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Wisconsin illustrates weirdness of U.S. Senate

The New York Times website has a short video up this morning featuring the two senators from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin.

Both are freshmen. Republican Johnson is a righty businessman with political roots in the Tea Party who says in the video that his uppermost goal as a U.S. senator is to be “the vote” to repeal Obamacare. Democrat Baldwin is a career politician, a very solid liberal and the first openly lesbian U.S. senator.

They disagree on pretty much all of the issues that separate the two parties. As the Times video notes, in the time they have co-served together, the two  have disagreed — which generally means they have canceled out each other’s votes — 76 percent of the time.

If we studied the times they voted together, I suspect we would find it mostly occurs on parochial issues of special interest to Wisconsin, or non-controversial issues that passed or failed by large bipartisan majorities. In the video they refer to the fact that their common goal of advocacy for Wisconsin interests occasionally brings them to vote together. Baldwin describes their relationship as “perfectly cordial.”

The Senate is a weird institution. It’s rooted in the one and only constitutionally permissible violation of the principle of one-person, one-vote, since all states have two senators disregarding the huge population differences between California and Wyoming. By the standards of world democracies, the six-year terms are extremely long and the staggered nature, with only a third of the Senate seats up for reelection every two years, is also extremely unusual.

Red-blue state oversimplification

The Johnson-Baldwin pairing also invites us to complicate our understanding of the red-state, blue-state oversimplification. Johnson won his 2010 Senate race with 51.9 percent of the vote. Baldwin won hers in 2012 with 51.4. Both will probably be big targets for the opposition party when their seats come up.

Wisconsin, for most of its recent history, has been considered a fairly solid (but often closely balanced) blue state by the national pundits based mostly on its track record in presidential election. Starting in 1988, it has given its electoral votes to the Democratic nominee seven straight times. Yet Republicans have won five of last seven gubernatorial elections. Four of those five red wins were by the famously moderate Republican Tommy Thompson, but the last of the five was for the far-right current Gov. Scott Walker.

Every state has its special peculiarities, but does this track record make Wisconsin unusual? Not very. Minnesota is the single bluest state in presidential elections dating back to 1960, yet Democrats have not dominated in Senate or gubernatorial races since the “Minnesota Massacre” of 1978.

In the era of red and blue, you would expect it to be unusual for a state to be represented by two different parties, except in a few very purple states. But this isn’t the case. I just counted them up, based on the current Senate:

18 states have two Democratic senators. 14 states have two Republican senators. And 18 states, like Wisconsin, have one senator from each party. (For this analysis I counted the two independents who caucus with the Democrats as Dems.) And, given the current state of true partisan polarization in the Senate itself, in most of the states with senators from different parties, the senators are canceling each other’s votes

Full of surprises

Analyzed with the simplistic idea of red and blue states, the list of states with one from each party is full of surprises. It includes many states that we think of as solidly red or blue, at least in presidential politics, such as Alaska, Arkansas, Indiana and both Dakotas. The Democrats hold both Senate seats in Montana and West Virginia, both of which are reliable red states in presidential elections.

The same is not true for the list of states with two Republican senators. All are states considered reliably red in presidential politics. In fact, if you follow this analysis, the only way that the Dems have managed to control the Senate for a goodly chunk of recent history is by winning Senate races in states that are otherwise considered solid Republican states.

Here’s the Times video that set me off on this rant (or do I mean this tone poem):

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/20/2014 - 01:05 pm.

    Who Shows Up?

    It may prove to be instructive to examine this in light of Democrats being elected in Presidential election years and Republicans being elected in non-Presidential election years. Wlaker and Ron Johnson were elected in the wave non-Prez year of 2010; Baldwin being elected in 2012. Democrats can take advantage of the coming demographic changes, especially if they can overcome their historical challenge of getting their voters to show up in the off year elections.

    My unproven theory is further bolstered by the Democrats long time struggles to elect governors in Minnesota, as those are held in off years. It wouldn’t take Eric much research to go back to 1980 and analyze Minnesota US senate elections to see if the GOP has held an advantage in the mid term elections.

  2. Submitted by Rick Ryan on 01/20/2014 - 01:24 pm.

    Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams

    Served together in the US Senate for 6 years. They was no “Tea Party” in those days but Senator Grams would seem to fit the bill. Both Wellstone/Grams and Johnson/Baldwin show that it is not so much red and blue here in the upper Midwest, but who the candidates are and the circumstances they run in, who get elected. Apparently both Minnesota and Wisconsin have been a little undecided on which direction to go.

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