The elections held in a president’s sixth year in office do not tend to be a happy thing for that president’s party. Over the past century, the party that holds the White House has lost an average of 29 seats in the House in sixth-year midterms.
The only exception was 1998, when Bill Clinton’s Democrats picked up five House seats — Democrats call that the miracle of Newt Gingrich. Absent the prospect of another blue moon like that rising in the next six weeks, this year’s elections look like they’re going to be tough for Democrats.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to that almost inevitable Democratic drubbing. As the going has gotten tough, the tough have been getting a little weird.
This year, in two marquee races already, and eventually perhaps in three or even four, Democrats and independents have decided to stop fighting each other and instead start pulling on the same side of the tug-of-war in an effort to unseat incumbent Republicans.
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In Alaska, Republican Gov. Sean Parnell (né Sarah Palin’s lieutenant governor) was sailing toward re-election by virtue of relatively popular Democratic and independent candidates doing him the favor of splitting the vote against him. But this month, his opponents joined forces as a fusion ticket — with the independent candidate standing for the top job and the Democrat dropping down to run for lieutenant governor.
Alaska polling is both infrequent and notoriously chaotic, but if you had the time-traveling chance to be Sean Parnell now or Sean Parnell before that unity ticket formed, you’d choose Parnell the younger. Running alone, Democrats and independents mostly just made things hard for each other and easy for Parnell. Together, they’ve got the Republicans realizing they might soon vacate 716 Calhoun Ave. for the first time in 12 years.
In the great red state of Kansas, Democrats also made a surprise strategic choice to try to oust an otherwise comfortable GOP incumbent, clearing the field in the Senate race to give a strong independent challenger a clean shot at longtime Republican Sen. Pat Roberts.
When Democrat Chad Taylor dropped out of that race, the Roberts campaign blew its lid, and Republicans in the Kansas government have been trying to force Taylor onto the ballot even though he doesn’t want to run. It’s been a very entertaining electoral hootenanny in Kansas ever since.
The bottom line is that in a state that has sent only Republicans to the Senate since the 1930s, there’s a real race. The Democratic-independent ballot scramble has driven the national GOP into a panicked effort to save that seat, in a place where they never thought they would have to spend a dime.
And this ticket juggling excitement may not be over. Volatile three-way dynamics are also driving two other top-of-the-ticket races. In Maine, it’s the re-election race for the always-quotable tea party governor, Paul LePage (President Barack Obama “hates white people,” “So, the worst case is some women may have little beards,” “He’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline,” etc. You get the point). LePage won office in 2010 because the independent and the Democrat running against him split the anti-LePage forces, allowing LePage to prevail despite winning only 38 percent of the vote.
This time, the same independent, Eliot Cutler, is running alongside a much stronger Democrat, U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud. If they both stay on the ballot, get ready for four more years of unfortunate rape jokes and Gestapo references from Augusta. If the Michaud and Cutler camps can make some kind of strategic compromise, though, the tea-party wing of the Maine GOP will likely lose, and the Portland Press Herald will earn a reprieve from having a governor talk about blowing up the newspaper’s headquarters. (Seriously.)
The other three-way ball of fun may be the South Dakota Senate race. On its own, Republican Mike Rounds vs. Democrat Rick Weiland is an interesting enough race, though it doesn’t offer much suspense. But throw in a strong, partisanship-scrambling campaign from Republican-turned-independent former senator Larry Pressler — well, then you’ve really got something. When a recent poll of that three-way race showed both Weiland and Pressler polling at 25 to 28 percent against Rounds, did the mathletes on both of those campaign teams think to give each other a call?
In both Maine and South Dakota, the favored Republicans are set to win without breaking much of a sweat, as long as independents and Democrats keep nursing hopes that their candidate will break out of the pack. But if they can swallow their pride and find a strategic way forward, a la Kansas and Alaska, all bets are off.
U.S. voters have been fleeing the two parties and declaring themselves independent for years now. This year’s elections may be the first in which that phenomenon climbs to the top of the ticket in multiple states and discombobulates the usual two-party standoff. In a year where the Democratic Party is almost statistically certain to tank, ballot chaos in a handful of states is generating unexpectedly competitive general election races, fueled by a new kind of party-disentangled but anti-Republican special sauce.
So far, voters seem to like it. But however it works out in November, it’s already turning out to be a hoot to watch.
Rachel Maddow hosts MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show” and writes a monthly column for The Washington Post.
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