Aftershock of the “Massachusetts Miracle”

Last week, when we wrote on the “Obama plunge”in the wake of Republican Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts, we noted that a combination of 2008 Presidential election returns, 2008 House of Representative election results, and the voting record of House members on the “Big Three” of the stimulus, “cap and trade” and Obamacare could be used to predict the outcome of the November elections. Using this algorithm, we optimistically foresaw GOP gains from 73 to 165 House seats this fall. What we did not mention was the psychological impact of the Massachusetts vote on legislation that the Democratic leadership wants passed this year before the election.

The immediate impact of the “Scott heard around the world” is Democrats’  establishing their “moderate” credentials in an effort to save their seats from an expected GOP wave this fall. This newfound independence manifested itself recently on a normally routine vote to raise the national debt ceiling. While the measure did pass 217-212 in the face of unanimous GOP opposition, it’s worth noting that 37 Democrats defected from their party’s leadership. Therefore, we examined how House Democrats voted in the context of Democratic House seats we either see as vulnerable or safe and saw several things of note:

 (1)   Of the 9 Democrats who are retiring, the vote was 7-2. This result was not surprising, because the retirees are likely through with politics for now, so they believe that how they vote doesn’t matter anymore. What about the two “No” votes ? Both of those Democrats (Louisiana’s Charlie Melancon was one of them) are seeking election to the U.S. Senate and therefore need to establish their independent credentials now;

(2)   The remaining 157 Democrats we are watching are running for re-election, and they voted 121-35 in favor of this measure. However, interesting patterns emerge within this group of incumbents:

  • Two freshmen Democrats have voted no on the “Big Three”, and to no one’s surprise voted “No” on raising the debt ceiling – again, in this case, they’re attempting to further secure themselves electorally;
  • The 75 Democrats thought to be safe because their 2008 re-election percentages were above 65% voted 70-5 in favor of raising the debt ceiling. The five “No” votes are noteworthy, because they’re likely discovering that their supposed secure electoral position isn’t so secure now;
  • 15 Democrats who we previously judged as “likely safe” because they voted “No” on two of the “Big Three” voted 10-5 in favor of raising the debt ceiling. Curiously, all 15 Democrats in this group voted “No” on Obamacare, which suggests that these are “reserve” Democrats – on tough votes, the Democratic leadership decides which of these 15 will need to “walk the plank” for their party;
  • The remaining 65 Democrats who we believe are theoretically vulnerable voted “Yes” by a 41-23 margin (John Murtha of Pennsylvania did not vote). We also think that the notion of “reserve Democrats” applies to this group as well, but it’s worth noting that this group is gradually growing more independent of the Democratic leadership (this group voted 61-1 for the stimulus, 52-11 for “cap and trade”, and 58-7 for Obamacare)

What does this analysis mean in practical terms ? First, on future close votes, I’d again expect a 7-2 vote from the Democratic retirees. Second, if things remain iffy electorally for the Democrats, I would expect that defections would begin to appear from the group of 75 “supposedly safe” Democrats. The 80 Democrats mentioned above in the previous two paragraphs as “reserve Democrats” will also be interesting to watch, but I expect that if the Democratic leadership needs 218 votes, they will lean hard on this group to get their votes, and if those votes aren’t forthcoming, I would expect the Democratic leadership not even to bring the controversial item(s) to a vote, because they don’t want to risk defeat.

It will be an interesting year, to say the least.