To be clear, these are not the races that will decide partisan control in either house, but they are the races which could influence the mindset of those in control of those majorities.
Had Richard Mourdock not beaten Dick Lugar based upon a potent Tea Party brew in the GOP primary, this Indiana Senate seat would have already booked in the GOP’s ledger. But Democrat Joe Donnelly has turned the general election into a dog fight.
Mourdock has proved vulnerable because he opposed the auto bailout as state treasurer, despite the fact that Indiana is home to a robust auto parts supply sector for proclaiming, “The time for being collegial is past. It’s time for confrontation.”
If Todd Akin loses in Missouri, it would be interpreted as the residue of a crackpot comment, but a loss by Mourdock could lead more than a few GOP Senators to reevaluate the soundness of the Tea Party’s political currency as they approach the fiscal cliff. No other single race would deal the Senate’s Tea Party contingent led by Jim DeMint, so grievous a blow as a Donnelly victory in Indiana.
Three races loom large in the House. Incumbent Republicans Steve King of Iowa, Joe Walsh of Illinois and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota are all facing tough general expected election battles. Each race could teach a different lesson.
Steve King’s vulnerability in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District is a surprise, lying in a combination of the inability of House Republicans to enact a farm bill and the renewed vitality of a moderate Democrat with statewide name recognition – former Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack. If the veteran King loses, clearly the House GOP decision to head into November without enacting a farm bill will be blamed, perhaps leading to a re-evaluation of the political cost of gridlock.
First term Republican incumbent Joe Walsh faces a spirited challenge from Tammy Duckworth in Illinois’ 8th Congressional District. Were Walsh to lose, clearly the message after his 2011 you-tube video castigating a female constituent at a town hall meeting and his recent denigration of Duckworth’s combat service, would signal that Tea Party anger did not wear well in Illinois.
Finally, in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, Republican Michelle Bachmann faces a strong challenge from Democrat Jim Graves. Were Bachmann to endure a nail-biter election night, much less a defeat, it would bring to mind a lingering concern: does running for president as a Republican today, pull candidates into the political danger zone?
That would be a mirror image of what befell Democratic candidates for president from 1972 until 1992, when a long string of Senators went on to either lose re-election (e.g., defeats for McGovern in South Dakota, and Birch Bayh in Indiana) or knew they could not seek re-election (e.g., Fred Harris from Oklahoma and Harold Hughes from Iowa chose not to seek re-election) after lurching to the left in presidential primaries.
In the final analysis, these races will not on their own determine who holds congressional majorities in the 113th Congress, but the political fate of Mourdock, King, Walsh and Bachmann could alter the mindset held within the Republican and perhaps even the Democratic congressional conferences post-election day.
Let partisan handicappers search for those races determining the majority, for those interested in governing, keep your eyes peeled on the political fate of Mourdock, King, Walsh and Bachmann on November 6th.
Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications in Albany, New York and an adjunct professor of Political Science at the University of Albany.