For the past eight years, I’ve admired the Democrats’ ability to maintain party discipline. Maybe it’s just a case of the grass looking greener on the other side, but I don’t think so.
During the Obama years, the Dems almost never broke ranks. They stuck together even in the face of two shellackings in mid-term elections.
During the Bush years, by contrast, you could almost always count on GOP Senators to defy the administration, and not just after the 2006 thumping. Nor were Arlen Spector and the two ladies from Maine the only mavericks. Lindsay Graham, John McCain, George Voinovich, and John Sununu were among other GOP defectors in one or more major fight.
During the primary season of 2012, it was more of the same. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders waged a contentious campaign, but generally managed to keep things civil.
Not so with the Republican contenders. Even putting Donald Trump to one side — not an easy thing to do — the war waged on Marco Rubio by Chris Christie and even by Rubio’s mentor Jeb Bush was far more personal than the Clinton-Sanders battle ever became.
At the Democratic Convention, moreover, Sanders gave full-throated support to Clinton. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz told delegates to vote their conscience; John Kasich boycotted the Convention in his home state; and Rubio, the most gracious of the three major runners-up, “mailed in” his endorsement of Trump.
The trend continued during the Fall campaign. As Paul Kane of the Washington Post says, “no Democratic candidate for Senate ever tried to separate themselves [sic] from Clinton in any meaningful way.” Kane points, for example, to Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania:
Two weeks before Election Day, at the final Pennsylvania Senate debate, legendary Philadelphia newsman Jim Gardner began with what seemed like an easy first question. “Can you tell us,” Gardner asked Democrat Katie McGinty, “about one issue where you disagree with your party or your potential president?”
“Thanks, Jim, and I do stand with Secretary Clinton,” McGinty said. She spent the next minute never distancing herself from Hillary Clinton. “I know this, Secretary Clinton will fight for working families and that’s what I’m going to do as well.”
GOP Senate candidates, on the other hand, generally rejected the equivalent of the Dems’ “I’m with her” strategy when it came to the presidential race. Senators McCain, Johnson, Portman, and Rubio all endorsed Trump, but were less than full-emphatic in their support. (Each won, running far ahead of Trump in his state.) Senator Toomey wouldn’t say how he planned to vote in the presidential race. (He won, running a little bit ahead of Trump.) Senator Ayotte and Rep. Heck waffled in their support of the tycoon. (Both lost narrowly, as did Trump in their states.)
How did “I’m with her” work for the Democrats? Kane reports:
The results are stunning in their consistency.
Clinton lost Pennsylvania, the first Democratic presidential nominee to lose the state since 1988, with 47.6 percent and a little more than 2.8 million votes. McGinty lost too, by almost the exact same margin, with 47.2 percent and about 50,000 fewer votes than Clinton. Clinton lost Wisconsin, with 46.9 percent, as did former senator Russ Feingold (D) in the Senate race, with 46.8 percent and 1,800 fewer votes than Clinton.
That’s not all:
In its final ratings the independent Cook Political Report rated 11 Senate races as either “toss-up” or “lean Democrat” or “lean Republican.” Six of those Democrats finished within 1.4 percentage points of Clinton’s share in that same state, according to the Associated Press’s calculations. Three more fell well behind her.
Only two Democrats in key races performed significantly better than Clinton: Evan Bayh, who got 125,000 more votes than Clinton in Indiana, and Jason Kander, who received about 230,00 more votes in Missouri. They both lost, by wide margins, in states where Clinton received just 38 percent of the vote.
Not surprisingly, given their near-complete dependence on Clinton, Senate Democrats only won three of those 11 races — in Illinois, Nevada and New Hampshire. Those were the only three states of that bunch that Clinton put in her electoral vote column.
Hindsight usually is 20-20, even mine. However, it wouldn’t have taken great foresight for some Democrats to realize that, in light of Bernie Sanders’ success, some distance between themselves and Clinton would have served them well. The discipline successfully imposed by Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and the Clinton run party apparatus obviously masked serious differences within the Party rank-and-file.
Furthermore, Clinton clearly wasn’t very popular with the electorate, and it was widely understood that portions of Trump’s platform had appeal in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Even if they believed, as I did, that Trump’s personal unpopularity would keep these states in the fold for Clinton, candidates like McGinty should have perceived the need to put a bit of daylight between themselves Hillary as they ran against reasonably popular incumbent Senators.
Party discipline is a wonderful thing, except when it isn’t. Republicans need to keep this mind. Given the GOP’s track record, I have little doubt that they will.