2012 Senate Race Fields Many Centrist Candidates: Can They Unpolarize Washington?

Candidate Todd Akin of Missouri has drawn fire for his extreme views on social issues. In the Indiana primary, Tea Party insurgent Richard Mourdock felled a longtime incumbent famed for bipartisanship. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, once a moderate Democrat in the House, has moved more and more to the left ever since her ascension to the Senate. Congress has become acutely polarized over the last several years, and many see this year’s crop of Senate candidates as representatives of the far-left and far-right philosophies whose inability to work together has stymied progress in the legislature.

But 2012 has also yielded a crop of moderate candidates who have sprung up in the most unlikely places, states that are usually hostile to their party identification. Polarization in Washington, though, seems to have driven many voters across party lines to vote for the moderate candidate on the other side rather than the very conservative or very liberal one fielded by their own party. A Republican businesswoman in deep-blue Connecticut is neck-and-neck with her Democratic opponent, while a Democratic incumbent has a fair chance of surviving a re-election battle in conservative Montana. Races like these are playing out across the country, and election night could spell either a victory or resounding defeat for these unlikely champions of centrism.

Scott Brown of liberal Massachusetts is a Republican incumbent who won the special election in 2010 to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate. He is challenged by Elizabeth Warren, a progressive Democrat with a national profile. Brown was a key Republican vote in the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and has repeatedly emphasized the need to break with party to pass necessary laws.

Republican Linda McMahon of Connecticut is also locked in an unexpectedly close race in a state usually unfriendly to Republican candidates. A moderate with a background in business, she too champions working across the aisle. Similarly, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota is a centrist Democrat running to fill a seat vacated by another Democrat in this usually deep-red state. She supports many Republican initiatives such as the Keystone XL pipeline and runs on a platform of bringing North Dakota’s economic success (the state has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation) to the entire country.

Jon Tester of Montana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri are two Democratic incumbents elected in the wave of 2006 who are now fighting to survive their reelection battles. McCaskill is running against extreme social conservative Todd Akin of “legitimate rape” infamy. Both have broken with their party on numerous occasions to support initiatives they believed were in the public interest. And in Maine, Independent candidate Angus King has not declared which party he will caucus with if elected to the Senate, saying he prefers to leave the door open to working across both parties.

It is highly unlikely that in the upcoming election either party will gain the sixty Senate seats necessary for a filibuster-proof majority. Should this crop of moderate candidates, however, cross party lines to vote on certain initiatives, the votes would potentially be enough to pass legislation backed by a majority of only one party. In the current Congress we have seen far too many party-line votes in a Senate divided almost down the middle.

It is important, therefore, for voters to take the first steps to cross the aisle by voting for a candidate in the opposite party. This cycle of Senate ballots has turned otherwise predictable elections into dead-heat battles. In fact, most of the aforementioned races are incredibly close. November 6 could bring a revived tide of moderates or another term of polarization. It will be up to Americans to evaluate whether voting with their party is voting in the best interests of the nation.

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