Democrats got a huge boost this month in their campaign to maintain control of the Senate when their candidate in Kansas dropped out of the race. That’s pretty much everything you need to know about the declining influence of both political parties in a nutshell.
Independent candidate Greg Orman has carved out a space for himself in the policy gaps left by the two parties, but his appeal has little to do with his platform. He’s popular mainly for what he’s not. Orman describes himself as “business-friendly and socially tolerant,” in other words a Republican time-traveler from an age when the party didn’t scare people. Orman represents all the things people admire in a traditional Republican without the crazy.
Kansas is experiencing a fascinating political moment. The religious right seized power decisively over the past two elections and has pushed through a comprehensive conservative fantasy agenda. Rigid new abortion restrictions, draconian tax and budget cuts, new limits on voting rights, the Tea Party fringe got everything they could ask for short of a gold standard. The results have been as depressing as they were predictable.
The extremists who hijacked the GOP in Kansas have discovered, to their utter surprise, that drastic tax cuts do not produce budget surpluses. Exempting whole sectors of the economy from taxation has not spurred job growth or economic activity. The whole agenda has accomplished nothing but fiscal catastrophe. Their response so far has been to stick to the script and blame the font of all evil – Obama.
What makes Kansas interesting is that it is not Texas or Alabama. The outcome of this policy template in Texas for example has been far more catastrophic than in Kansas, resulting in massive budget cuts to key government services and a growing unease over fundamentalist religious regulations. The difference is that there are still pragmatic Republicans in Kansas and they have launched a revolt.
In one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, the Republican Governor is on his heels and the Republican Senator is trailing an independent. Why isn’t this good news for the Democrats?
In the short term maybe it is. Thanks to a growing wave of not-Republican voting Democrats appear likely to hold on to the Senate. Prospects for Republicans nationally in 2016 are extremely grim, with a strong likelihood of losing the ability to exercise any legislative influence at all nationally.
For Democrats the problem is that few people like them much either. All over the country Democrats are running on their singular strength – the fact that they are not as batshit crazy as their Republican opponents. That may win an election, but it is not a mandate for policy. Their biggest mistake of the past ten years was imagining that their victories in ’06 and ’08 were anything other than a protest vote. They are likely to make the same mistake again.
Orman would join two other officially independent Senators, Bernie Sanders (VT) and Angus King (ME). That is more independent Senators than we have ever had before before. Unofficially, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican who won in 2010 by defeating the Republican Party’s nominee should probably be added to that roster. Rhode Island is being governed by an Independent. Charlie Crist who is running a close race for Governor in Florida is a de facto independent who has run for office in both parties and with no party backing.
Kansas is often regarded as a bellwether. What the state’s voters seem to be telling us right now is that they will vote for a Democrat when a Republican candidate is too dangerously bizarre to be tolerated, but they would much prefer an independent. That’s bad news for both parties, but it may open some promising possibilities for the emergence of a new Republican model.
A younger crop of Republicans in places less dominated by religious extremists is beginning to mature. In states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Orman would be a Republican. Bruce Rauner is running a very strong Republican campaign for Governor in Illinois that looks very much like Orman. Deep in the red state fortress, Republican bomb-thrower Doug Ducey is trapped in a tie with his Democratic challenger for Arizona Governor. Far right Republican candidates are facing surprisingly tight challenges in Georgia and South Carolina. Tea Party darlings in Maine and Pennsylvania are all but doomed.
Disappointments that loom over the GOP in the next few years could be the forge of a new vision for the party. Tone down the paranoid rhetoric, drop the religious authoritarianism, allow reality to once again influence our vision of fiscal responsibility and you could have a powerful, nationally competitive platform. Robbed of blubbering, terrifying Republicans to run against, a Democratic Party still chained to the anchor of 20th century union machine politics might finally drown.
That policy platform isn’t going to emerge from the red state fortress, but Republicans winning elections in the north and west could point the way forward. Both parties may be unpopular, but thanks to the disruptive power of defeat it may be easier for Republicans than for Democrats to pivot to adopt a winning platform.