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A Beginner's Tour of the US Elections: Early Voting, The Toss-Up Races, and the Loss of Moderation

US Politics correspondent Lee Haddigan writes:

As EA has looked at some of the races, and issues, that will determine who will control the US Congress come 3 November, large numbers of voters have already gone to the polls and cast their ballot. Procedures vary from state to state, but estimates suggest that fully 30% of the votes in these mid-terms will be made before the traditional focus of Election Day.

Some states require a reason for issuing a voter with an absentee ballot, others grant upon request. Usually, absentee voters either submit their form by mail or go in person to special polling places . Voters seem to appreciate the convenience; Oregon now runs all its state-wide contests with a 100% mail-in system after the measure was approved by an initiative in 1998. And Washington State possesses in all but one county an all-mail process. In Illinois, where it can get a trifle chilly in November, there is the option to vote from the comfort of your own home, as activists illustrate, naked.

The consequence of this early voting, and the modern trend of instant news and punditry, is that, as Florida Democrats recently e-mailed in a notice to supporters: "Today is Election Day. No, that's not a typo, because every day between now and November 2 is Election Day." That has brought the establishment of ever more sophisticated grassroots "Get Out The Vote" operations by the two major parties and their allies.

Democrats especially view the growth of early voting as a positive factor. Both Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and Michelle Obama --- the President will vote on an absentee ballot) ---recently cast their votes, promoting the benefits and ease of the system to Democrat supporters. Alluding to Democrats' success in 2008 of the tactic, the First Lady commented in Illinois last week, "I want to encourage people to do early voting because that's really the part that the polls don't check. So folks have to be fired up, just like they were two years ago, because the same things are at stake."

There is no valuable prediction of how this is re-shaping the outcome, however; some news sites are reporting early voting giving the Democrats the edge, and others that Republicans are gaining the most. But early voting is worth noting because it is contributing to a major shift that is occurring in American politics: the increasing inability of politicians to present themselves, or act in Washington as, moderate politicians.

In progressivism and Tea Party conservatism, we have seen two political viewpoints with few areas for compromise. Cable news, radio talk shows, instant news analysis, politically opinionated blogs, well-funded think tanks, Google, YouTube, 501(c) advocacy groups, and now early voting are all creating a climate where a willingness to negotiate with political opponents is becoming seen as a weakness. If every day is Election Day, and every action taken by a politician is immediately scrutinized for its adherence to the party line, the opportunity for measured compromise, especially in the US Senate, becomes almost impossible.

This is a problem for a political system that is built on a theory of checks and balances and the need for negotiation for legislation to get passed. Consider the words of Mike Pence of Indiana, a senior Republican figure in the House of Representatives, who last week stated on a conservative radio show: "Look, there will be no compromise on stopping runaway spending, deficits and debt. There will be no compromise on repealing Obamacare. There will be no compromise on stopping Democrats from growing government and raising taxes. And if I haven’t been clear enough yet, let me say again: No compromise.”  

Pence is not an isolated figure on the far right of the Republican Party. There have been rumours lately that he may stand for election --- with an outside chance of winning --- as House Speaker if the GOP takes the lower chamber in the midterms , and he is a darling of the Tea Party movement who may make a long-shot run for the Presidential nomination in 2012. Pence is not just grandstanding to voter concerns in this election cycle; he is signaling a long-term commitment to building an ultra-conservative base within the Republican caucus.

Pence’s words were echoed last week by Ken Buck, the Tea Party-backed Republican candidate for Senator in Colorado. In an interview with The Washington Post, Buck promised his supporters, "I think it's wrong to compromise your values to fit in with the social climate in Washington, D.C. When it comes to spending, I'm not compromising. I don't care who, what, when or where, I'm not compromising."

There are currently eight toss-up contests in play in the Senate in these midterm elections. The Republicans need to win 7 of those to gain a majority, and in each race there is a clear contest between a liberal and conservative candidate. Winning 7 of those too-close-to-call elections, or even 2 or 3 under current Senate rules, would give the Tea Party movement a clear mandate to take their “no compromise” message to Washington and, well, not compromise. Republicans already in Congress are keen to stress that the GOP’s new-found ideological purity and a majority will not lead to a government shutdown, or impeachment proceedings against the President, but this is new and fascinating territory we are entering.

The liberal magazine American Prospect published an article last week that declared: “When the dust settles on the night of Nov. 2, we're likely to be left with a uniquely polarized Congress.” The report cited as evidence the analysis of researchers who compile the DW-NOMINATE system, which measures the extent of ideological differences in Congress.

And now the eight toss-up elections, with the latest polling figures, which will decide which party controls the next Senate --- currently there are 57 Democrats, 2 Democrat-allied Independents, and 41 Republicans. We profiled Nevada and Kentucky last week; here are the six others:

California:  Barbara Boxer (D) 45.2%     Carly Fiorina (R) 43.4%

Boxer is a three-term incumbent Senator facing a backlash from voters alarmed at how the economic meltdown has hit the state especially hard. President Obama won the state 61-37 in 2008, and Boxer won by 20 points in 2004, but she is seen as an establishment liberal Senator (she voted for a bill to censure George W. Bush) when the national mood is to remove incumbents. Fiorina is a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, running on her record as a successful business executive to bring experience to the problem of restoring fiscal responsibility in Washington.

Colorado:   Ken Buck (R) 46.3%     Michael Bennet (D) 45.3%

Bennet was appointed Senator to finish the term of Ken Salazar when he became Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. Despite the fact that Bennet has never run for a competitive statewide election, he has been the victim of the general anti-incumbent trend. Ken Buck is a district attorney, with no legislative record, running on the general Tea Party message. The Colorado governor’s race, which may affect the outcome of this contest, will be discussed later this week.

Illinois:   Mark Kirk (R) 41.3%    Alexi Giannoulias (D) 39.5%

The winner will take the seat of Ronald Burris, the tarnished appointee who replaced Barack Obama when he became President. Kirk is not particularly regarded as a Tea Party candidate, but Illinois is a traditionally Democrat state and a victory for the Republicans would be an embarrassing loss.

As with much that involves Chicago and politics this is a race that is witnessing more than its fair share of personal scandals. (Do politicians never learn? Kirk was caught exaggerating his military record.) Real Clear Politics made the unusually acerbic observation: “By the time this is over, Illinois voters may be wishing there were a 'none of these candidates' option, as there is in Nevada.”

Pennsylvania:   Pat Toomey (R) 46.3%     Joe Sestak (D) 43.5%

The winner of this election will replace Senator Arlen Specter, who switched allegiance from the Republican Party to the Democrats in 2009 to avoid a primary challenge from the conservative Pat Toomey, only to lose to Joe Sestak in the Democrat primary. This race deserves especially close attention because the liberal Sestak has been steadily eating into Toomey’s once-healthy lead. If the Democrats are to defy the predictions and avoid a landslide defeat, then Sestak’s numbers will provide a useful indicator of unexpected support.

Washington:    Patty Murray (D) 49.0%     Dino Rossi (R) 46.8%

The polls have been swinging back and forth in this election, and no one is quite sure what the trend is. Murray is a three-term incumbent with a liberal voting record, facing Rossi, who has twice lost races for Governor. With Washington's all-mail voting system, covering all but one county, it will be interesting to see if his method can help Democrats overcome the nationwide antipathy for incumbents and re-elect a liberal in a traditionally Democratic state.

West Virginia:   Joe Manchin (D) 45.8%     John Raese (R) 44.3%

Another race, like Colorado, that is tied to the mechanics of the gubernatorial election. Manchin is currently Governor of West Virginia and a social conservative with enormous personal popularity in the state. West Virginia, however, does not support Obama as much as it likes its Democrat governor. The theory here is that West Virginia will send Raese to Washington to oppose Obama and keep Manchin as their state leader.

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