Vulnerable Democrats beware: The bipartisan well is about dry.
Last cycle, Democrats saw their percentage of the Republican vote drop dramatically, and that could spell trouble for incumbents relying on that vote to survive in 2012. Sen. Ben Nelson is at the top of the list.
The Nebraska Democrat received a whopping 42 percent of the GOP vote in 2006 when he cruised to re-election, but with two GOP statewide officeholders already running against him, the Senator’s narrow victory in 2000 is a better road map for a third term. The former two-term governor was elected to the Senate by just a couple of points with the help of 21 percent of the Republican vote.
The trouble for Nelson is that no Democratic Senator or nominee in a competitive race even came close to that share of the GOP vote last cycle, according to an exit poll analysis. As the country becomes more polarized, partisan voters are going against politicians they may like or have supported in the past because they are upset with the candidate’s national party.
In Arkansas, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) saw her percentage of the Republican vote slip from 12 percent in 2004 to just 4 percent last cycle when she lost re-election.
In Wisconsin, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) dropped from 14 percent of the GOP vote in 2004 to 5 percent last fall when he lost re-election.
But there may be some hope for vulnerable Democrats.
“It matters less what you get with Republicans,” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang of the Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group. “It’s more important how well you do with independents.” For example, while Feingold’s GOP vote fell, his share of independents plummeted from 62 percent in 2004 to just 43 percent last fall.
For the most vulnerable Senators, putting together a winning coalition is complicated and tenuous.
In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) received just 4 percent of the GOP vote in her loss last year to now-Sen. Roy Blunt (R). This cycle, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) would need only 5 percent of the Republican vote (she won 7 percent in her 3-point victory in 2006), assuming that Democrats and Republicans each make up 37 percent of the electorate — a reasonable expectation based on recent elections — and that the Senator earns 54 percent of the vote from independents.
That doesn’t seem insurmountable, but that means McCaskill would have to improve from her 2006 showing with independents (51 percent, in a good Democratic year), and considering Carnahan pulled just 31 percent of independents in November.
It’s debatable whether McCaskill has carved out her own centrist image compared with Carnahan. But unlike Carnahan, McCaskill is a sitting Senator who has had to take tough votes, including several in favor of President Barack Obama’s health care law.
For many Democratic incumbents, there just isn’t a lot of room for error.
In 2006, Jon Tester (D) defeated Sen. Conrad Burns (R) by just one point with the help of 11 percent of the GOP vote in Montana. Using 2010 as a guide, Tester could get that Republican chunk again if he were running against a polarizing opponent.