Mid-Term Countdown: Kentucky

Today is the second day of my week-long countdown to polling day, and following yesterday’s piece about the state of the race in New Hampshire, today I’m going to take a look at one seat that the GOP simply cannot afford to lose – Kentucky.

There are two big causes for Republican optimism when it comes to controlling the Senate, and they’re linked – a prevailing anti-incumbent mood, and the fact that they’re defending fewer seats than the Democrats. President Obama is deeply unpopular in the thoroughly red state of Kentucky, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, would have been forgiven for thinking that his re-election would be little more than a rubber-stamp. Of course, that hasn’t been the case. Emerging battered from a particularly nasty primary, McConnell has faced the full monetary might of Obama’s fundraising abilities, and the surprisingly effective campaign of self-described “Clinton Democrat” Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

While Mitch McConnell had been busy trying to put Republicans in a position to take back the Senate nationally, challengers within the GOP were looking to unseat him. When they failed, Grimes’ campaign actually tried to win over Tea Party voters – as if any true conservatives could be swayed to vote for her! The Democrats’ war on coal has had a devastating effect on eastern Kentucky, forcing many out of work, and seeing entire towns which depended on mining enter deep depressions. This is a direct result of Obama’s “green” energy initiatives – so it’s little wonder Grimes won’t even admit to voting for him. Once again, Obama’s agenda is dragging down a Democratic candidate. His statement that his policies are “on the ballot” in these mid-terms has undoubtedly damaged Grimes’ campaign.

But distancing herself from the President hasn’t been enough. In spite of the political mood nationwide seeming not to favour long-serving incumbents, it seems like McConnell will just about make it over the finish line, though this has certainly been his toughest race to date. If he should fall, however, it would surely be indicative of a much wider rejection of the GOP’s agenda. In short – if the Republicans can’t hold Kentucky, they certainly won’t be able to win a majority. This time around, Republicans shouldn’t have needed to worry about playing defence, certainly not in a red state like Kentucky, and especially not for the seat held by their leader in the Senate. The fact that Kentucky has even been in play is significant – it shows once again that the mood in the country is not pro-Republican or anti-Democrat, but anti-incumbent and anti-politician. If the GOP and conservatives were expecting to somehow win “by default”, the Kentucky situation served as a wake-up call, and hopefully has galvanised support behind not only McConnell but other Republican candidates across the country.

For a blast from the (recent) past, take a look at my article on Mitch McConnell’s primary win from back in May. You can find that here. Tomorrow I’ll be back looking at another exciting Senate race as I continue this daily series counting down to polling day next Tuesday, so stay tuned for that.


Mid-Term Countdown: New Hampshire

This article is intended to be the first in a series profiling some of the most important Senate races. Between today and polling day, I will look at one vitally important Senate election every day, examining the local and national issues impacting the race, and what impact that race might have on the balance of power in Washington. We’re starting this week of politics with a look at the increasingly close election in New Hampshire.

Running Scott Brown for Senate in New Hampshire was a big gamble for Republicans, and the reason is simple. New Hampshire wasn’t his first choice. If he’d been successful in his re-election bid in 2012, he’d be happily representing the neighbouring state of Massachusetts for another couple of years. Naturally, he faces accusations of being a “carpet-bagger”. The States that make up New England have a lot in common, but they’re by no means one homogeneous group. New Hampshire in particular has always had a firm independent streak, especially compared to the increasingly liberal Massachusetts. Brown’s success in running for Senate in New Hampshire says as much about the weakness of the Republican Party in the liberal Northeast as it does about his own personal strengths as a candidate.

That said, Brown has run a good campaign. Jeanne Shaheen’s voting record – voting with President Obama 98% of the time, according to Politifact – has been a major issue for independent-minded voters in the Granite State. It’s clear that her steadfast support of an increasingly unpopular President is sapping votes, but can Brown simply count on Obama’s unpopularity to win him a second chance in the Senate? The polls say “no”, and even though Shaheen is tied to Obama’s unpopular policies, she’s hanging in there, maintaining her lead by the slimmest of margins.

Brown’s campaign claim to have “momentum”. That word is always thrown around in the days before an election, but momentum doesn’t mean much when you’re still behind. With so few days left to close the gap, Brown and the GOP must be hoping that issues like immigration and Obamacare will turn the tide. But Scott Brown has promised to stop Obamacare before – and his failure to do so is partly why he didn’t get re-elected in Massachusetts. Worse news for the GOP is that in the personal popularity stakes, Scott Brown is just as unpopular as the President among voters in New Hampshire. By contrast, Jeanne Shaheen remains more popular than one might think considering she’s currently below 50% in the opinion polls. In terms of popularity, then, Brown is over-performing and Shaheen is under-performing based on their personal approval ratings. If we can take away one thing from that it’s that the race in New Hampshire is more greatly influenced by bigger national issues. Good news for Scott Brown.

Perhaps one of the reasons Brown is struggling is because of something the GOP must have realised – the mood among voters as we approach the mid-terms is not so much anti-Democrat as anti-incumbent and anti-politician. Jeanne Shaheen’s lock-step voting record with Obama is dragging her down, but Scott Brown is also a career politician, having been first elected to local government in Massachusetts in the mid-1990s. His reputation as someone from out-of-state hasn’t helped, and to some voters he looks more like someone that the Republican Party leadership want back in office than someone who genuinely cares about the people of New Hampshire. As I said earlier, he wouldn’t even be running if he’d won re-election in Massachusetts two years ago. Both candidates have raised huge amounts of money from out-of-state donors, and this just adds to a feeling among voters that neither party is terribly interested in them, and neither candidate will do an especially stellar job of representing their interests in DC. It may simply come down to which party – not which individual – voters dislike the least.

With Shaheen and the Democrats having outspent Brown by almost four-to-one, and having a war-chest of around $5 million left to spend, it’s clear that they won’t give up New Hampshire without a fight. If the GOP do well elsewhere, it won’t matter quite so much if Brown misses out on a second seat in the Senate. My instinct right now is that Shaheen might just hang on, but only by a slim margin. If Brown and his campaign want to change that, they’ve got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time left.

Quick Thought: Integration is the problem, not immigration

There’s somewhere in the region of 11 million illegal immigrants in the USA right now. But that huge number is only one piece of the very complex puzzle that is immigration. It’s often said that the United States is a nation of immigrants, and in one sense that’s true. With each generation, a new wave of migrants have arrived, and integrated into American society. This society traces its roots back to the first settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries – settlers from Britain. America was founded as an English-speaking, Christian nation. While these points were never formally codified in law, every successive wave of migrants – from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Scandinavia, and so on, have by and large adopted the conventions of the society into which they immigrated.

The issue with so many of these immigrants from Mexico and Latin America is not that they’ve chosen to come to America. There may be a minority who are firmly against all kinds of migration, but that has been true for centuries, and indeed many of the criticisms of Mexican migrants today – they commit crimes, they’re impoverished, uneducated, and so on – might just as easily have been levied at Irish immigrants in the 19th century. No, the issue is not immigration, it’s integration. The Irish integrated. The Scandinavians integrated. So did the Germans, French, Italians, and many more besides. They learned English, raised their kids to speak English, and respected the culture which had taken them in.

Language is crucial to integration. It’s why Europe will never be a single country – there’s too much linguistic diversity. If migrants to the United States are ever to prosper, they must integrate. Colonising part of a town, effectively rendering it “off limits” to non-Spanish speakers is not integration. As long as migrants refuse to integrate, there will always be a gulf between them and the rest of the country, and it is not contingent upon the rest of America to learn Spanish to accommodate them. The onus is on the migrant to acclimatise to his new society, rather than expecting the society to bend over backwards to accommodate him.

The United States has to do something about its immigration problem. Having a solid southern border would be a start, but it’s only a start. There are 11 million illegal migrants who either have to leave or be prepared to integrate into American society. And sadly, a combination of slack rules and political correctness means that there’s an awful lot of legal migrants who need to work on their integration, too.

Quick Thought: “Done, done, done”

Those were Ann Romney’s words to NBC news yesterday, when asked if her husband Mitt might consider a third Presidential run in 2016. The whole family, she says, is “done” with Presidential bids.

2012 Republican Presidential nominee, former Massachusetts Governor, and 2002 Winter Olympics organiser Mitt Romney.

2012 Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The fact that her comments are headline news, not just in the United States, but in Britain as well, shows just how seriously a third Romney bid has been taken. It’s rare for a candidate to be able to make so many serious attempts. John McCain had two goes, narrowly losing to George W. Bush in the 2000 primaries before securing the nomination eight years later, and of course, we’re all expecting a certain Mrs Clinton to make a second attempt. But candidates and would-be candidates who have already missed out on the nomination, or the Presidency, aren’t usually considered as seriously. The reason being, of course, that a candidate passed over once by voters isn’t likely to win on the second or third attempt. Just ask William Jennings Bryan.

There’s a certain logic to that line of thinking. Nowadays, a Presidential candidate can expect his whole life history to be dissected by the media. Unpleasant things will be blown up by opponents, and generally by the time the election rolls around, the voters know everything there is to know about the candidates. That’s why I’ve repeatedly said that Senate incumbents in the upcoming mid-terms are in serious trouble if they’re not at least close to 50% in the polls – voters already know them, and in the case of a Presidential candidate, if more than half the voters decided they weren’t qualified to be President, it’s probably safer for the party to look elsewhere.

Mrs Clinton may discover, to her campaign’s peril, that after a quarter of a century in the public eye, people have already made up their minds about her and her Presidential qualifications. It’s easy for a relatively unknown candidate to spin themselves, but far, far harder for someone who’s already been through all of that to change voters’ perceptions.

Mitt Romney would have been a great President. His economic background was just what the country needed in 2012. But voters were swayed by the empty charisma of Barack Obama, and I suspect Mitt’s chance to govern from the Oval Office has passed. However, with GOP heavyweights like Rick Perry and Chris Christie being battered by scandals, perhaps there’s still a chance. Perhaps Mitt’s not quite “done, done, done” just yet. We’ll have to wait and see.

Spoiler Alert! UKIP, the Tea Party and Electing Conservative Candidates

The incredible rise of new conservative movements, both in the USA and in the UK, should be a positive thing. Tea Party affiliated groups and the UK Independence Party have energised conservatives at every level of politics, bringing a much-needed boost to conservatism as a movement – but are their successes actually counter-productive when it comes to electing conservative candidates?

The Republican Party will have to make a net gain of six seats in the US Senate if they want to be able to effectively reign in Barack Obama after almost six years of executive overreach. But as I noted last time, they’re having to play defence in Kansas and Kentucky, as well as unseat several incumbents who, for now, still have a lead in the polls. But what if they didn’t need to make a net gain of six seats? What if they only needed to pick up four? Let’s think back to the Senate races in 2012, where two Tea Party-backed candidates managed to lose what should’ve been win-able races in Indiana and Missouri. These aren’t the only races where Tea Party-backed candidates have been accused of “spoiling” what should’ve been GOP wins, but they’re certainly the most high-profile.

What were at best ill-considered remarks about rape – always a highly contentious topic for politicians to talk about – saw Akin and Mourdock lose voters and ultimately cost the Republicans two Senate seats. The national attention their comments attracted also had an impact on the national Presidential campaign, though I don’t believe it changed the ultimate outcome of the election. But if those two seats had been won in 2012, GOP resources could be much more laser-focused this time around. They could have cherry-picked the races they wanted and thrown money and high-profile campaigners at them, instead of having to divide those same resources. A net pick-up of four Senate seats is easily do-able, and even the most rabid Democrats privately concede that they expect Republicans to make precisely such a gain. Those two extra seats would’ve also been a safety net of sorts, in case Kansas or Kentucky turns out to be a defeat on election night. But it wasn’t to be. If the Republicans find themselves one or two seats short of a majority, Akin and Mourdock will hold some responsibility.

In the United Kingdom, conservatives face a similar situation. The meteoric rise of UKIP, who placed first in elections to the European Parliament earlier this year, has left establishment conservatives facing quite a conundrum going into next May’s General Election. Just as backing Tea Party candidates in America has undoubtedly led to some Democratic Party victories, UKIP has taken away valuable votes from the Conservative Party. Despite their promises that “voting for UKIP means getting UKIP”, they run the risk of letting a Labour government in by default. Splitting the right-wing vote next year is not an option. UKIP cannot realistically expect to win more than a dozen or so seats, but as they tend to take a disproportionate number of votes from the Conservatives, the British people may find themselves with a government that they didn’t want.

Grass-roots movements are a good thing. Getting more and more people interested in politics is a good thing. Getting conservatives energised and excited is absolutely a good thing! But it has to be done in a sensible way. Targeting incumbents who aren’t “conservative enough” is silly, and if it means letting a liberal win, then it’s counter-productive. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now – the most moderate conservative is still a heck of a lot better than a liberal majority. Conservatives need to stand together when it comes to elections. There will always be disagreements, but when it comes to polling day, rallying around the best candidate with the best chance of winning is what it takes to become the governing party. That’s the ugly truth of contemporary politics.

In Britain, it’s something UKIP need to keep in mind as well. David Cameron’s Conservative Party has promised a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU – one of UKIP’s key issues. Instead of opposing him, they should jump on board and work with the Conservatives to make certain that it happens. By putting up candidates against Conservatives, they risk splitting the vote and letting Ed Milliband’s Labour Party in through the back door. Milliband is a horrible, conniving little man who betrayed his own brother and sold himself to trade unions in order to win the party leadership. He is no statesman, and he absolutely must not be allowed to become Prime Minister. He would be disastrous for Britain.

So there we have it. Divided we fall, as the saying goes. There is a time to stand on principle. There is a time to attack incumbents who have been more inclined to line their own pockets than represent their constituents. And there is a time to ask searching questions about where conservatism as a movement is headed. But with so much at stake, conservatives in the USA and the UK cannot afford to let petty divisions keep them from government. With elections looming, we must show a united front and rally behind candidates and leaders who can make a difference. Sacrificing a majority, losing the chance to govern because we as conservatives can’t unite would be catastrophic. All conservatives who believe in conservative values must be willing to put factional differences aside for the greater good. UKIP and the Tea Party have to understand that, but so do “establishment” conservatives. If a so-called radical wins, then the establishment has to work with them. There has to be compromise on both sides, or conservatives will never be able to govern, and people will stop trusting us to govern. Some individuals and some factions have to be aware of their role as “spoilers”, but the establishment has to be willing to compromise and work with these people.

In my opinion, both sides are guilty of failing to work together. Establishment Republicans frequently work to undermine Tea Party candidates, and Tea Party groups in turn often attack moderately conservative “establishment” figures. Both examples of in-fighting are equally bad. Both can lose elections. In Britain, UKIP and the Conservative Party attack one another, even though many of their goals are the same. In the case of next year’s General Election, they need to work together, because it should be obvious that Britain’s best chance to have that coveted referendum on the European Union is to see a Conservative government.

So here’s my proposal, to Republicans and Conservatives, UKIP and Tea Party groups. Work together. Build bridges, form alliances, make electoral pacts if you have to. Save the attacks for your real opponents, and remember that electing someone you only half-agree with is an awful lot better than seeing your opponent easily win against divided opposition. Standing together is the only way to win.

The Balance of Power in Washington

With the mid-terms little more than three weeks away, people across the political spectrum are beginning to wonder how the balance of power will shift as we move into the final two years of Barack Obama’s Presidency. The outcome is remarkably difficult to predict this time, and, as we stated last time, it may well come down to a couple of seats, or even a single seat determining which party controls Congress.

Precedent can be helpful when it comes to predicting election results, and this time, previous results indicate that the Democrats are the ones who should be worried. For all of Obama’s Presidency to date, the balance of power in DC has been, to a greater or lesser extent, in his party’s favour. Even after Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010, the Democrats maintained a stranglehold on the Senate and were able to use the divided Congress to their own ends. Because of Obama’s unwillingness to compromise with Republicans over the past five-and-a-half years, he would find himself in an incredibly weak position if Republicans should manage to take control of the Senate. George W. Bush was called a “lame duck” in the aftermath of the 2006 mid-terms, which saw Democrats take Congress. Bush was in a similar position to Obama today – languishing below 40% in the job approval polls, and then, as now, the President’s policies and actions since taking office were very much at the forefront of voters’ minds.

Tying a candidate to Obama and his failed policies is precisely what Republicans are trying to do nationwide, because they know it’s a sure vote-winner. Conversely, Democratic candidates are running away from the President as quickly as they can. Alison Lundergan Grimes is a prime example. Running against Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Grimes refers to herself as a “Clinton Democrat”, and refused to say whether she even voted for Obama in 2008. For a Senate candidate to refuse to admit she voted for the man who has been the Democratic Party’s de facto leader for six years is evidence of just how far Obama has sunk in the popular imagination. The only way Democrats can hope to ride out this potentially disastrous election is to distance themselves from him as much as possible.

Even states which voted comfortably for Obama in both of his Presidential campaigns are seen as being “in play” for Republicans this time around. New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown is trying to unseat Jeanne Shaheen, is a prime example. Brown is trailing by only a couple of points in most recent polls, while Shaheen has been consistently below 50% and is getting dangerously close to 45%. Incumbents who struggle to break 50% are in serious danger of losing – and it’s Shaheen’s voting record which has been crucial. Walking in lock-step with an unpopular President is costing her votes. New Hampshire elected her on Obama’s coattails in 2008, but they haven’t actually elected any other Democrat to the United States Senate since Fred H. Brown in 1932 (John A. Durkin was appointed to the Senate after a contested election in 1974, but he had actually lost by a margin of two votes).

So what does all this mean for the country? The short answer is “it depends”. If Republicans manage to make a net gain of six seats in the Senate, then everything changes. Obama becomes a lame duck, with substantially reduced power on the domestic front. The Republicans’ agenda will be able to make it through Congress to land on the President’s desk – no more will “Dirty” Harry Reid be able to stall or outright refuse to vote on legislation which has passed the House. Congress will be back to fulfilling its Constitutional role as the legislative branch of government, checking the power of the executive. Whether that means Obama will stop trying to do an end-run around the Constitution and legislate from the White House remains to be seen, but one thing is clear – if Republicans take the Senate, Obama will have no choice but to negotiate with them. Campaign-style speeches to hand-picked audiences of supporters won’t cut it when there’s work to do.

It’s possible, though, that Republicans will fall short. A defeat in Kansas or Kentucky would be a very damaging blow to their hopes of a Senate majority, and while Scott Brown is closing the gap in New Hampshire, he’s still behind in the polls. It’s already accepted by most sensible election observers that the Republicans will make gains in the Senate, but their gains still might not be enough to win a majority. Six seats may not sound like much, but it’s still no easy task. In such a case, the balance of power will remain more or less unchanged. If the Democrats hang onto the Senate – even if by a single seat – Obama will be able to continue to act in his final two years as he has been doing since the 2010 mid-terms. Nothing will change.

American politics has rarely been so bitterly divided as it is today. Divisions have always existed, but I would argue that the bitterness and the mutual dislike on both sides is the worst it’s been since the end of Reconstruction. Obama must accept some responsibility for this, but so must Congressional Republicans. Both sides have tried to use the balance of power in Washington, unchanged since 2010, to further their own agendas – often at the expense of ordinary Americans. In a way, the divisions in DC reflect the divisions in the country at large. This is a shocking legacy for a man elected on a mantra of “hope and change”. A Republican majority in the Senate won’t fix this overnight. If Obama resists, these divisions might even get worse in the short term. But one thing is clear about the balance of power in Washington – it is unsustainable. Something’s got to change.

Rumble in the Jungle (Primary)

Elections in the UK are not quite such drawn-out affairs as their American counterparts. Votes are counted on Thursday night (elections in the UK are always held on a Thursday) and usually by Friday lunchtime, a new government has been formed. The process is over with quite quickly. That’s why it always struck me as rather odd that my American friends vote in November, but the new Congress doesn’t take over until early January. The reason is, of course, because the rules governing these things were written in an age before 24-hour news and cross-country flights. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it took time for Congressmen and Senators just to get to DC. Britain, with no written set of rules governing such things, can get its new Parliament started far more quickly.

However, there are advantages to this waiting period. In 2008, the Minnesota Senate election was far too close to call, and the counting and re-counting dragged on for a good long while. And can you imagine the chaos there could’ve been in 2000, had the new President been obliged to take office the day after the election? It took weeks to recount the votes in Florida! This waiting period between the election and the start of a new Congressional term is a good thing. But after the upcoming mid-terms (which are now less than a month away), we may find an uncertainty about the country’s political future that hasn’t been seen in fourteen years.

Republicans could take back both houses of Congress. They’re all but guaranteed to hold the House, and need a net pick-up of only six Senate seats. It’s do-able, and it would see the first serious check on Obama’s runaway executive power since he came to office. But will we know about it come the morning of November 5th?

The race in Louisiana, where Democrat Mary Landrieu is facing a very tough re-election battle thanks in no small part to Obamacare, is very close. There’s a very good chance that there will be a run-off in December, and that could mean that the balance of power in the Senate, and thus the entire political direction of the country, is left undetermined for a month after polling day.

Mary Landrieu, Democratic Senator from Louisiana - but for how much longer?

Mary Landrieu, Democratic Senator from Louisiana – but for how much longer?

Both parties need to prepare for such a possibility. The Democrats know they’re going to lose out come November 4th, they’re just hoping that they can contain the losses so they don’t lose the Senate. If it comes down to the wire, that December run-off in Lousiana is going to be fascinating to watch. “Dirty” Harry Reid and co. will throw everything they have at the race to avoid defeat, but the polls are already against them. Landrieu barely breaks 40% according to the most recent polling data, and adding up the numbers for her Republican challengers sees her losing out to whoever breaks through the jungle primary. It will be a hard campaign, and it could just be the deciding factor in determining the balance of power in the Senate. For an incumbent, such bad poll numbers spell disaster. Landrieu is a known factor in Louisiana. She’s peaked. Between November 4th and December 6th (the date of the run-off) she won’t pick up many more voters. Most people have already made up their minds about her – and they don’t much care for what they see.

Given the task facing the GOP, and the threat to their incumbent in Kansas, there’s a strong chance that there could be only a single seat determining the balance of power in the Senate. In such a case, the Louisiana run-off will be vitally important. November may well be a very interesting month.