Politics Explained: The Importance of Red-State Democrats

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Whether or not it seems too soon, the upcoming 2014 midterm-elections are an important factor in current Washington politics. These races, still nineteen months away, are shaping some of our key policy debates and will continue to do so over the remainder of the legislative session. The maxim that politicians are always looking ahead to their next election still holds true.

One particular group of senators to watch is the “red-state Democrats”, or Democrat senators who were elected in states won by Mitt Romney. At the moment, there 12 such Democrats: Mark Begich (D-AK), Max Baucus (D-MT), Jon Tester (D-MT), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Joe Manchin III (D-WV), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). These senators are more moderate than typical Democrats and will often break with their party on issues of such as gun control and spending. Although many liberal Democrats believe these more conservative Democrats are hindering the liberal agenda, conservative Democrats play a critical role in maintaining control of the Senate.

Five of the 12—Begich, Baucus, Pryor, Landrieu, and Hagan—are up for reelection in 2014. As we’d expect, these senators are tacking to the right on several key issues, as they must demonstrate that they are independent of President Obama and the national Democratic Party in order to appeal to their more moderate or conservative constituents.

One example of this kind of party break is gay marriage. Though it isn’t on the legislative docket, it’s still a hot topic among voters, as Americans are increasingly favoring the legalization of gay marriage. In the weeks before and after the Supreme Court hearings on Proposition 8 and the Defensive of Marriage Act, several senators used to opportunity to come out in support of gay marriage. Moderate Democrats in blue states, such as Bob Casey (D-PA) and Tom Carper (D-DE), along with several red state Democrats, such as McCaskill and Heitkamp, both announced their “evolution” on the issue. However, there are three Democrat senators who do not yet support gay marriage: Pryor, Landrieu, and Manchin. Not coincidentally, both Pryor and Landrieu are up for reelection. In Landrieu’s case, she actually said that although she believes people should be able to marry whomever they want, she respects the opinions of Louisianans who recently voted to restrict define marriage as between a man and a woman, which is an obvious attempt not to alienate voters.

Another area in which the split between 2014 red-state Democrats and the rest of the party becomes apparent is on fiscal issues. In 2012, Democrats like Heitkamp and Donnelly ran on a platform of “fiscal common sense”, advocating reduced spending and a balanced budget. These are popular maxims in red states, and Heitkamp and Donnelly needed to show an independent streak to overcome Democrats’ poor reputation on spending, taxation, and the budget. Senate Democrats passed their first budget in four years last month, but it passed by a mere 50-49 margin. The vote was so close despite Democrats controlling 55 Senate seats, and Baucus, Begich, Hagan, and Pryor all voted nay. Unsurprisingly all four face reelection in 2014 in Romney-states.

Third, red-state Democrats also played an important role in the gun control debate. The compromise bill that Senators Manchin and Pat Toomey (R-PA) designed was the most viable bill on the table, and it actually did not do all that much after it was watered down by the NRA and other conservative lobbyists. But it still fell short (54-46), with Democrats Baucus, Begich, Heitkamp, Pryor, and Reid (for procedural reasons) all voting against it. All four who voted against the bill for non-procedural reasons are red-state Democrats and three are up for reelection. If none of the Democrats had broken rank, the pro-gun control vote would have garnered 59 yes votes—only one short of a filibuster-proof majority.

Given that red-state Democrats’ votes effectively killed one of President Obama’s top legislative priorities for the year, it’s worth asking, from a Democrat point of view, what role red-state Democrats play. Why, some ask, don’t national Democrat leaders and Democrat primary voters demand ideological rigidity, the way their Republican counterparts do?

I’d argue that these Democrats, despite their nonconformity, still toe the party line when it’s most important. For example, on the budget vote, Democrats had precisely enough votes to ensure the budget would pass. In that sense, Democratic leadership allowed red state Democrats to break so that they could claim independence, while Democrats could still offer up a budget. Call it a win-win for the Democrats.

Furthermore, during the health care reform legislation, many red state Democrats such as Baucus, McCaskill and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) did indeed back the party. But Lincoln paid dearly for her vote, and lost her seat in 2010 by a 20 point margin. McCaskill was expected to lose until Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” comments destroyed his campaign. And Baucus is facing heat back home in Montana for his critical role in writing the bill.

It’s definitely frustrating for liberals when conservative Democrats break on gun control, the budget, the environment, and other issues. I would expect some red-state Democrats to break on the upcoming immigration reform bill as well. But considering the geographic advantages Republicans currently have in both the House and the Senate, a “big tent” strategy is the best way for Democrats to maintain control in Washington. At the end of the day, Democrats can come together when the party leadership needs them to, and the flexibility of the Democratic Party is the reason they control the Senate today.


  1. “I’d argue that these Democrats, despite their nonconformity, still toe the party line when it’s most important.” Then you mention the budget as important, and gun control and the environment as less important? We are damaging the futures of our children and therefore ourselves with policies that will land squarely on them. You cannot write political equivalence into the issues confronting us. The Red State Democrats are part of the problem.

    • It’s a valid point. What I meant when I said “most important” is not only in terms of its merits alone, but also legislative success. Take the Manchin-Toomey bill for example. At the end of the day, it really wouldn’t do much to limit illegal gun sales – but that’s not the important part. What is important is that even if it passed the Senate – say it got every Democrat, the four Republicans, and Kelly Ayotte (the other senator on the fence) for a supermajority. There’s a 0.1% chance it’s getting passed in the House.

      When I cited Obamacare, I did so because the Senate was the biggest barrier to passage. At the end of the day, senators who were iffy, like Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, and Blanche Lincoln ended up casting decisive votes for a bill that I believe will help a lot of people – and more to the point of this article, was a key achievement of the Democratic Party and the liberal goal of universal health care in the United States.

      I do think gun control and the environment, along with other liberal issues, are important. As a Democrat myself, I’d love to see meaningful action on them in Congress. But I’m also a political realist, and the price you pay for a Democratic Party that controls the Senate are the red-state Democrats who have to be more moderate than the party. At the end of the day, their votes on these issues won’t be terribly helpful given Republican control of the House, and they’d merely be jeopardizing their own reelections. Of course, there’s something to be said for principle, but there’s also something to be said for staying in power so you can implement your ideas when you have the chance.

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