TOPICS > Politics

Despite Some Upsets by Dems, Party Balance in Congress Relatively Unchanged

November 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
The election outcome mostly maintains political status quo in Washington, but certain races were significant. Jeffrey Brown talks to Linda Killian of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and The Rothenberg Political Report's Stu Rothenberg for what this tells us about what voters want from their elected leaders.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Beyond the presidential contest, voters Tuesday chose members of Congress and senators in a pitched battle for control.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.


JEFFREY BROWN: Senate Democrats had cause to celebrate last night and again today, when the last two races were called.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester kept his seat after a tough reelection fight. And Heidi Heitkamp emerged the victor in a close race in North Dakota.

As a result, Democrats will hold 53 seats in the new Senate that convenes in January, a gain of two. Republicans will have 45. Two seats will be filled by independents, and at least one of them will caucus with Democrats.

Many of the Democrats’ big wins were by women. Elizabeth Warren unseated incumbent Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts.

ELIZABETH WARREN, D-Mass., Senator-elect: You took on the powerful Wall Street banks and special interests, and you let them know you want a senator who will be out there fighting for the middle class all of the time.


JEFFREY BROWN: In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill had been on the endangered list, before her Republican opponent made damaging comments about rape and abortion.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: With a stubborn determination, tenacity and a refusal to give up, we showed the country what Missouri is made of.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in Wisconsin, newly elected Democrat Tammy Baldwin became the first openly lesbian politician to be elected to the Senate.

TAMMY BALDWIN, D-Wis. Senator-elect: But I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference.


TAMMY BALDWIN: A difference, a difference in the lives of families struggling to find work and pay the bills.

JEFFREY BROWN: On the Republican side, Tea Party forces did manage a victory in Texas with Ted Cruz.

TED CRUZ, R-Texas, Senator-elect:  Tonight is a tremendous testament to Republican women, to Tea Party leaders, to business leaders, to community activists. To all of you, this is your victory.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the House, voters ousted 10 GOP members elected in 2010, including Illinois Tea Party freshman Joe Walsh. But Republicans maintained their overall majority by picking up several Democratic seats.

With a handful of races still uncalled, Republicans appeared headed toward 235 seats, a loss of five from the current House. Democrats will have 200 seats.

Meanwhile, Maryland and Maine became the first states ever to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. And Minnesota rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage. Results were pending in Washington state on a ballot measure approving the practice.

And Washington and Colorado approved the use of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper had opposed the measure.

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER, D-Colo.: Again, the voters were pretty clear. So, in terms of the state, it’s decriminalized. I mean, we will not be prosecuting people on a state law basis.

JEFFREY BROWN: The measures are in conflict with federal law, where possession of the drug remains illegal.

So what were voters saying when casting their ballots?

We try to parse the various results now with Linda Killian, senior scholar at the WoodrowWilsonInternationalCenter and author of the book “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents,”

And Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call, my sidekick and our go-to analyst last night during our election special, a very long special.

Welcome back, Stuart.

STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: And hello to Linda.

Stu, let me start with you.

The — on the one hand, you sort of end up with the status quo in Congress, right? On the other hand, given where things started, the Democrats did quite well, especially in those tight Senate races. So, a day later, what can we say?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Absolutely. You’re right. Things stayed the same, but they didn’t.

The taste in our mouths at the end of this election was better for the Democrats than for the Republicans. In the Senate, the Democrats added two Senate seats, really a remarkable outcome.

A year ago, if you asked me what was going to happen, I would tell you that the Republicans probably would pick up between three and six Senate seats.

And, instead, instead, the Democrats gained two. Just think of it. This Senate class was 23 Democrats and only 10 Republicans. But only eight Republicans are coming out of this election.

So, it was a dramatic event where the Democrats won Republican seats in Maine, Massachusetts, and Indiana, but even more importantly, held seats in North Dakota, Ohio, Montana, Virginia, Wisconsin.

So, it’s a disappointment for Republicans. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Linda Killian, what can you read from the congressional results about where voters were at?

LINDA KILLIAN, Author, “The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents”: Well, I think one thing I would say about the Senate votes, the Senate elections, and the Republicans who lost, it was more that the Republicans lost those races than the — you know, in Indiana and Missouri.

I mean, I have a theory. Voters do not like it when people say silly, stupid things, and when they embarrass them. And this is what you saw in this Senate election.

And the Republicans — and, also, the moderate voters, you know, the more moderate candidates were elected.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, moderate — you see a vote — moderate voters sort of making the difference in this?

LINDA KILLIAN: I do, I do, yes.


LINDA KILLIAN: And Barack Obama carried moderate voters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let’s look — I want to put up a couple of the exit polls. We talked a lot about these last night. But I picked two from last night to see what we can say about where Americans are at.

The first one is — asked the question, do you think things in this country today are going in the right direction? Forty-six percent said yes. Serious — or seriously off on the wrong track, that’s 52 percent.

Our second one — question was, which is closer to your view, government should do more, 43 percent, or government is doing too much, 52 percent.

Stu, what do you see in those polls?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Interesting responses.

Well, first of all, on the right direction/wrong track question, 46 right direction, 52 seriously off on the wrong track, that’s actually — it may strike some people as bad numbers, as showing great pessimism, but in fact those numbers are much better.

The right direction number throughout much of this year was in the upper 20s or around 30 percent. So it has improved.

I think there’s some increased hopefulness, optimism. Some of this may be Democrats who want to vote for the president and want to tell themselves that things are getting better. But there’s — the Obama campaign made the argument that things are starting to get better.

The government should do more to solve problems vs. government is doing too many things better left to business is strange, Jeffrey.

JEFFREY BROWN: In what way?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Because the party that says that government should be doing more to solve problems is the Democrats, and the party that says government’s doing too many things that should be left to business and individuals is the Republicans.

And more people gave the Republican response.


STUART ROTHENBERG: But you had — you had a quarter of those people who said government is doing too much, a quarter of those people ended up voting for Barack Obama.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, a disconnect.

LINDA KILLIAN: There is a disconnect. And I think what it reflects is just how frustrated the voters were, how unhappy they were with this election.

I think, in a lot of cases, in the presidential race and in also some other down-ballot issues and cases, they were voting against, rather than for, especially those voters in the middle. They were kind of holding their nose.

This is what I heard in talking with them leading right up to the election.

And I think the thing about government, they are mistrustful the government. They’re obviously mistrustful of Congress, and they think that we need to work together. Obviously, we have heard this over and over. But it’s true. And I think that reflects their dissatisfaction with government. They want to see some results.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you buy that, this idea that we need to work together more?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Yes, I think people are conflicted. They want to stick with principle, but they want results, and they understand that sticking too much with principle precludes the results.

One question that I thought was really interesting — you probably don’t have a graphic for this — but who is to blame for the — Who is to blame for the current economic problems? Barack Obama 38 percent, George W. Bush 53 percent.

After four years of the Obama presidency, still a majority of the Americans are blaming Bush. It’s easy to see how those people could — even if they think the economy is not in good shape, that they could vote for Barack Obama.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the ballot initiatives we brought up? For the first time ever, states approved same-sex marriage by popular vote.

Does it signify, do you think, some kind of real change? Or what do you think read from…

LINDA KILLIAN: Oh, absolutely, oh, yes. The country has moved on this issue.

The country — if you look at where the country was a decade ago versus where they are today on gay rights, they have totally moved.

And, again, this is reflected. Independent voters, voters in the center, they really don’t — aren’t with the Republican Party on their social stance, young voters, you know, a lot of these voters.

And that is kind of a loser for Republicans in terms of where we’re going to be. And I think these two ballot initiatives are very indicative of that.

STUART ROTHENBERG: I agree completely. And it’s a problem for Republicans, because one of the their core constituencies is religious voters, highly religious voters and evangelicals. And they’re not going to be easily persuaded that they ought to change their position on these issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when you put all this together, what I find curious is sort of two things we’re talking.


One, we are very divided. You see that. Two, you’re talking about a moderation. You’re talking about some folks calling — more folks calling for people to pull together.

LINDA KILLIAN: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are both happening at the same time?

LINDA KILLIAN: Absolutely.

Well, what I would say is, I did also want to say that turnout was down this time. And I think — I wanted to make a note about independents. Mitt Romney carried independents, but not in all of the swing states. And turnout was down — turnout among independents was — only 24 percent of the electors were independents, when 40 percent of all registered voters are independents.

I think that reflects the frustration and the unhappiness with this election. And I think they — they — there are people in the middle, but I think some of them didn’t vote.

And I think — you know, I think we are polarized, but there are plenty of people that want real solutions.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that?

STUART ROTHENBERG: I would say that I think people like the idea of compromise, of working together, but I think often the choices that they’re presented with are not in the middle.

The Republicans present the extreme conservative choice.

JEFFREY BROWN: The political choices.

STUART ROTHENBERG: And I will give you an example of an electoral choice.

In Ohio, the Democratic senator is Sherrod Brown, a very liberal Democrat, who is probably — who is more liberal than the state of Ohio.

And who did the Republicans pick? Josh Mandel was their nominee, who articulated a down-the-line conservative view. And so they had these two extreme choices. And they had to pick one or the other.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re saying even if they wanted to be somewhere in the middle.

LINDA KILLIAN: That’s right. And that’s the primary system.

And that’s why the candidates that were chosen in Indiana, the Republican candidates, Missouri, too conservative. It was a re-run of Delaware in 2008 and Mike Castle.

And the Republicans have to get that these are not candidates that fly statewide.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Linda Killian, Stu Rothenberg, thanks so much.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You can see the joy and the disappointment on the faces of House and Senate winners and losers in a slide show on our website.

Also, if you missed the speeches from the president and Mitt Romney in the wee hours this morning, you can watch them there.