start realizing: This is not what we want.”

The Stakes

Congressional leaders have a lot on the line in today’s election, and they’re hoping voters will either affirm their majority leadership or change their minority status. But with the results likely to back the status quo, the challenge going forward for these four will likely be in figuring out how to find the momentum to overcome the gridlock that has bedeviled them the past two years.

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), Speaker

Strictly looking at the numbers, Speaker John Boehner has the least to worry about among Congressional leaders.

With a 50-seat majority and tough House races breaking the GOP’s way, the Ohio Republican is all but assured the gavel next year.

But there is more to control than just having more Members than the other party. Time and again in the 112th Congress, Boehner encountered opposition from conservatives in his own party who stymied big legislation that he wanted to bring to the floor. The 113th Congress will likely offer no change.

To be sure, Boehner would be helped by a Romney administration. But no matter who is president, House conservatives will likely continue to push for legislation that is more extreme than what leadership wants.

Boehner’s majority next year will be absent some key GOP moderates, such as his home-state colleague Steven LaTourette, and that means the margin of error in his whip count will be narrower.

This dynamic is playing out as Congress is expected to take up hugely important legislation in the lame-duck session and next year. Congress will have to raise the debt limit as soon as January. The fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and tax increases starts to take effect without action Jan. 2. Many Republicans are eager to look at reconfiguring the tax code and want to overhaul the entitlement system. And there is also talk of the hot-button topic of immigration bubbling to the surface.

Bills that were routine in sessions past — the farm and highway reauthorizations, to name two — were stalled last year amid conservative opposition. With all leaders promising to take up extraordinary issues next year, it remains to be seen how and whether Boehner and his leadership team can lure Members into taking tough votes on big issues in the post-earmark era.

— Daniel Newhauser

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Minority Leader

She reluctantly relinquished the Speaker’s gavel after the 2010 GOP wave, but this year’s elections had the potential to sweep Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi back into power as a triumphant comeback kid.

Tonight’s returns, though, are likely to show her party falling short and lead to more speculation that the California Democrat will begin looking for an exit strategy.

Pelosi has remained steadfastly optimistic, even unrealistically so, about the feasibility of Democrats retaking the House. As recently as Sept. 16, Pelosi said, “We have a very excellent chance to take back the House.”

Analysts said that was not plausible, in part because of GOP-led redistricting efforts.

“Few who really looked at the new districts ever thought the Democrats were going to take back the House. Even Democratic consultants downplayed the odds and simply hoped that Democrats could just get 10-15 of the needed 25 — setting up a possible victory in 2014,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“You expect party leaders to predict the unlikely for their side. In that sense, Pelosi was just doing her duty,” Sabato said.

As GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign flailed in the summer, fortunes briefly appeared to improve for House Democrats. But after the first presidential debate, Romney’s standing improved, and Republicans solidified their grasp on the House.

Now Democrats talk, some openly, about Pelosi leaving, although those who know her well say she is unlikely to opt for a quick exit. Instead, they predict, she will stay on for a time to build up a successor whom she prefers to Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.). A spokesman for Pelosi has called that scenario “ridiculous.”

— Jonathan Strong

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Majority Leader

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a lot to lose today. On the line for the Nevada Democrat is not only his ability to set the chamber’s agenda, but his partner in the White House.

Reid’s chances of holding onto the Senate majority look better today than they did two years ago, when defending 23 Democratic seats was a long shot.

But regardless of whether he retains control of the Senate, the bigger question for Reid is whether the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. will be friend or foe. Losing the majority would sting less if President Barack Obama wins another term and can provide a backstop against GOP rule of both chambers.

If GOP nominee Mitt Romney becomes president, Reid could find himself isolated as the highest-ranking Democrat in Washington, D.C. His caucus would be the only thing that could throw up roadblocks to the GOP’s agenda.

That will be true whether Reid is leader of the majority or the minority because, at a minimum, Democrats will likely retain enough seats for a filibuster.

While being thrust into the minority under a President Romney is the worst-case scenario for Reid, it is a role he excelled at before. He was the attack dog against President George W. Bush as both Minority Leader and Majority Leader during Bush’s second term.

Reid on Friday signaled that he wouldn’t back down from such a return gig. “Mitt Romney’s fantasy that Senate Democrats will work with him to pass his ‘severely conservative’ agenda is laughable,” Reid said in a statement.

Being the loyal opposition might even be easier for Reid than if he and Obama retain power for the next four years. Having to govern in a still-gridlocked Congress is likely to be a far more difficult proposition.

— Emily Pierce

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Minority Leader

After today, Mitch McConnell hopes to be changing his title from Minority Leader to Majority Leader.

The job should have been the Kentucky Republican’s for the taking, given a Senate map this cycle that heavily favored his party. But missteps by GOP candidates might have put his goal out of reach.

Either way, McConnell’s outlook will be shaped primarily by who wins the presidency.

If voters today endorse the status quo, McConnell will be faced with whether to recalibrate his caucus’ strategy of blocking President Barack Obama’s agenda. He famously vowed to make Obama a one-term president, but with that issue off the table, sources in both parties have said compromise between the two might be more likely.

Of course, McConnell has been moving aggressively since 2010 to ensure that he does not draw a primary challenger in his own 2014 race for re-election. That political reality might affect how he approaches deals with Obama and Senate Democrats, regardless of whether he’s in the minority or the majority.

If Obama wins re-election but Republicans manage to snag the Senate majority, McConnell would be able to press ­— along with a GOP-controlled House — an aggressive Republican agenda, despite the likely dead end at the White House.

That would position the GOP for the 2014 campaign, which again favors Republicans, and also for what would be an open-seat race for president in 2016.

A Romney White House, however, would make McConnell’s job easier, because Republicans would look to the White House to set the agenda and tone. Things such as the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank financial sector law would likely be targeted, even if McConnell and Romney would have trouble succeeding in the face of near-certain Democratic filibusters.

— Humberto Sanchez