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"Safe" To Vote No: Analyzing The Debt Ceilng Vote

A Commentary By Larry Sabato, Kyle Kondik and Isaac Wood

What a week it has been! As the political world recovers from its deep exhaustion and wonders about the fallout from the debt ceiling deal, it’s worth taking a step back.

First, let’s all remember that 15 months from now, when Americans go to the polls to vote for president and Congress, this summer storm—intense squall though it was—will have been superseded by other tempests.

In November 2012, voters will probably be focused on the moribund economy, not the debt. Almost lost in the shuffle of the last week’s real or manufactured crisis was the sobering news that the United States’ gross domestic product grew only at a paltry 1.3% clip in the second quarter. The first quarter was downgraded to a truly miserable 0.4% growth rate. President Obama needs that number to be close to 3%, if not higher, to achieve a comfortable reelection. If the economy doesn’t pick up soon, Obama’s once-bright prospects for reelection could be history, along with his White House tenure—assuming, of course, Republicans nominate a mainstream candidate that can appeal to swing voters and appears to be a credible possible occupant of the Oval Office.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent-Democratic liberal, has said that, “it would be a good idea if President Obama faced some primary opposition.” While no such candidate is currently on the horizon, a serious primary challenge to Obama would further endanger his reelection prospects. An opponent doesn’t have to be big-league to cause a problem for the president. Time, money, and energy would have to be spent to minimize the protest vote in early caucuses and primaries. Any president would rather be unopposed so he can keep his eye on the general election ball.

It’s true that challenges to incumbents vary in intensity and effect. Presidents Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 both held off strong opponents (Ronald Reagan and Edward Kennedy, respectively), but partly as a consequence, they lost their general elections. Compare this to the innocuous situation enjoyed by President Richard Nixon in 1972. Nixon was challenged by Rep. John Ashbrook (R-OH) to his right and Rep. Pete McCloskey (R-CA) to his left yet Nixon won 87% of the primary votes and emerged emboldened from these minor skirmishes.

If a challenge to President Obama arises at all, we would expect it to be minor. But it is difficult to say precisely how angry liberals are at what they regard as a “cave-in” to the Republicans on the debt deal—after a similar Republican-leaning agreement on the Bush tax cuts last December. On the one hand, the left might fear inadvertently helping the rising Tea Party, and once again give Obama the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, Sanders’ view might prevail, reminding Obama that the left has somewhere else to go, at least for the nomination contest.

While the general public will probably move on quickly from the debt ceiling debate, the Tea Party and the left will not, and both groups matter greatly in their chosen political party’s primaries. In addition, whatever we are talking about at election time, the just-held vote on the debt ceiling will be a—maybe “the”—key vote of the 112th Congress, and one that opponents of incumbents, in both primary and general elections, will attempt to spin to their advantage.

The deal to raise the debt ceiling passed both Houses of Congress quite comfortably: 269-161 in the House and 74-26 in the Senate. It’s impossible to know for certain why any individual members voted one way or the other, but it appears that members were largely free to vote their conscience: Whips on both sides of the aisle didn’t need to engage in major arm-twisting, given the likely margin of passage.

In the Senate, some of the “no” votes included two senators with rocky relationships in their own parties. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who likely will face Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT, also a no vote) in a convention and primary next year, was obviously thinking strategically. Similarly, maverick Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) will not get a free pass to re-nomination in 2014, and he can ill-afford to alienate party conservatives further.

On the other hand, possible endangered Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) voted yes, despite his Tea Party primary challenge. His vote gives ammunition to his GOP opponent, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Perhaps Lugar, buoyed by an internal poll showing him up 14 points on Mourdock, isn’t sweating the challenge. It’s also true that Lugar seems intent on voting his conscience, come what may politically.

While it’s not a perfect correlation, the bill seemed to be more popular among members focused on a competitive general election, while those potentially involved in a competitive primary (as well as those currently facing no reelection pressure) were more likely to vote against the deal. (See Chart 1).


Chart 1. Breakdown of debt ceiling vote by electoral outlook


Notes: Competitive races are measured by the Crystal Ball’s most recent House and Senate ratings. Our rankings reflect our evaluation of which party is likely, as of now, to win the seat in the general election. A “safe” rating indicates the incumbent party, not necessarily the incumbent member, is the odds-on favorite to keep the seat. Members from “safe” districts may fear a primary challenger even with a nearly-guaranteed general election victory for their party—and this might make the incumbent more likely to appeal to their base than to swing voters.


Among members leaving their respective chambers, the eight retiring senators all voted in favor of the bill, but of 17 retiring House members, seven voted against the bill. However, a major difference between the House and Senate retirees is that 13 of the departing House members are running for a different office, whereas none of the senators will be facing voters next year.

House members seeking to climb the greased poll to the upper chamber split 5-4 in favor of raising the debt ceiling. Reps. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Shelley Berkley (D-NV), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Rick Berg (R-ND) voted yes. Chris Murphy (D-CT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Todd Akin (R-MO), and Denny Rehberg (R-MT) cast “no” votes. Potential Senate candidates Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) also voted no.

Included in the “yes” votes are three members who should have relatively easy paths to their party’s senatorial nomination (Berkley, Donnelly, and Berg) and two who might not (Heinrich and Hirono). Of the four “no” votes, at most two — Rehberg and possibly Flake — have clear nominating paths. It appears Baldwin and Chaffetz will face strong intra-party competition, too.

A National Journal analysis noted that of the 136 Republican House members who represent districts where John McCain got 55% or less of the vote, 112 voted for the deal. The same is true of Democrats who represent either McCain districts or marginal Obama districts; of those 26 Democrats, 21 voted for the deal.

A “yes” vote on the debt ceiling deal was essentially a centrist vote, and members who voted for it are ones who are likely to face competitive races next year: Of 71 members expected to run for reelection and listed on the Crystal Ball’s competitive House race list, 57 of them voted yes on the debt ceiling bill. The fourteen voting “no” included all five members of Iowa’s House delegation, including Reps. Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R), who will be running against each other after Latham’s seat was eliminated in redistricting. Both of Iowa’s U.S. senators voted against the deal as well. Perhaps the Hawkeye State delegation fears potential farm subsidy cuts that could be imposed by the new “super-committee” or triggered if the super-committee’s recommendations don’t become law.

Meanwhile, some of the “no” voting legislators might have had their eyes on primary challengers. Of 34 California House Democrats, 20 voted no. This is not entirely surprising since the party’s California delegation contains many strong liberals. Moreover, redistricting generated by a new nonpartisan commission is guaranteed to shake up the California delegation, causing some Golden State Democrats to be wary of primary challenges.

All five South Carolina House Republicans voted no on the deal, an unsurprising development considering that one of the most prominent national leaders of the Tea Party, Sen. Jim DeMint, sets the political tone in the Palmetto State almost as thoroughly as did John C. Calhoun, the “Cast-Iron Man,” nearly two centuries ago. The House delegation is Tea Party-accented and very conservative, but one suspects its members wanted to take no chances on a primary challenge in 2012.

Two House members stand out on the list of “no” voters for a presidential reason. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Ron Paul (R-TX) are running well to the right, or perhaps in Paul’s case, with the libertarian axis of the party. Bachmann and Paul have their eye on the vital GOP presidential straw poll next week in Ames, IA. Notice that the third GOP presidential aspirant drawn from the House, Rep. Thad McCotter (R-MI), voted yes on the debt bill. Our guess is that he will finish much lower than his House colleagues in the straw poll.

Beyond influencing voters’ views of individual members of Congress, the debt deal debacle dramatically affected opinions of the body as a whole. Congress is perpetually unpopular, but a CNN/ORC survey found that the public put Congress’ job approval at a miserable 14%–one of its lowest ratings ever. The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll reports that only 31% of those polled believe their member of Congress deserves another term, while 53% say they want someone else.

National Journal noted that these numbers are similar to those expressed in polls leading up to the 2006 Democratic and 2010 Republican waves. Of course, in 2006 and 2010, the public’s ire was directed solely at one party or the other. The Democrats didn’t lose any seats in the House in 2006, and the Republicans lost only three in 2010. Perhaps we are heading for a repeat of 1992’s unusual circumstances, in which a combination of redistricting (which is also happening in this cycle), the House banking scandal (which struck incumbents in both parties), and general disgust with Congress and politics (the Perot candidacy) led to twenty-four defeats of incumbents in the general election and a ten-seat overall Republican gain in a year in which the GOP’s incumbent president (George H.W. Bush) lost the White House to democrat Bill Clinton.

It would be remarkable if the voters produced a fourth consecutive wave election that will see a large number of incumbent defeats. After 2006, 2008, and 2010, one might think the system was due for a more tranquil year. In addition, Americans often condemn their legislators in general but end up backing their particular representatives and senators anyway.

Still, the prevailing public mood fifteen months out cannot be reassuring to either President Obama or to members of Congress. A deeply troubled economy, a long-term debt crisis barely eased by this week’s much-heralded deal, and the tumultuous redistricting process are combining with churning unrest on both the right and left of the American spectrum. This unusual assortment of potent ingredients should keep the cauldron boiling all the way to Election Day.

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