What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Midterm races showcase widening political divide

Tuesday’s election results in Nebraska and West Virginia highlight a growing polarization between the political parties. Political editor Domenico Montanaro joins Judy Woodruff to provide insight and examine a Brookings Institution study showing the roots of political division in the United States.

Read the Full Transcript


    Just when you thought Congress couldn't get any more polarized, think again.

    Election results last night in Nebraska and West Virginia highlight a growing divide. In Nebraska, Ben Sasse, who is a Tea Party-backed candidate, won the Republican Senate primary and is now likely to be their next senator. He would replace the more moderate Republican Mike Johanns, who is retiring.

    Meanwhile, in West Virginia, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito won the Republican Senate primary. She faces off against Democrat Natalie Tennant, who is West Virginia's secretary of state. Capito is favored in that contest and would replace retiring Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller.

    And here to walk us through all this is our political editor, Domenico Montanaro.

    So, Domenico, we just mentioned there what happened last night. But tell us about the rest of this misterm cycle, what we're looking at.

  • DOMENICO MONTANARO, Political Editor:

    Well, you mentioned Nebraska and West Virginia, two really good examples of what's been happening.

    But we also have in a lot of other states Senate races where we know that there are going to be more conservative candidates for the most part in places like South Dakota, Montana, Iowa, and Georgia, possible, but in South Dakota and Montana, those are two states where we have seen Democratic retirements, Iowa as well, where there's a Democratic retirement.

    Now that state is up for grabs. In Georgia, you had Saxby Chambliss, who was a member of that original gang of six trying to come up with some kind of debt reduction plan. And he floated the idea of possibly raising taxes, going along with Bowles-Simpson, and that really drew the ire of conservatives. Lo and behold, he up and retired.

    And it doesn't matter who is going to replace him. A Democrat could win that race, still remember. But if a Republican wins, very hard to see one of them coming out in favor of raising taxes.


    And you were mentioning the same thing you're seeing in the House.


    Oh, unquestionably.

    And the thing is, the House is one place where all of us would say, how could the House get any more divided? You see people using pretty uncivil terms in the House, more so than even the Senate, which is called the upper chamber, and the House sometimes derided as the lower chamber because of a lot of this.

    And really what you're seeing is because of a lot of moderates who are retiring in a handful of states, Democrats as well, you're going to see more of that movement to their own corners.


    You know, I think a lot of people think — look at this polarization and think, well, it's a relatively new phenomenon.




    But, in fact, you and I were talking earlier — it goes back generations.



    So the Brookings Institution did a really good job on this graphic that they created out of the National Journal vote ratings that they do every year. And they went all the way back to the Civil War. So we're going to start in 1941-'42, right in the middle of World War II. And the reason for that, you see a lot of the mixing here.

    Now, these dots that you see on the screen, they represent individual members of Congress and how they vote. Over on the blue side is more liberal, over on the right more conservative, and the higher up you go is the more orthodox they voted, whether conservative or liberal, and voted together as a party.

    So, you see a lot of people mixing and a lot going further down the line. But then, when you move 20 years later, to 1963-'64, when the civil rights legislation passed, you start to see some divide. And — but you do still see some mixing, which is people talk about Lyndon Johnson being able to get civil rights through because he was a Southern Democrat and was able to get some of those Southern Democrats over.

    Move ahead to the 1980s, and you see people talking about, oh, Social Security reform, they're able to do so much on that. And that's on large measure because there were still some people in the middle. Now, 1995-1996, right after when the Republican revolution happened, the Gingrich Contract With America, and now you start to really see this divide start to set in.

    But you see a lot more Democrats there still moving sort of toward the middle, some Republicans as well meeting in the middle. And now when we look ahead to where we are today to 2012-2013, and look how far apart the two parties are. And it's going to get even worse. That's the one thing we know this time around.


    It couldn't be any clearer from looking at that.

    Domenico, why — and I know there are a lot of reasons at work and you just mentioned some of them. But why is this happening?


    Well, a lot of people talk about the lack of socialization, for example, and there's a shorter week, it seems, because people go home, but there's a reason for that. Right?

    Primaries in which Republicans and Democrats only can vote in their own primaries, really, compromise is not rewarded. It's orthodoxy. If you go away from that line, a lot of times, you're going to draw a Tea Party opponent. We saw it — for a Republican, you draw a Tea Party opponent. For a Democrat, you might see a more liberal.

    We saw that happen with Renee Ellmers, for example, in North Carolina because of her support potentially for immigration reform and with some others as well. So, you're seeing this a lot. And it's not just with Democrats — with Republicans. You're seeing that a little bit with Democrats as well; 54 Blue Dog Democrats who are members — these are this fiscal conservative, centrist Democratic group — in 2010. Now just 19 of them remain.

    Mostly, that's a product of the 2010 midterm, because they were playing on Republican turf, and they were taken out by conservatives.


    And, as you mentioned, we're going to see some more of this next week. We have got the Georgia primary, which you touched on a minute ago.


    Right. We talked about Georgia.

    Georgia, Oregon, other states, Kentucky, for example, where Mitch McConnell is trying to fight off a Tea Party opponent and likely will, but you're seeing a lot of these storylines that we have been talking about for the fall, and also with polarization and how far apart the two sides are, and they really never have been as far apart as they are today in the modern era.


    I'm going to go home and study these dots.





    Domenico Montanaro, thank you.


    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest