It's Elizabeth Warren's Senate, Not Bob Kerrey's

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 16 2012 11:38 AM

It's Elizabeth Warren's Senate, Not Bob Kerrey's

Molly Ball's fun story about the leftward shift in the Senate reminds us of a fact forgotten five minutes into election night. Bob Kerrey, the two-term Nebraska senator, lost his comeback bid. While Ohio's Sherrod Brown was promising to hike taxes on the rich and save entitlements from the "grand bargain" guillotine, Kerrey was being endorsed by Bowles-Simpson. Literally, those two guys endorsed him.

I think that Ball could go further. Kerrey did not merely lose. He lost by a landslide, bigger than the polls predicted. The final Omaha Herald poll on the race suggested that Kerrey had pulled within 3 points of Deb Fischer, the Palin-endorsed Republican candidate. Kerrey lost by 16 points, carrying only five counties, four of them only narrowly.

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Why focus on the margin? Because while Kerrey ran ahead of Barack Obama, he did so by a smaller margin than other candidates in red states. Kerrey won 318,930 votes, while Obama won 289,154 Nebraska votes. Up the road in North Dakota, Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won 160,752 votes and Obama won 124,490. In Montana, Jon Tester won 234,495 votes, and Obama won 200,489. Heitkamp and Tester faced opponents who'd been elected statewide, but they beat them, and Kerrey lost to a state senator. Yes, he was weaked at first by voter resentment that he had temporarily left the state to live in New York, but it was just two years ago when Dan Coats returned to Indiana from North Carolina, having specifically said that his new state was a better place to retire, and he managed to win a Senate seat.

In the long term, a Senate with no Liebermans or Kerreys is a Senate with fewer Democratic media stars who want to cut entitlements. In the short term, doesn't this embolden the liberals who want to scrap a grand bargain? The theory of the bargain is that neither party really suffers from it. The angry voter will hate the Republicans for selling him out on taxes and the Democrats for selling him out on Medicare. But entitlements are more popular than tax cuts. There was a reason why dozens of Republican candidates promised to spend another $718 billion on Medicare if they won.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.