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Election Watch: Obama Makes History

It’s been a turbulent last few days on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, Indiana Republicans drove six-term Sen. Richard Lugar from office in favor of hard-core conservative state treasurer Richard Mourdock. While Lugar’s loss seemed inevitable well before primary day, the margin of his defeat—61-39—was shocking given his relatively conservative voting record over decades, and his staunch orthodoxy over the usual hot-button issues like abortion and taxes. Mourdock’s many out-of-state backers, including the Club for Growth, Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservative Fund, and virtually every right-wing blogger on the planet, made it abundantly clear that getting rid of Lugar was intended to teach the national Republican Party a lesson about the price involved in disrespecting the Tea Party Movement (Lugar had never even attempted to pander to them) and sticking to the outmoded traditions of Senate bipartisanship.

The day after the primary Mourdock reinforced the “lesson” by calmly telling Chuck Todd that he defined “bipartisanship” as “Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

While Indiana’s current pro-GOP tilt makes Mourdock a slight favorite in a general election contest with Rep. Joe Donnelly, the unexpected vulnerability of the seat has scrambled many early assumptions about the 2012 Senate election landscape, particularly when combined with Olympia Snowe’s recent surprise retirement. Today the Washington Post’s Paul Kane published an overview of Senate races quoting several leading handicappers as giving Democrats a slight edge in their battle to hang onto control of the chamber; it all may come down to the vice president’s tie-breaking vote.

The other election news on Tuesday was less dramatic. In Wisconsin, as expected, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett easily defeated former county executive Kathleen Falk to become the Democratic candidate who would succeed Scott Walker if he’s recalled on June 5. Falk’s labor backers—many of whom were deeply unhappy with Barrett’s treatment of public employees in Milwaukee-appear to be lining up loyally for the winner. Polling of the June 5 contest remains mostly too-close-to-call, though Walker will have a significant financial advantage thanks to massive funding from out-of-state conservatives and business interests.

In North Carolina, Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton used a big financial advantage and late momentum to defeat former congressman Bobby Etheridge for the gubernatorial nomination (embattled incumbent Gov. Bev Perdue decided not to run), though the Republican nominee, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, is the early favorite for November. But the big national news from North Carolina was the landslide (61%) approval of Amendment One, a constitutional gay marriage ban that was worded in a way that would probably ban legal protections for civil unions and even heterosexual domestic partnerships as well. Polling showed the amendment might have failed had voters understood its scope, but despite losing in most of the state’s major urban centers, it won overwhelmingly in rural counties, helped along by last-minute ads featuring the state’s most famous citizen, the Rev. Billy Graham.

Although the president had earlier issued a statement opposing Amendment One, he conspicuously didn’t mention in a recent appearance in North Carolina, and inevitably disappointed marriage equality advocates were especially disappointed with him. That, along with mounting support for a 2012 Democratic platform plank supporting marriage equality, plus the (apparent) coincidence of the vice president’s casual remarks on the subject last weekend, were enough to push Obama into the calculated risk of yesterday’s interview in which he expressed support for same-sex marriage.

The air is currently full of spin—with some analysis—on how this gamble will play out. Long-term, it makes sense to align the Democratic Party with a view that is shared by a majority of rank-and-file Democrats (and, according to most polls, of independents), and that is almost certain to become a large majority of the public over time, given the strong and uniform generational trends in favor of same-sex marriage (under-30 adults are almost invariably 20-percentage-points more likely than over-30 adults to support it, even among conservative evangelicals). In the medium-term, Ron Brownstein’s analysis makes abundant sense:

[Obama’s] decision…reflects a hard-headed acknowledgement of the changing nature of the Democratic electoral coalition. Indeed, historians may someday view Obama’s announcement Wednesday as a milestone in the evolution of his party’s political strategy, because it shows the president and his campaign team are increasingly comfortable responding to the actual coalition that elects Democrats today-not the one that many in the party remember from their youth.

In other words, Democratic politicians can no longer differ from most of the rising cohorts of voters aligned with their party on cultural issues in the endless pursuit of non-college educated white men who may be—at least in large numbers—simply lost, important as they were to the New Deal coalition.

It’s the short-term implications of Obama’s action that are perhaps hardest to calculate. Economic issues (defined broadly to include fiscal issues, including the role of government in dealing with the economy and the future of the social safety net) are undoubtedly going to be the most powerful consideration for persuadable voters. And with sentiment on same-sex marriage increasingly polarized between the two parties, most of the people most likely to be upset by Obama’s new position are already certain to vote against him.

But there is arguably a “wedge” opening for Republicans thanks to the unusually high levels of resistance to gay marriage among one key element of Obama’s base—African-Americans—and to a lesser extent among another where he needs a very strong vote—Hispanics. The main dilemma for Team Romney is that pursuing such opportunities could, ironically, help Obama by framing the election as a choice between two different cultural ideologies rather than a straight referendum on the president’s record. More alarmingly for Republicans, Obama’s action could enormously heighten the visibility of the hard-core Cultural Right in the anti-Obama effort just as they were resigning themselves to a seat in the back of the Romney campaign bus. The more you look at it, Obama may have simply taken an unavoidable chance, while posing a strategic challenge to his opponent that may be very hot to handle.


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