If there is an overriding theme to the election that will be decided today, it can be expressed in one simple word: extremism. On the Republican side, candidates for national office have taken advantage of the growing discontent with the Obama administration’s ambitious agenda and, as importantly, its lack of results. Characterizing the administration as extreme has been the go-to strategy for the GOP, and Democratic candidates have been easily impugned by association. While some Democrats have tried to move toward the center, they’ve incurred the wrath of their party for daring to do so. Obama and Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine have doggedly pursued a “stay the course” strategy which, if the polls are to be believed, is a message that has fallen entirely flat with the electorate. The most effective Democratic strategy in this election cycle has been to invoke the specter of right-wing extremism, which can be effective (although not always) when the GOP opponent is a so-called “Tea Party” candidate.
The average American is made very uncomfortable by extremes on either side of the political spectrum and the people who run campaigns understand that. The trick in 2010 has been to define what constitutes extremism. Is the federal government running up trillions of dollars in debt and taking over the health care system extreme? Or are citizens who protest such actions and support candidates dedicated to rolling back those actions the real extremists? Like beauty, extremism is in the eye of the beholder.
If the polls are to be believed, this election will see the most dramatic shift in power in American history. Republicans seem to be assured of winning a majority in the House, and have an even-money chance of controlling the Senate as well. Yet, the root-cause of this mid-course correction isn’t so much about rebellion on the Right as it is about apathy on the Left, or at least among left-leaning independents. According to Gallup, the average Republican candidate has a fifteen percentage point lead against his or her Democratic opponent. This suggests that apathy and doubt have infected a substantial portion of the very electorate that swept Barack Obama into power. The spread is unprecedented. As Gallup observed: “Republicans usually turn out at higher rates than Democrats, so the margin’s expansion is not unusual, but its size this year is.”
On such an occasion, it’s worth examining the facts on the ground in the key races which have captured the attention of the nation and what their likely outcomes will be:
Nevada Senate – If Sharon Angle holds on to her slim lead over incumbent, Majority Leader Harry Reid, she will have written the playbook for how a “Tea Party candidate” can defeat an entrenched D.C. insider. Angle’s campaign has skillfully managed to parry Reid’s attempts to paint her as a dangerous, far-right nut-case, but this one will go down to the wire. It’s still too close to call, but most polls put Angle in the lead.
Delaware Senate – This is the antithesis of the Nevada Senate race, albeit in a far different environment. Democrat Chris Coons is set to trounce Republican Christine O’Donnell, who entered the raced a deeply flawed candidate. Granted, youthful pronouncements about witchcraft and masturbation shouldn’t matter in an ideal world, but they do in the real world. O’Donnell was a long-shot at best in Delaware and, unfortunately for the GOP, it doesn’t look like the underdog will pull a triumphant upset in this election.
Florida Senate – Did Bill Clinton try to talk his party’s candidate, Kendrick Meek, into withdrawing from the race? It hardly matters at this point. The fact that the story broke made it impossible for Meek to withdraw, if he was ever tempted to do so. That puts Republican Marco Rubio in the driver’s seat; he is expected to handily defeat Meek and ex-Republican Charlie Crist. Governor Crist based his campaign on painting Rubio as an extremist, but so long as Meek has remained in the race, that message has not resonated among nearly enough voters.
Alaska Senate – This is truly a horse race between Tea Party favorite and Republican nominee Joe Miller and write-in candidate Lisa Murkowski. It’s a neck and neck battle, with Democrat Scott McAdams watching from the sidelines in this deeply conservative state. Murkowski just might pull it off, a remarkable achievement for a write-in candidate. Using her family’s political roots and painting Miller as yet another “Tea Party extremist” might be just enough to get her elected.
Illinois Senate – Republican candidate Mark Kirk holds a slim lead over his Democratic opponent, Alexi Giannoulias. The wild-card here might well be Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones, who is polling at about five per cent of the vote. Most of those votes would likely have gone for Giannoulias, but it’s awfully hard to get excited about a candidate who loaned millions to the mob and whose family bank needed a federal bail-out. Kirk likely wins this one, but his position will be far from secure.
California Senate. – Incumbent Barbara Boxer has the edge on Republican hopeful Carly Fiorina. Republicans face an uphill battle in California these days and Fiorina found it difficult to discredit one of the most leftist candidates in an overwhelmingly leftist of state. Love her or hate her, we will still be calling Barbara Boxer “Senator” when the election is over.
Pennsylvania Senate – The race between Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey will go down to the wire. Sestak defeated incumbent Republican-turn-Democrat Arlen Specter in a primary full of accusations of White House interference. Here again we see the influence of the extremist message. Specter tried to run toward the middle, albeit too late in the game, and found himself on the losing end of a primary as a result.
With the popularity of the “extremist” accusation this election season, it’s clear that the mood of the electorate has turned to centrist governing. Republican gains will be historic undoubtedly, but far from a mandate for a new conservative era, the 2010 election may be most aptly characterized as a popular check on zealous left-wing overreaching. The more interesting question is what Barack Obama will do. Bill Clinton took the centrist message to heart in 1994. Will Obama draw the same kind of conclusions once the election of 2010 is over? The difference between an idealistic leader and a dangerous ideologue is a narrow distinction. This election will tell us all we need to know about the true nature of President Obama.