Gyory: Election Day = independents' day
When tea party stalwart Richard Mourdock defeated longtime incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Lugar in last week's Indiana primary, he proudly proclaimed himself an enemy of bipartisanship. "The time for being collegial is past," he said. "It's time for confrontation." GOP primary voters had a clear choice for bipartisan civility and accomplishment in Lugar -- and they chose confrontation, 61 to 39 percent.
Flash back to the primaries of 2010, when tea party candidates defeated strong centrists in GOP Senate races in Delaware, Nevada and Colorado. It's hard to imagine how current Democratic Sens. Christopher Coons, Harry Reid and Michael Bennetwould have won their seats otherwise. The net effect of those GOP primaries was that the Democrats narrowly held their Senate majority.
In those Senate races, moderate voters exacted a certain measure of revenge against tea party Republicans. Could that pattern re-emerge in 2012? In addition to Indiana, tea party challenges loom over the next several weeks in GOP primaries for the Senate in the closely contested Missouri, Florida, Nebraska and Virginia general elections.
There's a disconnect between what fuels victories in primaries and what drives the outcome in general elections. No one doubts Lugar would have been re-elected by a wide margin in November; his vulnerability was in a GOP primary. Now Mourdock's race against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly is likely to go down to the wire.
The real question is whether the U.S. Senate can extricate itself from its Gulliver-like trap, where it's tied down and can accomplish nothing without 60 votes -- yet 60 votes are impossible without bipartisan compromise.
Major issues must be tackled after the 2012 election. The debt ceiling must be raised again and the Bush tax cuts will expire at the end of the year, perhaps opening the door to tax reform. Balancing short-term job growth with long-term deficit reduction remains a critical challenge.
The route toward breaking the deadlock may lie in what I call the 40 within 40 rule. About 40 percent of our electorate now describes itself as independent, and 40 percent within that group of independents call themselves moderate. Polls show that these moderate independents dominate the politics of the suburbs, which in turn will determine the ultimate winners for the presidency and Congress.
The sheer magnitude of these moderate independents, who make up just shy of one-fifth of the electorate, will prove determinative, given the sharp divisions between relatively equally weighted Democratic and Republican bases and the propensity of moderate independent voters to swing one way or the other, rather than to evenly divide. The new math of general elections is simple: No one wins without securing the votes of moderate independents.
This brings us back to Indiana. Lugar was defeated within the GOP primary precisely because he sought bipartisan compromise on nuclear arms treaties, immigration via the Dream Act, and the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees.
Mourdock's claim to fame was launching a lawsuit as Indiana's state treasurer to block the auto bailout. He failed in court, but one wonders how that will play with the full Indiana electorate in November, given that the state's factories supply parts to Michigan-based auto manufacturers. Mourdock's strident opposition to the bailout could prove costly in the general election, perhaps enabling Donnelly to galvanize the pragmatic instincts of moderate independents.
Indiana will help determine not just the partisan control of the Senate, but whether the Senate can produce anything beyond gridlock in the next session of Congress. Unless the Mourdocks of Indiana are defeated, the lust for partisan confrontation will just deepen Washington's dysfunction.
Moderate voters should make their voices heard, and in so doing, teach two valuable lessons. One, elections are ultimately determined in November. And two, the electoral revenge of the moderate independents is rooted not in anger, but in a yearning for productive compromise.