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The Jeffords Solution To A 50-50 Tie In The Senate

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

With all the prognosticating currently happening over the Democrats' chances of taking back the Senate in November, a real and likely option looms: winding up in a 50-50 tie. Not much has been said about this, but one would like to think that Democratic strategists are prepared for it and are actively considering using back-door politics to solve it. Call it "The Jeffords Solution" -- get one or more moderate Senate Republicans to jump the aisle, to swing the balance of power to the Democrats.

It must be admitted that this is a long shot no matter what angle you view it from. But a 50-50 Senate is a very real possibility, so the Democrats shouldn't miss any opportunity that presents itself to tilt the Senate their way. And while "poaching" GOP senators over to the Democratic side of the aisle may be unorthodox, it is not unprecedented.

There are only 33 Senate races this year, and only a handful are competitive. Unfortunately, the Democrats have to win almost all these close races in order to pick up six seats and wrest the Senate from GOP control. Many people put these individual races in different columns, but (for the moment) I'm going with the New York Times' numbers (mainly because they have such a nice interactive map to view the info). By their current count (note: these numbers change frequently), the Democrats have only 39 completely safe seats, with seven additional "leaning Democratic" seats (Maryland, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana, Washington). Four states are listed as complete tossups (Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri) where neither party has a clear advantage. But Republicans have a whopping 47 safe seats, with only 3 even in play (Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona).

This means if the Democrats get every seat that's "leaning" their way and every seat listed as a tossup, the Senate is a tie at 50-50. They would still have to pick up one of the "leaning GOP" seats in order to gain the majority (Virginia would probably be their best chance, ever since Allen stepped in the Macaca). That's a pretty tall order.

So assume Democrats pick up five seats, leaving the Senate in a 50-50 tie (with Vice President Cheney casting the tiebreaking vote). Who would the Republican poaching targets be?

There are really only four possibilities to speak of, and three of them have awfully long odds. The fourth is much more of a possibility, especially since he just won a tight primary race (but then again, he may actually lose in November). Let's look at each of these in detail, from the least likely to the most likely.

[The numbers after their names are their respective conservative and liberal ratings. All numbers are out of 100, which would be a perfect voting record as far as the organization is concerned. The first is a double number from the American Conservative Union's (ACU) ranking. The first number in this pair is their rating of last year's voting record, and the second is their "lifetime" rating. Next is the Americans for Democratic Action's (ADA) ranking on the liberal scale, for last year's voting record. So the lower the ACU numbers are, and the higher the ADA's number, the more likely they would be to jump the aisle.]

(1) Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania (ACU - 63/45; ADA - 45)

OK, this is a long, long shot. Many Democrats are deeply distrustful of Specter, and some harbor old grudges against him. But recently he has been one of the biggest critics of the Bush administration's legal tactics, from his powerful seat as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He has publicly bucked the White House's requests for sweeping executive powers, and demanded some congressional oversight. The problem is, he tends to hold fiery press conferences and Senate committee hearings, which are then followed by ultimately backing down and succumbing to administration requests.

If he's frustrated by these power plays (most coming from Dick Cheney's office), maybe he could be persuaded to declare himself an Independent and caucus with the Democrats. A guarantee of a ranking position on Judiciary would help, although offering him the continuing chairmanship would be a bitter pill for Patrick Leahy to swallow (since he's in line to get it if the Democrats take power). Another convincing argument to use is the fact that Specter's fellow Pennsylvania Republican senator (Rick Santorum) is likely to be voted out this November by a fairly large margin. If Specter sees his state going Democratic in a big way, he might want to board that train before his next reelection campaign in 2010.

(2 and 3) Susan Collins (ACU - 32/55; ADA - 65) and Olympia Snowe (ACU - 32/50; ADA - 65), both from Maine

Although their lifetime ACU scores are high, last year's scores indicate a move toward rejecting party-line votes they don't agree with. Maine, like much of New England (see: Lieberman, Chafee), breeds pragmatic politics that bear little resemblance to those of the rest of the country.

Thirty or forty years ago there was a nationwide balance of conservative Democrats from the South and socially liberal Republicans from the Northeast (they've always been fiscally conservative, but much more libertarian on social issues). In the "Republicans = conservatives" and "Democrats = liberals" world we live in today, less and less room exists for such nuanced politicians. The South has increasingly become solid Republican territory, due to the total success of the GOP's "Southern Strategy." The Northeast is slowly following suit by forcing moderate Republicans to either tack right on social issues, or get voted out by a Democrat (what's going on in Rhode Island is a perfect example of this).

Much like Vermont, Maine has a wide Independent streak. They've had two governors in the last 40 years who were registered Independents -- James Longley in the 70s, and the well-respected Angus King, who served two terms (1995-2003). Not many other states can make that kind of claim. They are also currently one of only three states with two women senators representing them in Washington, DC (California and Washington are the others). This is even a Maine tradition, harking back to when they first elected the formidable Senator Margaret Chase Smith in 1948.

Since both Snowe and Collins have good name recognition and a loyal following of voters in the state, they might be convinced to declare themselves Independent. From what I hear from Maine voters, Snowe votes against her party more than Collins, but not by a whole lot (this is reflected in their ACU numbers). Snowe is up for reelection this year, so it would admittedly be hard for her to switch parties just after winning this election. It might be easier for Collins, who won't run again until 2008. Either way, a lot of Maine voters would be upset with the switch initially, but presumably might forgive and forget by the next election cycle.

(4) Lincoln Chafee, Rhode Island (ACU - 12/37; ADA - 75)

Those are pretty convincing numbers. He only got a score of 12 last year for conservative votes, and a whopping 75 for liberal votes. When you get to know him, you understand why. He is socially moderate, strongly environmentalist, adamantly pro-choice, strongly for gay rights (he supports same sex marriage), pro-affirmative action, pro-gun control, anti-flag burning amendment; he also opposes Bush's tax policies and most of the rest of the Bush agenda, he was the only Republican senator to vote against the Iraq war from the beginning and to vote this year to set a timetable for withdrawal; and to top it off he didn't even vote for President Bush in the 2004 election (he wrote in "George Herbert Walker Bush" as a protest vote).

You may be wondering why he's even a Republican in the first place. The answer is he was appointed to the seat his father (John Chafee) held, and took the seat for the Republicans in his father's honor.

He has even publicly flirted with the idea of switching parties before, right after the 2004 election. He decided not to, because "he will be able to serve the state better as a member of the political party that controls Congress and the White House." Interesting. This could mean that if the Democrats control the House -- and if he was the key to Democrats controlling the Senate -- he might well be persuadable.

Unfortunately, Chafee may have already promised the Republicans he won't switch. The GOP Senate campaign committee invested a lot of money in his primary race to defeat a far less electable challenger. If he switched parties right after November's election, it would doubtlessly enrage Republicans. They would (quite rightly) feel cheated out of all that invested campaign cash. This would be a strong motivation for him not to jump ship.

But perhaps a juicy committee appointment would change his mind, who knows? He's certainly the best chance Democrats have of poaching one of the opposition. But the Democrats might not even get the chance with Chafee, as he's in one of those "tossup" states and has a strong Democratic challenger who may very well win in November.

Conclusion

There must be a final word of caution here. When playing sneaky politics, it's always a good idea to watch your back. Joe Lieberman has already proven twice that he puts his own personal ambition ahead of the interests of the party. First in 2000, by running simultaneously for senator and Vice President, he could have handed control of the Senate to the GOP. If Gore had won, the Republican Connecticut governor would have gotten to nominate a Republican to Lieberman's Senate seat (in a 50-50 Senate). If Lieberman had allowed another Democrat to run, this dilemma wouldn't have existed. And we all know about the second time Joe proved this by essentially refusing to concede after losing this year's Democratic primary.

To the surprise of some, Lieberman's ratings are pretty solidly liberal (ACU - 8/17; ADA - 80), so hopefully he'd be hard for the Republicans to convince. But if he wins as an Independent, the Democratic leadership should take care not to punish him too severely for leaving the party, or he might start seriously thinking about switching. This is heresy to some, especially those in the left-wing blogosphere calling for drawing-and-quartering Lieberman by removing his committee assignments and seniority. But with the margin of power in the Senate so razor-thin (no matter which party takes control next year), we can't afford to drive Lieberman into Republican arms in the same way that the GOP drove Jeffords towards the Democrats.

Still, the environment in general for Democrats poaching Republicans seems a whole lot better than for Republicans poaching Lieberman. No one can say definitively at this point what the probabilities are, of course, and it's anybody's guess whether Democrats could talk any of the four possible Republican senators into making such a major political switch. Convincing any of them would indeed be an uphill battle, but it is one worth winning (or at least worth the attempt). At the very least, Democrats should be planning for the possibility.

Because if you can convince any of the Northeastern Republican senators that their own best future prospects lie within the Democratic Party, it would make it possible to pull off the same trick as Jim Jeffords' switch: gaining control of the Senate. And that would definitely be worth the effort.

[This is the second of two semi-related articles. For regular Wednesday readers who may have missed Monday's special column, click here to read it.]

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